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‘The game is a Trojan horse’: The football club launched by fathers to stillborn babies

Although there is support for women in the aftermath of baby loss, men are left without tailored advice and guidance on handling their emotions. Hannah Fearn meets the fathers finding their own route out of grief

Monday 20 December 2021 15:58
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After seven years of trying to conceive and multiple rounds of IVF, Andy was overjoyed to discover his wife was expecting their first son. At 36 weeks’ gestation the couple attended a scan that showed the baby was in a breech position but was healthy and growing. The couple named him Eli and began excitedly preparing for his arrival.

“It had taken us so long [to get pregnant] and we’d basically given up all hope of ever having a baby. We had been on a very long journey, so it felt like a miracle,” the 38-year-old from Leyton, east London tells TheIndependent.

Two days later, Eli stopped moving.

“We had a scan and they told us that he’d died,” Andy recalls. “We still don’t know what the cause was, it was probably placental complications. He was still born two days after that.”

When their miracle pregnancy ended in tragedy, Andy found there was nobody specific for him to turn to, as the father to a stillborn child. “I’m quite an open person, I’m comfortable with talking about emotions and mental health struggles, but what I found with the loss of my child was that only people who have experienced that or something similar really felt comfortable talking about it. A lot of people don’t know what to say, even very good close friends.”

For Andy, the worst thing people would say while attempting to comfort him would be that he could have another child. But the couple was far from even considering such things.

They reached out to others through the stillbirth charity Sands and began attending support groups. A few months after Eli’s death, Andrew found a group of men through the charity who had also experienced baby loss and were looking to set up a football team in London.

I felt that my wife was getting the support she needed, and I thought I didn’t need any at that time

After discussing the idea by email, the group met for a kick about and to share a pint for the first time in 2020. Some 18 months later, Sands United London has more than 50 members – and Andy credits the group with helping him reach a turning point in managing his own grief.

“I’ve had some good conversations with other dads and that’s really therapeutic and helpful but just being in the company of others I’ve found very valuable,” he says. “What’s important to me is being in a group with people who have experienced that pain. No two stories are the same, and no two people feel the same thing, but just knowing everyone there can relate to that, and you don’t need to explain it really helps.”

The team meet to play fortnightly, but the social bond between the members far exceeds that commitment. They have social nights every month and run three WhatsApp groups to support each other – one to discuss matches, another for “banter” and a third for serious discussion about bereavement and loss. 

That first meeting in 2020 was initiated by Johan Hargreaves. The 41-year-old father of three lost his middle child, Hope, at 26 weeks’ gestation in July 2018.

In the aftermath of the loss his wife found some solace in support groups, but Johan found he felt less welcome at these meetings as a man, with much of the conversation around the physical and psychological trauma of carrying and delivering a stillborn child. “A lot of the things that were discussed in the room with other mums were around this, so I felt that she [my wife] was getting the support she needed, and I thought I didn’t need any at that time.”

Johan’s experience isn’t rare. Sadly, in the UK one in every 225 pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is seven lost babies every day. Although there is significant support for women in the aftermath of a loss, men are left without tailored advice and guidance on handling their emotions. They often report feeling that their role is not to grieve but to be the support to the birthing partner, so repress their own emotions around the profound event of the death of a child.

A 2020 study into the emotional experiences of fathers after stillbirth and baby loss concluded that “in comparison to women, men may face different challenges including expectations to support female partners, and a lack of social recognition for their grief and subsequent needs.”

The research found that men may experience what the authors termed “double-disenfranchised grief” following neonatal loss. The study identified the need for better support services designed specifically for men, rather than as part of family therapy with both men and women.

A few months after Hope’s death, Johan set up London Sands FC. He had seen there was a club in Northampton, but the group was too far away for him to join. “I thought I can’t be the only one feeling like this, there’s not much support out there for men.” He describes using football as a “trojan horse” to get men to join together. “I felt ready to help other people because I saw there wasn’t that easy journey there was for the mother.”

It took him over a year, after a pause 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.

“Initially I got it to about seven or eight [people] and we met up in a five-a-side ground in Battersea. I thought we’d just have a kickaround, but I think what really made it special for me was that we played for an hour but then we went to a bar and we spent two hours just chatting and people were stepping forward and telling other people about their journey and some of them had never spoken about it before. It really reiterated the importance of this kind of collective,” he says.

“When new people get added, the rest of the team floods them with support which in most cases they’ve never had before 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 that the next person that finds us has the same experience. That’s more important than results on the pitch.” The group is deliberately mixed ability – anyone, from those who have never kicked a ball for ex professional players, are welcome as long as they share the experience of baby loss.

For Hargreaves, the group provides a safe space for him to think about and remember Hope, and also a way to speak about her with others which doesn’t cause people to become uncomfortable at the mention of a child who died before birth.

“I think every time I talk about it, to anyone within the group or externally, it’s kind of therapy for me. I think about her every day of course but Sands United gives me an outlet to verbalise that and to celebrate her,” he explains. “It is obviously quite a big part of my life now, so when people ask me what I’m doing at the weekend I tell them I’m playing football, then I can talk about my daughter and it’s a softer way to do that. It’s a natural conversation.”

Nevertheless, the football matters. This year, after co-manager Shareef Mani, 26 from Barnet, joined the team, the matches have become more organised. The team has played matches against a team of staff from the London Underground, a civil service team from the Department for Work and Pensions, and a charity group organised 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 its reach. He too says he needed help to speak about his pain and using football as a way to connect with others meant he felt about to do so. “It’s a difficult subject as a man, talking about it, the fact that you’re becoming vulnerable,” Mani says.

When new people join, the rest of the team floods them with support which in most cases they’ve never had before because their friends and family just don’t know how to react

The team is mostly attended by bereaved fathers, but it’s also open to any man affected by baby loss, whether that’s uncles, siblings or grandparents. A loss could be recent, or from many years ago - the team still provides a space where that loss is recognised.

Joshua Fellows, 29, joined the team when he lived in Woolwich but now commutes from Surrey to stay connected to the members. He asked to join after another member who was known to his ex-partners suggested he joined up.

“I made the call and within half an hour I’d got a message to introduce what the group was about. They ask a backstory of when you lost your child and how, what sort of football team you support, even little things like how you like your steak cooked – it’s an ice breaker. I turned up for the first game and honestly I haven’t looked back since,” he says. “It’s an elite club that nobody wanted to be a part of, but as soon as you get in that changing room with people who have lost children, they know what you feel like.”

Joshua lost his daughter Sky to left atrium isomerism, a severe heart condition that also made his expectant partner so unwell that doctors advised termination of the pregnancy. “They said on the Friday before [she died] that we need to start talking about what’s best for you not just for the baby,” he explains. “We went back on the Monday for a termination, and they asked if we’d like to hear her heartbeat for the last time, but over the weekend she’d passed on her own. At the time we were really distraught but coming away from it we thought there was a positive: she knew that we had to make a decision that we would always have to live with – so she took it for us.”

Fellows has since split with his partner but found support for his grief among the football team. “We’re all lads, we can all have a laugh, but we all know when someone needs to get serious.”

And just like his team’s members, for the founder, Johan Hargreaves, the success of the Sands United team has made a huge difference to his mental health after loss. “If we never play football again, I will always have this group of friends to fall back on and talk to,” he says. “That’s really special for me.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands on 0808 164 3332 or email helpline@sands.org.uk. The helpline is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday, and until 9.30pm on Tuesday and Thursday evenings

You can also find bereavement support at The Lullaby Trust by calling 0808 802 6868 or emailing support@lullabytrust.org.uk

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