Dads united in grief: Many men struggle to express their sorrow when they lose a child, but here, these devastated fathers tell how forming a unique football team has helped console them
- Sands United FC was formed to provide support to those who’ve lost a child
- The Northamptonshire players met via the Stillbirth and NeoNatal Death Charity
- Eleven of the members spoke about how they were touched by death
- Kenny Harrison, 25, contemplated suicide when his ten-week-old son died
- Mark Dent, 35, lost his two-year-old son Jack after he developed sepsis
- Luke Barker, 33, lost his daughter Jasmine in 2012, and son Freddie, in 2016
Shoulder to shoulder in their bright-orange football strip, Sands United FC looks like any other local Sunday league team.
Based in Northamptonshire, the players are of all ages and from all backgrounds.
But there’s a poignant reason why these men are united. Tragically, each of them has been touched by the death of a young child.
They discovered each other last year via the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity (Sands) and formed the team to raise awareness and provide support for men and their families. Here, JILL FOSTER speaks to a very strong 11.
Eleven men who’ve experienced the death of a young child have come together to form Sands United FC, the players spoke to Jill Foster about their tragedies (pictured: Back row, from left, Declan Gavin, Spencer Dempsey, Leon Gavin, Luke Barker, Luke Bryans and Desmond Barker. Front row, from left, Kenny Harrison, Tom Littlemore, Rob Allen, Nick Hilliker and Mark Dent)
NO ONE HERE WOULD EVER TELL YOU TO ‘MAN UP’
Rob Allen, 32, is a carpenter and roofer. He is married to Charlotte, 32, a fashion designer. They have a son, Alfie, six, and had a baby daughter, Iris, on Boxing Day.
We lost our baby girl Niamh only four days before her due date in October 2017. She looked perfect, with tiny fingers and toes. We felt such shock, but my overriding emotion was that I needed to protect Charlotte.
I’m not religious, but I believe Niamh was never meant to be with us. Some children change the world by being doctors or nurses. Others, like Niamh, make a difference in another way — and the fact I set up Sands United is her legacy.
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Afterwards, I lost interest in playing for my local team. Four months later, my former manager said he wanted to organise a football fundraiser to raise money for SANDS.
We recruited players from the support groups — 15 of the men had lost children. That game raised £6,000 and Sands United was formed. The names of our babies are embroidered on our shirts — over our hearts — or on our boots.
No one in this team will ever tell you to ‘man up’ because we all understand you can have good and bad days. For me, the team has been my medicine.
MY LIFE SPIRALLED OUT OF CONTROL WHEN I LOST MY SON
Kenny Harrison, 25, works in insurance. He is single, having split with his partner last year.
Kenny Harrison, 25, (pictured with his son Freddie who died at ten weeks old) revealed he contemplated suicide after his son who was born prematurely died
If it weren’t for Sands United, I’m not sure I’d be here. 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 the team.
My ex-partner and I had been trying for a baby for four years before she became pregnant with Freddie via IVF. Born prematurely at 34 weeks, he spent a month in intensive care, but we had some precious weeks at home with him, too.
He was a happy little thing, a redhead like me.
In and out of hospital with health issues, one day he went into cardiac arrest on the ward. The doctors tried to resuscitate him for 45 minutes, but nothing could be done. Afterwards, I felt empty and lifeless. But, today, if I’m ever struggling, there is always someone in the team who will listen and understand.
I FEEL GUILTY FOR BEING HAPPY AGAIN
Leon Gavin, 25, works as an occupational therapist assistant. He lives with his partner Eloise, 22, a healthcare assistant and their four-month-old son, Arlo.
Leon Gavin, 25, (pictured) says his partner Eloise’s pregnancy seemed normal until 35 weeks, their son Nolan died before he was born
December marked the one-year anniversary of losing our son Nolan, who died before he was born. Welcoming Arlo into the family in October has been bittersweet. I feel guilty that I’m happy when Nolan should be here, too.
Eloise’s pregnancy seemed normal until 35 weeks, when she couldn’t feel any movement and went for a check-up. Our world crashed around us the moment the doctor took Eloise’s hand and said: “I’m so sorry.”
The birth was terrifying. Eloise lost so much blood, I thought I was going to lose her, too. Afterwards, the nurses dressed Nolan and we spent the weekend with him. I was reluctant to take photos at first, but I’m thankful I did. I cherish them, as well as the plaster cast moulds of his tiny hands and feet.
Eloise signed me up to Sands United as she thought it would be good for me. Now, I have friends I can text at any time who’ll be there for me. It’s given my father Declan a voice as a grandfather, too.
WE’D NEVER TALKED ABOUT MISCARRIAGE
Leon’s father Declan Gavin, 52, is a transport manager. He is married to Marina, 52, who works in a garden centre.
Leon’s father Declan Gavin, 52, (pictured) revealed he’s proud that younger men have made talking about losing a child acceptable
Twenty-eight per cent of men with mental health issues don’t seek medical help, compared with 19 per cent of women, according to the Mental Health Foundation
Although we’d been told that Nolan would be stillborn, I hoped for a miracle. My wife and I waited anxiously outside the hospital room where Eloise was giving birth, but it was only when I heard the cries from Leon that I realised we’d lost our only grandchild.
I’m from a generation of men who never spoke about miscarriage or losing children. I’m so proud of the younger men in this team for making it acceptable.
Seeing Leon smiling again as he plays football has been good for both of us. For so long, he looked so lost. It’s important for men to know it’s OK to laugh and joke again after they’ve lost a child.
PLAYING FOOTBALL MAKES ME SMILE
Mark Dent, 35, is married to Kirsty, 31. They are both postal workers and have a four-year-old daughter, Bree.
Mark Dent, 35, (pictured with his wife Kirsty and son Jack, who died aged two) believes you never get over losing a child, his two-year-old son died after developing sepsis
When the doctor walked into the waiting room of the hospital in October 2014, I knew instinctively that my two-year-old son Jack was going to die. He was my best friend and so happy and loving.
Everyone assumed that he was recovering from tonsillitis and pneumonia. The night before, he’d been sitting up in his hospital bed, eating chicken nuggets and chatting away — but he developed sepsis. When the doctors realised there was nothing they could do, my wife Kirsty insisted that they unhook him from all the machines so he could die in her arms.
You never get over losing a child — I’m still having counselling. I only got into Sands United when my friend Spencer, the manager, added me to the group text by mistake. Now, playing football with the lads brings a smile to my face.
IT’S GOOD TO GIVE SOMETHING BACK
Luke Barker, 33, is an IT system developer. He’s married to Hannah, 33, a training officer. They have two children, Joel, five, and Freya, 19 months.
Before each game, I listen to a playlist of songs, including A Whole New World from Aladdin and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. They were played at the funerals of my daughter Jasmine, who was stillborn in 2012, and son Freddie, who we lost in 2016. Then I look down at their names on my shirt and up to the sky. I like to think they’re watching me.
Luke Barker, 33, (pictured with the team) lost his son Freddie in 2016 and his daughter Jasmine was stillborn in 2012
Jasmine, who was born at home, was unresponsive at birth. Later, at the hospital, I was on my own with her because Hannah was being attended to separately. The first she knew that Jasmine hadn’t made it was when she saw me cradling her and crying.
Four years later, we were advised to terminate Freddie, as his outlook was very bleak. After losing one child, the last thing we wanted to do was end a life, but we terminated at 26 weeks. This time, I was able to spend time with Freddie in the bereavement suite, something we’d not been able to do with Jasmine.
I am the team’s goalie and do the match reports and social media. We use the hashtag #imstilladad and I get so many messages from men going through similar experiences. It’s good to feel that I’m giving something back.
GRANDPARENTS ARE SO OFTEN FORGOTTEN
Desmond Barker, 54, works in a shoe factory. He is married to Jo, 50, and is the father of Luke Barker, also in the team.
Being involved with Sands United has helped me deal with a lot of the anger I felt at losing two of my beloved grandchildren.
There’s so little support for grieving grandparents. I wasn’t even allowed to take paid bereavement leave to attend the funerals. It’s a relief to open up to others about how I’m feeling — especially Declan, another grandfather.
When Luke rang to say that they’d lost their little girl at birth, I couldn’t handle it.
Desmond Barker, 54, (pictured) says there’s very little support given to grieving grandparents, he has become closer to his son Luke who lost two children since joining the team
I raced to the hospital but, when they asked if I wanted to see her, at first I thought I couldn’t put myself through it. I’m so glad I changed my mind. The moment I saw Jasmine, I loved her. I held her and talked to her for an hour, and no one can take that away from me.
When Freddie later died, I couldn’t believe Luke and Hannah were having to suffer again. This time, when they asked if I wanted to hold Freddie, I didn’t hesitate.
Luke and I are closer than ever, thanks to the team. I donate £5 to the charity for every goal they score and we’re up to £265 so far.
THE TEAM HELPED ME TO GRIEVE
Nick Hilliker, 28, is a resuscitation technician. He is married to Sarah, 31, an administrator and they have two children, Lewis, ten and Harry, three.
When I joined the team, I said: ‘I’m only here for the football’ — I didn’t want to talk about losing two babies. But, over time, Rob, the captain, encouraged me to open up. I wish I’d done it sooner.
It was in 2013 that Sarah suffered a miscarriage at eight weeks. I put my feelings to one side and focused on her. That’s what men do.
Nick Hilliker, 28, (pictured with the team) lost two babies but didn’t really begin grieving their loss until he joined Sands United
A year later, she was pregnant again and, at a routine scan, they found it was a molar pregnancy — where a tumour grows next to the baby. Sadly, both the tumour and baby have to be removed.
I had never heard the term before and it was when we were sent to an oncology ward that I realised the severity of our situation.
It wasn’t until I joined Sands United that I realised I really hadn’t grieved for the loss of our babies. We’d kept their scan photos very private but, after joining the team, I felt able to show them to people.
MEN MUST TALK MORE ABOUT LOSS
Spencer Dempsey, 44, works in logistics. He lives with his partner Charlotte, 44, a nurse, and, between them, they have four children, Alex, 25, Hollie, 23, Katy, 12, and Jack, seven.
When Leon told me about the team, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Though we’d been friends for a long time, he had no idea I, too, had experienced the loss of a baby. That really epitomises the idea behind this team — that men need to talk about loss much more.
Spencer Dempsey, 44, (pictured) says at the time he and his partner Charlotte, 44 lost their baby, couples weren’t given a chance to spend time with their child
It was ten years ago that Charlotte and I lost our baby.
She was six months pregnant when, suddenly, the baby stopped moving and we were told our boy had died. It was heartbreaking.
But, unlike today, when couples are allowed to spend time with their child, we were never given that chance. We didn’t name him or have a funeral. It’s hard to describe how I felt. I just knew I had to be strong for Charlotte.
Every day, couples lose babies, and I hope we can get the message out that they’re not on their own.
IT’S GREAT WE CAN SHARE OUR FEELINGS
Luke Bryans, 39, owns a decorating company. He is married to Paula, 41, and they have a daughter, Betsy, six, and a son, Reggie, ten months.
Our first son, Freddie, was stillborn in 2011. All was normal until the due date, when Paula went for a check-up and they were unable to find a heartbeat.
Luke Bryans, 39, (pictured) revealed he regrets not seeing or holding his son Freddie who was stillborn in 2011
When he was born, we were put onto a maternity ward where other women were having healthy babies and we could hear their cries. Paula spent some time with Freddie, but I just couldn’t bear to see or hold him. I regret that now. Paula went on to have a miscarriage, but then we had our little girl. Between Betsy and Reggie’s birth, we experienced nine miscarriages.
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.
I PLAY IN MEMORY OF MY SISTER
Tom Littlemore, 25, is an insurance broker. He has a partner, Lauren, 20, a stay-at-home mother and two step-children, aged three and two.
Tom Littlemore, 25, (pictured in action for Sands United) believes everyone knows someone who has suffered this kind of bereavement
Although I haven’t lost my own child, my parents lost my little sister, Chloe, in 1995 and my partner’s sister recently lost her little girl at eight months.
Everyone knows someone who has suffered this kind of bereavement and being a stepfather has brought it home how much my dad must have suffered when Chloe died. There’s still a stigma attached to men talking about their feelings and I’m really proud to be a part of anything that breaks down those barriers.
To donate to the team, visit justgiving.com and search for Sands United. For information and support, see sands.org.uk
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