ONEAfter seven years of trying to get pregnant and several rounds of IVF, Andy was overjoyed to find that his wife was expecting their first son. At 36 weeks pregnant, the couple underwent an exam that showed the baby was in a breech position but was healthy and growing. The couple called him Eli and excitedly began preparing for his arrival.
“It took us so long [to get pregnant] and we had basically given up hope of ever having a baby. We had a very long journey behind us, it felt like a miracle, ”says the 38-year-old from Leyton in East London theIndependent.
Two days later, Eli stopped moving.
“We had a scan and they told us he died,” Andy recalls. “We still don’t know what the cause was, it was probably a complication of the placenta. Two days later he was still born. “
When her miraculous pregnancy ended in tragedy, Andy found that there was no one to turn to as the father of a stillborn child. “I’m a pretty open person, it’s good for me to talk about emotions and mental health problems, but when I lost my child, I found that only people who had experienced something like this or something similar really felt comfortable about it to speak. Lots of people don’t know what to say, even very good close friends. “
For Andy, the worst thing people would say to comfort him would be that he might have another child. But the couple were far from thinking about such things.
They reached out to others through the stillbirth charity Sands and started attending support groups. A few months after Eli’s death, Andrew found, through the charity, a group of men who had also suffered a baby loss and wanted to start a football team in London.
After discussing the idea by email, the group met for the first time in 2020 to play football and drink beer together. About 18 months later, Sands United London has more than 50 members – and Andy credits the group for helping him find a turning point in coming to terms with his own grief.
“I’ve had some good conversations with other fathers and it’s really therapeutic and helpful, but I found the company of other fathers very valuable,” he says. “It is important for me to be in a group with people who have experienced this pain. No two stories are the same and no two people feel the same, but knowing that everyone can understand something there and you don’t have to explain it really helps. “
The team meets every two weeks to play, but the social bond between members goes way beyond that commitment. They have social nights every month and run three WhatsApp groups to support each other – one to discuss games, another for “banter” and a third for serious discussions about grief and loss.
This first meeting in 2020 was initiated by Johan Hargreaves. The 41-year-old father of three lost his middle child Hope in 26 weeks of pregnancy in July 2018.
After the loss, his wife found some solace in support groups, but Johan found that these meetings made him feel less welcome as a man, as there were many conversations about the physical and psychological trauma of carrying and giving birth to a stillborn child. “A lot of the things that were discussed in the room with other mothers revolved around it, so I felt like they were [my wife] got the support she needed and I thought I didn’t need it at this point. “
Johan’s experience is not uncommon. Unfortunately, one in 225 pregnancies in the UK ends in stillbirth, that is seven babies a day. Although there is significant support for women after a loss, men are left without tailored advice and guidance in dealing with their emotions. They often report feeling that their role is not to mourn but rather to support the birthing partner, so repressing their own emotions related to the profound event of a child’s death.
A 2020 study of fathers’ emotional experiences after stillbirths and baby losses concluded that “Men may face different challenges compared to women, including expectations of support for female partners and a lack of social appreciation for theirs Grief and the needs that follow ”.
The study found that men may experience “double disenfranchised grief” after the loss of a newborn. The study showed the need for better support services specifically for men and not as part of family therapy with men and women.
A few months after Hope’s death, Johan founded London Sands FC. He had seen that there was a club in Northampton, but the group was too far to join. “I thought I can’t be the only one feeling this way, there isn’t a lot of support for men.” He describes using soccer as a “Trojan horse” to get men to band together. “I felt ready to help other people because I saw that it wasn’t that easy for my mother.”
It took over a year after a hiatus due to the tense wait for the healthy arrival of his third child in 2019, but by 2020 Johan had a small group of men in London ready to sign up.
“At first I made it to about seven or eight [people] and we met on a small field in Battersea. I thought we were just doing a kick around but I think what made it really special for me was we played for an hour but then we went to a bar and just talked for two hours and people came up and told others about their trip and some of them had never talked about it before. It really reaffirmed the importance of this type of collective, ”he says.
“When new people join in, the rest of the team inundates them with support that in most cases they have never had because their friends and family just don’t know how to react. It’s really bittersweet that we’re growing [in number] but we want to make sure the next person who finds us has the same experience. It’s more important than the results on the pitch. ”The group is intentionally mixed-headed – anyone who has never kicked a ball for former pro players is welcome as long as they share the baby loss experience.
For Hargreaves, the group provides a safe space for him to think and remember about Hope, and also a way to talk to others about her without making people feel uncomfortable about the mention of a child who died before birth.
“I think every time I talk about it, with someone within the group or externally, it’s kind of therapy for me. I think of them every day of course, but Sands United gives me the opportunity to express that and celebrate them, ”he explains. “It’s obviously a pretty big part of my life now. When people ask me what I do on the weekend, I tell them I play soccer, then I can talk about my daughter and that’s a gentler way of doing that. It’s a natural conversation. “
Still, football counts. After co-manager Shareef Mani, 26 from Barnet, joined the team earlier this year, the games have been better organized. The team has played games against a team of staff from the London Underground, a team of officials from the Department for Work and Pensions and a charity group organized by the Jason Roberts Foundation. Mani, who lost Baby Noah to stillbirth in October 2019, joined the team the following year and set about expanding the reach. He, too, says that he needed help talking about his pain, and using soccer as a way to connect with others meant he felt ready to do it. “It’s a tough subject as a man to talk about, the fact that you become vulnerable,” says Mani.
The team is mainly visited by grieving fathers, but is also open to all men who are affected by a baby loss, be they uncles, siblings or grandparents. A loss can be new or many years ago – the team still provides a space for that loss to be recognized.
Joshua Fellows, 29, joined the team when he lived in Woolwich but now commutes out of Surrey to keep in touch with members. He asked to join after another member known to his exes suggested joining.
“I called and received a message within half an hour introducing what the group was about. They ask about the backstory of when you lost your kid and how, what kind of soccer team you support, even little things like how you like your steak – it’s an icebreaker. I showed up for the first game and haven’t looked back since, ”he says. “It’s an elite club that nobody wanted to belong to, but as soon as you’re in the locker room with people who have lost children, they know how you feel.”
Joshua lost his daughter Sky to left atrial isomerism, a serious heart condition that made his partner-to-be so uncomfortable that doctors advised an abortion. “You said the previous Friday [she died] that we need to start talking about what’s best for you, not just for the baby, ”he explains. “We were back on Monday with a resignation and they asked if we’d like to hear her heartbeat for the last time, but by the weekend she died of her own accord. We were really desperate back then, but in the end we thought it was something positive: She knew we had to make a decision that we always had to live with – so she recorded it for us. “
Fellows has since split from his partner but found support for his grief in the soccer team. “We’re all boys, we can all laugh, but we all know when to get serious.”
And just like with the members of his team, the success of the Sands United team has had a huge impact on his post-loss mental health for founder Johan Hargreaves. “If we never play soccer again, I’ll always have this group of friends to fall back on and talk to,” he says. “This is really something special for me.”
If you are affected by any of the issues that this article addresses, you can contact the Stillborn and Newborn Death Charity sand on 0808 164 3332 or email [email protected]. The hotline is open Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday evenings until 9:30 p.m.
You can also find bereavement support under The Lullaby Trust by phone on 0808 802 6868 or by email [email protected]