My definition of love is also a four-letter word: that word is Josh. To many that is a well-known boys’ name. To me ‘Josh’ is my only son.
Of course, we love our children, they come into our worlds and change us forever. Josh came into my world when I was 21 years of age. At 21 I was a very damaged, hurt and sad young woman. I had lived through traumas, sadness and depression and this deeply affected my ability to be the mother my children deserved. When Josh was just a few months old my relationship with his dad started to break down. I began feeling this overwhelming sense of panic – waves of self-doubt and fear. I felt that I couldn’t look after him. I desperately looked for support, and attended every group and appointment thrown at me but all I kept hearing was “post-natal depression”. I was offered tablets, even electric shock therapy (which I politely declined), but I needed help and I needed it urgently, I felt I could not look after this small baby who deserved everything. Help came but it wasn’t the help I wanted: I wanted support, I wanted to have people around me helping me to be a good mum, not to leave me alone at home feeling fear, panic and worthlessness.
You might be thinking social services came. But it wasn’t social services, it was my parents. You might be relieved to hear that, you might think how wonderful. Yes, they were wonderful, too wonderful in fact: the amazing house, the strength of a couple, financially stable, the ability to do all the amazing activities your children deserve – picnics in the park, horse riding, holidays at the seaside, swimming, baking cakes, reading bedtime stories...
I had pleaded with my parents to come and help me at home, to support me through the panic attacks and depression because I did not want to lose my baby, my Josh, I wanted to feel ‘better’ so I could cope. My relationship with my parents was very difficult. As a family we had been through so much together, although there was a lot of love in our hearts it was a very dysfunctional family. This meant that coming to me and supporting me wasn’t an option as they had rebuilt their lives and that was what they needed to focus on. They wanted to help me, and they thought the only way to offer help was to have Josh. How I wish I had felt strong enough at that point to say no. When you are overwhelmed with panic and a genuine feeling you are not good enough to look after your own child the sense of relief you feel when people you know come with open arms, offering to look after your child until you feel better, is such a relief.
I remember thinking how lucky Josh was, in my mind at that time they were much better than me, and he deserved care and love, my heart hurts writing this.
I watched this unfold in front of me, one night with Grandad and Grandma, then two nights, two nights that eventually led to six years...
During those six years I visited Josh almost daily. I did what I could to show him I loved him and that I was his mum. I attended all of his school plays, doctors’ appointments and parent’s evenings. I coped well with short periods of time but when he came to stay over at mine I was again gripped with panic and found every minute difficult. When it came to dropping him back I was so relieved yet sad. I would then go home to my lonely existence and sleep my life away. The longer Josh was with my parents the more it reconfirmed I was not good enough, I saw them coping so well and Josh appeared very happy. It was so hard to see yet in my mind I had no right to deny him of all these experiences, security and love.
I remember they were all going to the seaside for a ‘family holiday’ and I wanted to go with them, I thought if we were all there together I wouldn’t panic. I asked my mum if I could come with them, my parents thought about it but came back to me saying no, as it might upset Josh. I felt so rejected, and so angry, inside I was screaming, “please please help me be his mum!” But again I just went home telling myself, “it is probably for the best – I am not good enough”.
When Joshua was seven years old his behaviour started to deteriorate. He was becoming aggressive and hyperactive: punching, kicking and swearing to express his pain. Josh eventually was diagnosed with ADHD. I started to see the strain on my parents: they were getting older and his physical aggression was becoming too difficult for them to manage. My mum kept ringing me telling me how his behaviour was getting too much for them. I felt such helplessness, what could I do? How could I make it better? I loved Josh so much but I didn’t know what to do. I also felt such anger towards my parents: in my mind I was thinking, “how dare you need me now! I wasn’t good enough to be involved for the last seven years but now you want me!” Josh began to express daily that he just wanted to live with me. His pain was becoming very apparent: he cried a lot, and expressed his pain through anger. This was so hard for me to see, and part of my brain hoped it would just go away and everything would be okay. I felt such guilt but also so much confusion. “If only I had been supported in the beginning” I thought “perhaps this wouldn’t be happening.”
Over a two-year period, there were many appointments and many challenges. Myself and my parents attended all the appointments together. We argued over many things but we all knew this wasn’t about us, we all had the same goal, Joshua’s happiness. Eventually Josh attended a special education school called Springfield House and this was the beginning of a new chapter…
As Joshua was in a special educational school all decisions that were made about his care needed to come through me because I was his mum and legally responsible for him. It makes sense to me now but back then I was blown away by the feeling I got in my heart. I was important in Joshua’s life, I could make a difference. I was being asked to attend his plays, special groups during the day looking at his maths projects, his art work. I WAS HIS MUM!
I remember him saying to me, mum can I stay at yours, I said yes and he did. That might seem like such a small thing but guess what, one night became two, two nights became three, then all of a sudden three nights became forever. We were back together. I write this with tears streaming down my face – every moment I still needed to double check I didn’t feel panic, I needed to check that I could cope. Joshua was living with me 100% of the time and this became the start of something magical…
When young people are hurt they react, I had hurt my son, not intentionally, but because of my own pain. My parents had done what they thought was for the best, but on reflection we had all made mistakes. This now wasn’t about me or my parents it was all about one person: Joshua. What did he need? What would heal his pain? How could I heal him?
I could write an entire book about the following years…
From the age of nine until he was 15 Joshua needed to heal. He had felt rejected by me so he did everything he could to test my love for him. He did this by screaming at me, swearing daily, threatening violence, challenging whether I even loved him. It was so hard, but one thing meant I had to keep going: my son had a beautiful heart and soul and I owed it to him to try. There was only one person and one thing that would heal the break and confusion in his heart and mind: me and love.
His behaviour was relentless. Every single day he would be abusive and challenging. But then I would see the hurt little boy’s eyes look at me with such longing and guilt for his behaviour. He often wiped tears from his eyes after an outburst. My job was to love him through this pain, I had sheer determination that this would work.
Joshua struggled in so many areas of his life that his behaviour started to spill out publicly. He was arrested on numerous occasions and received many criminal convictions. My life revolved around challenges: police stations, court dates, accident and emergency departments. It was exhausting but again the love I had for Josh kept me going, he was worth every moment of effort.
When Josh was 15 something happened that would change his life forever. Joshua was falsely convicted of an assault and sentenced to two years in a young offenders’ prison. At the time it was the worst thing that could have happened, my son needed me, we needed to be together my work wasn’t completed, how could I love him when he was in prison?
Knowing my son had been falsely convicted didn’t destroy me, it enraged me, and every bit of strength and determination came to together and I became a force to be reckoned with. Six weeks later the case went to appeal. Three new judges relooked at the case and realised very quickly a mistake had been made. The conviction was overturned, and Josh was allowed to come home.
Joshua took one look at me and cried. He said, “mum, I am never doing anything that means I am taken from you again”. He never got into trouble again.
He came home and the dark clouds of pain that followed him around cleared. We had been through so much together, but he knew the one thing I needed him to know, that he was loved. The pain in my son’s heart had been healed, he knew I loved him, he knew his grandparents and family loved him. All the anger, confusion, pain and doubt disappeared. I had done it.
Over the next two years Josh achieved everything. He showed love, he knew love, he showed respect, and his heart was filled with happiness. What more could a parent ask for?
Having the stability he always deserved enabled Josh to focus on his future. He put his heart and soul into becoming a grime MC. Within 18 months Joshua had a number one album, millions of views on YouTube and thousands of followers. He was incredibly well known and successful. And as long as he was happy, I was happy.
On the 20th of September 2013 Joshua went to an event to perform one of his tracks. He left our home, hugging me and telling me he loved me. This was to be the night that changed Joshua’s life and mine forever. Joshua got involved in a disagreement over a girl. Within an hour he was fighting for his life at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.
An 18-year-old boy was angry with Josh and made a decision that would change everything. He stabbed Joshua once in the heart. Joshua fought for seven hours to stay alive, he had multiple heart attacks and blood transfusions. I believe every time his heart stopped he fought back because he didn’t want to be without me. On the 21st September 2013 Joshua took his last breath and died.
Josh wasn’t just my son he was my saviour, the person that made me and gave me strength. He taught me that when you live in pain you must try to keep going, because one day the clouds might clear. I don’t think my clouds will ever clear or the break in my heart ever heal but I live with such comfort knowing that when my son left me he knew he was loved, he knew security and he was happy.
I am so proud that together we achieved the most important thing in the world … Love.
My love for Josh is the thing that enables me to wake up every day. I can’t really put it into words, but I have such a strong belief that people need to hear my son’s story, to know his pain and to see how pain in the heart can be healed with love, guidance and unconditional support. We need to help people heal internally before we pressurise them to succeed externally. It was only when Josh healed in his heart that he was able to focus on his future, to achieve and succeed.
As a society we are constantly telling young people that success is measured by qualifications, money and status, I want people to hear that I see success as emotional security, happiness, kindness and the ability to love. Without these internal qualities we can never reach our full potential.
When Joshua died I became very aware of just how many young people were struggling with emotional pain. I had thousands of young people turning to me, desperate, hurt and angry. I quickly realised that if I used the same skills my beautiful Josh had taught me then I could help them, one by one. I hugged them, supported them, understood them and most importantly respected how they felt. I did everything I could to make them see that even when we are in pain we must try and see happiness even in the smallest doses. Within a few months of his death I organised days out, football tournaments, and even a ball in Josh’s memory.
Approximately six months after Joshua died I began talking in schools, colleges and prisons sharing my experiences and the story of Joshua’s life: the pain, the choices, the love and achievements. And the real, devastating consequences of knife crime. I have now reached over 250,000 people across the UK and I intend to reach many more and tell them all about my Joshy.
I look back over the last five years with such pride. All those young people, all that pain and potential for self-destruction. But I did what was right – saw the pain, not the reaction. With the love for Josh in my heart and the knowledge that love has power they all came through that horrendous time.
This year I organised The Joshua Ribera Achievement Awards. The idea came while visiting schools for excluded children. I found out that the majority were not allowed to attend their end-of-year prom, work experience or end-of-year day trips because of their previous behaviour. I understood this, but what I found hard to accept was that, even when their behaviour had improved, they were still not allowed. So I thought ,“You know what? I will give them their prom. And not just any prom – the most amazing evening ever.” And I did. Twenty young people from the West Midlands were invited to a red-carpet event along with their parents and carers. They were the VIPs for the evening and to see their faces light up and be recognised was truly amazing. 2019 will see the second Joshua Ribera Awards evening and more young people will be shown that they are truly special.
When young people make wrong choices we need to support, guide and help them believe they still have a future. I can’t show my son how much I loved him anymore but what I can do is sprinkle a small amount of that magic on others.
The credit for my work, my passion and determination is because of one person. A person who will never be forgotten, my little boy, my Josh. xx
Alison Cope is the mother of Joshua Ribera who was murdered in 2013. Since Joshua's death Alison has worked tirelessly to share her son's life. With her and Josh's compelling story coupled with her unique ability to connect with young people she regularly visits schools, prisons and alternative education provisions nationally, reaching 1000s of young people and changing lives.
Alison has worked with West Midlands Police, Staffordshire Police, Hertfordshire Police and Crimestoppers along with keynote speaking and lecturing at Birmingham and Nottingham universities.
This article is included in the Centre for Justice Innovation's Monument Fellowship book, Curing violence: How we can become a less violent society.