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Sing Like Your Life Depends On It: How Songwriting Helped Me Through Grief

01/02/2017 12:54 GMT | Updated 01/02/2017 13:13 GMT

What's the worst word in the English language? It's not what you think. It's not four letters, but nine - "malignant". One month shy of her 36th birthday, my wife Carolina handed me the results of her biopsy, which indicated advanced breast cancer. I felt like the earth was swallowing me up. It was October 11, 2011.

Carolina fought cancer with characteristic optimism and bravery, but a year later it spread to her brain and became terminal. She died in June 2013, aged just 37. Losing my wife of 14 years was devastating enough, but our two children Jake and Isabella were only seven and five when she died, so it was an unbearable situation. Yet bear it we did. I had no choice; I needed to keep going as a single father, running a household and working, rather than curling up into a ball.

I've always been creative, whether through writing or music, and even during the early stages of my wife's illness, I continued to express myself through lyrics. I wrote a song "I Will Never Leave You", which I sang to Carolina on several occasions, the last time a few weeks before she died. It was written as a promise to each other: "I'm in your heart, as you are in mine, we are forever entwined." Two months after her death I went into a studio and recorded the vocals, only to end up a sobbing wreck afterwards. I realised I was simply not strong enough to return to making music, so concentrated on rebuilding family life.

We had returned from abroad when Carolina was terminally ill, and with most of my friends spread across the country and the world, things were tough and I felt very lonely. Anxiety and high stress levels made things worse and I began experiencing involuntary tremors, as if the ground were shaking beneath my feet, but I soon realised it was actually my own body that was shaking. At that moment I knew I had to stop bottling things up and express myself somehow, otherwise I'd be in danger of losing my mind.

It started with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help process my feelings and deal better with stress. Then a few months later as a freelance journalist I began to write articles about the hardships of being a widowed single parent, and I was encouraged by the feedback I received from people in a similar situation. I realised help was out there too. Charities such as Widowed and Young (WAY) were set up to help younger widows and widowers who often suffer even worse than older bereaved people because of a lack of support or understanding from their peer group. Another charity Winston's Wish had lots of useful resources and advice for bereaved children, and I began to feel I had some control over understanding and assisting my children in their grief.

After nearly four years of not writing a single note, I remembered my first inspiration as a teenager had been listening to a radio programme about John Lennon's life. I was particularly struck by his first solo album, recorded after intense therapy sessions. He poured out his feelings on the death of his mother and abandonment by his father with some of the most heart-wrenching songs he ever wrote. It was incredibly powerful.

So I started writing songs again. The first was called simply "I Miss You", and the line "What I Wouldn't Do For One Sweet Kiss" reflected the desperation of my grief. When I played it to my family, their emotional reaction was so strong that I knew it was the right approach to let feelings take control. When talking to a friend about music, I said: "I want to sing like my life depends on it." The phrase really resonated with me and the album title was born.

I began to use songwriting as a vehicle for so many conflicting emotions - "Get Over You" expressed anger at the departure of a loved one, but also determination to move on. "Up Again" was written when I felt depressed and needed to pick myself up. "Time, Heal Me" was written in the bath, the morning after a heavy night before, when I felt vulnerable and exhausted. The songs kept coming and became more and more intense until I wrote "Hold Me Til It Hurts", conceived as a Leonard Cohen-style epic. Then I felt that I was in songwriting territory I'd never entered before - my aim became not so much to get the listener tapping their feet and humming, but to make the hair stand up on the back of their neck. I felt like a man possessed, but also liberated.

The album Sing Like Your Life Depends On It was recorded over a three-month period in summer 2016. It contains 14 songs in two very different halves. The first seven songs were written before Carolina became ill and sound like postcards from my previous life - catchy, uplifting songs such as "Falling", "We've Got It Made" and "Stay With Me Tonight", which I wrote about our relationship. The second half of the album is filled with more intense songs about bereavement, written in the past year. The album aims to take listeners on a journey - from love and nostalgia, through the despair of grief, to hope and healing.

I'm delighted to be partnering and sharing revenue from the album with Widowed and Young (WAY) and Winston's Wish, charities that do great work for widows, widowers and their families. It's not about seeking fame and fortune, but about connecting with people on a deeper level. I've had great feedback on the music and it feels particularly appropriate in these troubled times to sing about issues that really matter. I know that's what my wife would want me to do too. Carolina was always a positive person who made people happy. I try hard to be positive - I may have lost my wife, but I have two wonderful children. As I wrote in my song "Up Again" - "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so I plan on living a whole lot longer."

Sing Like Your Life Depends on it is out on February 24. Click here to order on iTunes.

• For further information visit www.benwestwoodmusic.com, www.facebook.com/benwestwoodmusic and www.youtube.com/benwestwoodmusic