It was so sudden that I didn’t have time to prepare myself mentally for dealing with grief. Not that I even knew how, because my dad was the first person I had lost in my immediate family and it really rocked me.
The first few weeks flew by. In Ghanaian culture, the eldest child assumes responsibility for all the admin that needs to take place, so I was busy making sure funeral arrangements were set. I went into survival mode and autopiloted my way through as I focused on looking after everyone else. It wasn’t until after the dust had settled and people stopped coming round to our house to mourn that I had to face and deal with my grief.
I started Googling ‘quick fixes’ to dealing with bereavement, but it soon became apparent that everyone has different ways of dealing with grief, and there was no website like when you’re trying to fix something at home with a list of instructions in bullet points. I realised it wasn’t going to be a quick thing, which as someone who likes to fix things, wasn’t comfortable. But, one of the things that kept coming up was speaking to people.
Around my friends I’m the joker, so opening up to being someone who wasn’t that felt quite vulnerable. Through pushing myself to try it, I realised that my friends love me no matter what so it was alright to show that other side of myself, and that really helped me come to terms with what was happening.
My faith was under pressure and my conversations with God suffered. I grew up in a Pentecostal church where it felt like we weren’t allowed to doubt or to be angry with God. But reading Psalm 13 helped me to come to terms with that. It’s just David whining out: “God, I’m angry with you! Why is everything rubbish in my life?” From then on, I started saying some angry prayers!
It felt good, which is funny, because if I really believe God knows me inside and out, he knew what I was thinking anyway. I just had to verbalise it for myself. Then I started writing my feelings down, thanks to my wife, Emma, who writes in a diary every day. I asked how she has time to write so much and she said: “Just get off your phone and write down your thoughts. It’s important to remember how far you’ve come.”
That day I just started writing in a rhyme format, which became my album Hands Are Made For Working. I didn’t know that’s what it would become, but I felt like the experience I was going through was probably one that was shared by a lot of people, and I wanted people to be able to feel it with me. I think it’s important to have a working-class first-generation Brit from an estate with a lot of barriers to opportunities talking about grief from a different perspective.
Youth workers frequently have to deal with children going through grief, which is not too different from me walking my little brother through the loss of our dad. With your own family, itis ten times harder, but I always tried to practise what I preached in modelling bereavement to him. I wanted him to know that ultimately, and fundamentally, I love him and I’ve got his back. Because he’s an internal processor like me, which could see him isolating himself and becoming lonely, I encouraged him to talk to people. It didn’t have to be me, but it is important to always have someone.
Now I’m a dad, I’ve thought about how I want to model grief to my son, Ezra, and the main advice I’d give to him is to have a unit of family and friends around you that you should never shy away from. I think it’s important for all children and young people to know they can and should be vocal in how they are feeling, and not to be ashamed in whatever way of dealing with grief comes naturally to them. If they want space, it’s OK to tell people that. If they want someone to sit with them in silence, it’s OK to tell someone that. The people around them should respect their choice.
Of course, it’s not always the young people we mentor that are going through grief – sometimes it’s us, and it’s hard to pastor children when you’re going through a tough time. Five years ago, I may have told you that if you’re empty, to take a break because you can’t give anything until you take the time to sort yourself out. But I now realise that kids really respect realness, vulnerability and authenticity. If a young person says tome they are going through it, it’s OK to say: “I’m finding things hard too.” They’re not necessarily looking for an answer or a quick fix to their grief, they just need someone to empathise.