For some men talking about their loss is the last thing they want to do and that’s OK, but it’s important they are offered some other way of finding the emotional support that can help them overcome their grief.
Talking isn’t the only way to get through the pain, and being active or playing sport can be a great way to relieve the tension in both body and mind.
For a group of men from Northamptonshire, a shared love of ‘the beautiful game’ offered a way to tackle the taboo around pregnancy and baby loss by coming together each week to play football as Sands United FC.
Luke Bryans’ first son, Freddie, was stillborn in 2011 and his wife Paula suffered multiple miscarriages between the births of daughter Betsy and second son Reggie.
Luke said: “No one asks what the bloke is feeling, but I put all my emotions to one side to look after Paula. It’s great men are now sharing their feelings about child loss. And at least for 90 minutes every Sunday, we can focus on football.”
Leon Gavin and his partner Eloise Calvert’s son Nolan died before he was born, at 36 weeks, in December 2017. After several months struggling to cope with his grief Eloise persuaded Leon to go to a Sands meeting of other bereaved parents but he found it too difficult to think about his baby, let alone talk about him.
Leon said: “We were asked to write the name of our child down and just writing Nolan was so hard.”
It was at this meeting that Leon met Rob Allen, whose daughter Niamh had died only four days before her due date in October that year.
Rob, a keen Sunday league footballer, had stopped playing the game altogether after his bereavement. Then in January of 2018, his team’s manager Alan Birdsall told him that they wanted to organise a charity football match for Sands on 23 May at Northampton Town FC, to show their support for Rob and his family.
The only problem was they didn’t have a team to play against.
Rob said: “I’d been going to a few Sands group meetings and I thought, surely there are enough dads at these to make up a team. I ended up pulling together a dads’ team and the whole thing was a great success. It was meant to be a one-off, but we found that real connections had been made, so I suggested setting up a new Sunday league team.”
That team became Sands United FC – a way for dads and other bereaved family members to come together through a shared love of sport and find a support network where they can feel at ease talking about their grief when they’re ready.
Since joining Sands United FC many of the players have found the strength to talk or write about their babies, something they found almost impossible to do before being united through grief.
Oliver Earby, who plays in memory of his daughter Minnie, said: “Men don’t talk about it down the pub. It’s the last thing you do. But once you open up you realise you are not the only one going through it.”
Playing team sports can aid the grieving process by helping lift someone’s mood, give them a focus, help with sleep problems, and reduce feelings of isolation. Sands United FC has already saved the lives of men left feeling like they had no one to turn to in their grief.
Kenny Harrison, 25, lost his son Freddie in June 2018 and contemplated suicide as he bottled up his grief. After moving to Stratford-on-Avon Kenny has now gone on to set up Sands United Warwickshire.
“If it weren’t for Sands United, I’m not sure I’d be here,” said Kenny. “After my ten-week-old son Freddie died in June last year, I went to pieces. It tore apart my six-year relationship, and I turned to drink and contemplated suicide. It was my colleague Tom, another player, who saved my life when he introduced me to Sands United. Now, if I’m ever struggling, there is always someone who will listen and understand.”
On 5 December 2018 Sands United FC was firmly in the spotlight when all the players were honoured with a Pride of Sport – Team of the Year 2018 award.
This incredible recognition of the difference the team has made to each other and their success in tackling the taboo around men affected by pregnancy and baby loss has inspired many others to set up their own Sands United teams across the UK, helping more men find their way to vital bereavement support in a way that works for them.
As well as being there for each other through the darkest of days the team have also shared the bittersweet happiness of Rainbow babies being born to some of the players.
They have also raised more than £10,000 for Sands and held a second charity match on 25 May at Kettering Town football ground playing a special team including current Northampton Town Captain David Buchanan and players from Kent and Leicester Sands United that are part of the wave of teams now springing up across the UK.
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Find out more about joining or setting up a Sands United team at www.sands.org.uk/sandsunited