Ashley Cain: The grief of losing my daughter has made me stronger

Ashley Cain: The Grief Of Losing My Daughter Has Made Me Stronger
Ex-footballer and endurance athlete Ashley Cain
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By Hannah Stephenson, PA

Ashley Cain, endurance athlete, campaigner, reality star and ex-footballer, is holding back the tears as he relays the grief he carries every day, little more than two years after the death of his daughter, Azaylia, aged eight months, from acute myeloid leukaemia.

Every morning he wakes to see a photograph of Azaylia, puts necklaces on which bear her handprints and tries to start his day with a feeling of gratitude for the time he had with her.


“April [Azaylia died in April 2021] usually marks a challenge. This year I’ve cracked 125 miles from Devizes to Westminster [in a canoe]. I like to do a challenge that’s going to be really tough round her anniversary, not only to commemorate her life, but to help me release some of the pain from my head and my heart.”

He’s taken up huge physical challenges, including running five marathons in five days and cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats – and is currently training for the Yukon 1000 in July, kayaking 1,000 miles from Canada, across the Arctic Circle, to Alaska – to reduce the hurt in his head and in his heart, he says.

Two years on, the grief of losing his ‘little lion’ daughter, who was given chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant before succumbing to the disease, has not dimmed.

“In the second year the wave of grief was different, but it hurt just as much. I understood that Azaylia wasn’t here anymore, that she was in heaven and I was never going to see her again until the end of my journey.


“But the scary part about that was I’ve started to forget what she smelled like, what she felt like, that feeling of the kiss of her lips. I know every year it’s going to get further away. The grief doesn’t change – it comes in different waves at different times. I don’t believe that the circle of grief gets any smaller. I believe you have to get stronger around it.”

He charts his journey in memoir Strong, from his upbringing and career as a professional footballer for clubs including Coventry City cut short by injury, to a reality star who has appeared in Ex On The Beach, SAS: Who Dares Wins and BBC’s Go Hard Or Go Home.

But the book is really a tribute to Azaylia Diamond Cain, who despite her illness displayed huge courage, a fighting spirit and a wonderful smile until the end. She inspired her parents to continue her legacy, setting up The Azaylia Foundation to raise money to fight childhood cancer.

While Cain (32) and Azaylia’s mother, Safiyya Vorajee (35), are no longer a couple, they remain close and run the foundation together. It’s clear he has immense respect for his ex-partner.


“We go down and spend a lot of time at Azaylia’s resting place. When we first lost Azaylia, you’re riddled with so much trauma, you can’t believe she’s gone. The first year goes by with a lack of understanding of what’s really happened.”

The book, he says, helped him revisit events which he had been afraid to confront.

He read his daughter’s eulogy at her funeral. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” he says, voice faltering with emotion. “I thought, how can I write the words to describe how incredible Azaylia was, how impactful she was to my life, and the man I want to be because of Azaylia?”

“Being a father completed my life – nothing could get better,” he continues. “Talking about her battle – Azaylia was always in the 1% of ‘would she make it through the first round of chemotherapy, would she make it through intensive care, stem cell transplant’ and all of these stages, which she did – to find out that she’s relapsed, was hard. Going into the intricacies of the journey, of her illness, of the highs followed by quick, punchy and traumatic lows, was hard.

“It took a bigger toll on me than any of the 24-hour 100 mile [ultramarathon] challenges I’ve done by far. It left me literally worn out, emotionally completely drained. It left my heart aching, but it also allowed me a lot of release in some areas I needed to tackle in order to move on and do some of the things I do now.”

Ashley Cain with Safiyya Vorajee and their baby daugher Azaylia, who died in 2021 (Ashley Cain/PA)
Cain with Safiyya Vorajee and their daughter Azaylia, who died in 2021 (Ashley Cain/PA)

He recalls breaking down when his daughter took her last breath at home.

“I was counting her final breaths. It was important for me and my partner to have Azaylia in our arms. When she took her final breath I went into complete shock. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. It was like a part of me left my body when her soul left hers. I had medical attention at that point because I couldn’t comprehend what happened.”

Azaylia taught him to be the man he wanted to be, he says, but he can’t see himself having another child.

“It’s hard for me to think how I could love another like I loved Azaylia, or get into a relationship when I’m not in one anymore with somebody I’ve gone through such an incredible, powerful and traumatic journey with. You can never say never in life. I believe I was put on this earth to be a daddy – that’s my biggest asset – but it’s a very difficult question.”

He and Vorajee regularly visit their daughter’s resting place in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, but he says he takes her in his heart everywhere with him on these extreme challenges, to the top of every mountain and across every ocean.

Ashley Cain running (Brian Lawless/PA)
Cain ran five marathons in five days (Brian Lawless/PA)

He never sought therapy after losing his daughter, finding some solace in physical challenges and also talking openly with family and friends. He believes before he had Azaylia he was lost, but now he has found himself.

“I isolate myself a lot with the extreme challenges that I do, so I spend a lot of time thinking about Azaylia and connecting with her.

“A lot of people in this world are struggling with mental health – they have low confidence, low self-esteem. I believe it’s because a lot of people are not truthful and transparent with themselves and people around them.”

Cain has made it his calling to be truthful. He also hopes that through his work with the foundation and his fundraising challenges, he’s continuing his daughter’s legacy by helping other children fight cancer.

“My daughter is my driving force, the fire in my belly, and she ignites me to be able to do this.

“I’m also able to hopefully inspire people who are going through their own mental health issues – grief, loss, trauma, depression – realise that no matter what you’re going through, there is strength at the other side of your struggle.”

Strong by Ashley Cain is published by Blink. Available now.

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