Ashley Cain on grief, MTV Faces and the need to act as well as talk
Ashley Cain is the former footballer and TV star who has been doing incredible fundraising after the tragic loss of his daughter. The Book of Man caught up with him about his new series, MTV Faces, in which he speaks to people about grief
On 10th August 2020, Azaylia Cain was born. Just 8 weeks later the family’s world was rocked as she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – an aggressive form of cancer. With her journey documented by her parents, Azaylia became an inspiration to many across the world. Sadly, at just 8 months old, Azaylia passed away but not before leaving an indelible mark on those around her.
Although acute myeloid leukaemia is rare, cancer is the number one killer of children in the UK and since her passing, Azaylia’s father Ashley, has dedicated his life to raising awareness of this fact, completing several endurance challenges and setting up The Azaylia Foundation, the aims of which are simple – to increase the chances of early diagnoses by providing greater resources and expertise in the field as well as to increase funding for childhood cancer treatments.
Recently, MTV UK launched MTV Faces, a new series which explores the many faces of grief. Hosted by Ashley Cain, the series features a number of conversations with famous faces all sharing their experiences of loss. Speaking to The Book of Man at its launch, Ashley shared his own story and highlighted how important it is for us all to be able to speak openly about what is still regarded as a taboo subject.
Ashley on my little lion…
Azaylia Diamond Cain is the most beautiful soul to have ever entered my life. I’ve always struggled to find my identity, my true organic self, who I really am. My daughter changed all that. She made me realise the person I wanted to be, the things I wanted to achieve. She just gave me so much freedom. Even during a time of such pain and trauma – the most trauma I will ever feel – she gave me the happiest and most beautiful days and provided me with a lot of perspective. She was the tiniest little thing and everyday she was fighting such a terrible illness; this incredibly rare form of cancer, and she was doing it with a smile on her face, sitting up all day trying to play. It was like, no matter what she was going through, she would make everyone’s day brighter. She was amazing.
She taught me the true value of strength. She taught me how to be courageous when I felt most scared. She taught me how to help other people and shine a light for them even when I felt like I was surrounded by darkness. She encouraged and motivated me to want to be the best person that I can possibly be and she gave me all of those gifts, simply by being her beautiful self. She filled my heart with so much love that I just wanted to spread it to the world even though I was going through what I was going through.
I always say that I’m able to achieve the things I do in this world because of her. She’s my superpower and she showed me the meaning of “true love”. I do all these endurance challenges; I run 100 miles on Christmas Eve, 100 miles on Christmas Day, 100 miles on Boxing Day and I raise a hell of a lot of money but still, at the end of it I don’t have the privilege of coming home and holding my daughter. No matter what I do in this world, it’ll never bring her back but I keep doing it purely out of hope that if I do enough then, one day, when it’s my time, I get to the gates and there’s no question whether they’ll open or not so I can see her again. She is my reason and I’m so grateful that she was brought to me.
On coping with grief…
The aftermath of Azaylia’s passing was obviously a hugely difficult time. At one stage, I was drinking a lot, almost as a coping mechanism, to help me deal with those dark emotions but I remember waking up one morning feeling so ashamed of myself. If this is the man my daughter’s watching down on then I should be ashamed; I should be embarrassed. That was like a lightbulb moment for me. I looked at my family and thought “I need to be better. I need to be strong because in my strength, I radiate strength to them” but in order to do that I had to be open and honest about my own thoughts and stay true to myself. Only in being true to myself and those around me was I able to acknowledge what happened and ultimately accept it.
Writing my daughter’s eulogy was a huge turning point in my life. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t think I was capable of writing anything that could truly honour how amazing she was but I wrote something in the best way I could and just made sure I had the courage to speak it on the day. In writing it and speaking it, I realised the person I wanted to be, what I wanted to achieve in this world and who I wanted to do it for and that’s what gives me the drive to take things to the next level. To have a positive effect on this world and to leave a legacy for that little girl who changed my life. I just want to make her proud.
On opening up…
The fact is, we all come into this world and we all leave it which means every single person will experience grief so why is it such a taboo subject? There’s plenty of space to talk about stress, anxiety, mental health… grief falls into that category. I understand that lots of people struggle to really express themselves because it’s probably the most raw emotion you can feel, but in suppressing it, we’re creating many other problems for ourselves. I’ve personally found that talking, not only to my loved ones, but to complete strangers is a way of relieving just a little bit of stress and lifting some of the weight off my shoulders. It’s a good way of encouraging forward movement and development in life which is why I think it’s crucial to normalise these conversations – so that we can all feel comfortable sharing our stories and connecting with one another.
I will unapologetically talk about my daughter all day, everyday and in my own experience, I know that helps create a safe space for others to open up. I remember I was driving to Footlocker once and for the entire journey I was listening to the same playlist that me and Azaylia used to dance to in hospital. By the time I arrived, I felt like a broken man – I just couldn’t get out of the car. In the end, I wiped the tears from my face and dragged myself into the shop at which point one of the employees approached me and said “I just want to tell you that your daughter’s beautiful. Can I give you a hug?” Before I knew it, three of his colleagues (all men) were approaching me and we just all embraced in the middle of Footlocker. In that moment, everybody was in tears and everybody felt comfortable talking about their own problems. The only reason they did that was because they knew I was so open and transparent. It was a safe space. That’s what helped me to learn that there needs to be more openness, more transparency so people feel able to relieve some of their own stress and that’s part of why I’m so proud to have been asked to host MTV Faces. It’s that platform to just talk as freely as you want but also to listen and to really understand that you’re not going through these struggles on your own.
On the importance of MTV Faces…
I feel like this show has helped me in so many different ways. Just as the title suggests, there are many different faces to grief and no matter who I speak to, I learn something different from each individual story. In this series, I spoke to Kelsey Parker, Brenda Edwards, Roman Kemp and Jordan Stephens; all of whom, like many out there, have experienced the loss of a loved one and in sharing their experiences, they help to put things into perspective. When we lost Azaylia, I had time to sit and grieve – to feel the lowest of the low but Kelsey for example, didn’t have that opportunity. She had two kids to look after. So speaking to my different guests really helped me gain some perspective because I’m not the only person that’s suffered loss and I won’t be the only person to suffer loss moving forward. Everyone has their unique suffering so it’s always important to remember that no matter how educated we are in a subject, there’s always something to be learned from speaking to somebody about their experiences. Dealing with the loss of my daughter is something that affects me everyday yet being able to sit back and listen to someone else’s feelings can really help to put your own into perspective.
I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to have been given this opportunity. I have to thank the whole team at MTV not only for putting me in this role but for having the guts to produce a show like this one. Hearing the amazing stories of some amazing people who are sadly no longer with us is a privilege and, as I mentioned earlier, safe spaces to talk are much needed in this world. It was a great opportunity for all of us to be open and honest and hopefully it can offer some help and support to those suffering from grief.
A message for the men…
Nowadays, the main piece of advice men receive in the media is that “you need to talk”. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with that, I believe talking is a small part of a bigger picture. As you know by now, I’m an open book – I’m not afraid to talk about pain, I’m not afraid to cry in front of anybody. I’m not afraid to show my vulnerabilities because, in showing my vulnerabilities I can fire up my true strength which shines in everything I do. I don’t just talk, I run 100 miles. We all know it’s “ok not to be ok” but I’ve completed some of the hardest challenges in the world whilst not being ok and all those physical challenges are just as therapeutic and beneficial to me as talking – they go hand in hand. So yes, let’s talk but after you’ve talked and voiced your problems, what are you going to do? One thing about men is, we like to feel competent, we like to feel capable, we like to feel strong enough not only to help ourselves but to help the people around us.
I don’t turn up to my pity party everyday and wonder “why me?” because guess what? Everybody is dealing with their own problems. I realise that some days won’t be great but it’s not about always being 100%. It’s just about showing up everyday and that’s what I’d like men to do. I’d like men to share their problems but I would also like them to take responsibility and say “Look, this is how I feel and this is what I’m gonna do about it. Not just for myself but for the people around me that need me” and I think if men are able to be truthful to themselves, acknowledging and accepting how they feel will be a hell of a lot easier.
It can be easy to think that somebody experiencing grief just wants to feel happiness again but that’s not my driving force anymore. I’m not seeking a fairytale. I want something that’s worth much more than that: fulfilment. For me, that means not chasing temporary, materialistic ideas of happiness but to focus much more on being competent in being able to do what’s necessary; that’s what fulfils me. Having that focus every single time allows you to build something more than happiness. You build self-confidence, self-worth and you build the ability to look at yourself in the mirror every day and be proud of the man that’s looking back at you.
When we first started sharing Azaylia’s journey online it was purely because she was so awe-inspiring. I wanted to show the world how amazing my daughter was – I couldn’t believe that I’d fathered such a special child and ultimately we ended up documenting every step. Remember, she was in hospital fighting cancer whilst the rest of the world was navigating a global pandemic. Everybody was suffering but my little girl was able to provide perspective to so many. I was receiving messages telling me how Azaylia’s fight was inspiring them, keeping them positive and even saving their lives. So we started by sharing the most amazing thing I’d ever set eyes on and it ended up morphing into something so powerful and special. It was such a difficult time for everybody and my daughter was able to help others stay strong throughout her own battle. I’ll be forever proud of her for that.
To this day, I have people reaching out to me who had registered to be donors for Azaylia and are now giving their stem cells to others that need them. There were hundreds of thousands of people who registered to donate their stem cells for Azaylia so look how much help that is alone! That’s not to mention everything we’re doing with The Azaylia Foundation. We’re donating to children of families that can’t receive treatment from the NHS, we’re investing in revolutionary equipment which has never been to the UK before, investing in trials to provide early diagnosis and more child friendly cancer treatment. We also have the Azaylia Childhood Cancer PhD Fund which helps bring new talent and research into the childhood cancer space. All of these amazing things and it all comes from her! All glory goes to Azaylia and all thanks goes to the community that supported us. I’m just the vessel that’s carrying her message.
You can catch Ashley’s new series MTV Faces on the MTV UK Youtube Channel now with new episodes released weekly. For more information about The Azaylia Foundation, head over to www.theazayliafoundation.com
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