A new Yorkshire football team set up to help bereaved dads open up about their grief are preparing to play their first match on Father’s Day. Sally Burton and Chris Burn report.
Father’s Day is supposed to be a celebration but can often be a difficult and isolating event for many people for lots of different reasons – especially so for those men who have suffered the heartbreak of losing a baby child. But this year, a group of bereaved fathers from Yorkshire will be marking the day together after forming a football team designed to help them open up about their grief.
The Doncaster-based project was started by devoted dad John Drury, who lost his son Arthur in February last year when he was just a few hours old.
The team is linked to the SANDS charity – which stands for Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society – and go under the name SANDS United. He formed the team after hearing a similar SANDS-connected side that had been set up in Northampton.
John says the aim is simple – “to give men that platform to speak up and not bottle up their grief any more”.
“With the shared love of their children and the beautiful game, we hope, one by one, the men in the team can learn from one another and tell their story in their own time and when they feel ready,” he says.
Next year the goal is for the men to play in the Doncaster Sunday League, so there can never be too many players signed up.
But their first match will take place next month on Father’s Day, which falls on June 16 this year. They will play against an over-30s side from Doncaster and John hopes the match will be watched by hundreds of family members and friends. Proceeds from the day will be used to fund the future running of the team.
More than 20 people have been in contact to show an interest in participating, with 10, including John, signed up to be an official part of the side.
John and his wife Grace knew that Arthur faced problems from December 2017, but although their baby’s health issues, including a heart defect, were many and complex, they believed they would be operable.
Arthur was born at 33 weeks, after his mother was admitted to hospital with severe pre-eclampsia. But tragically, he suffered a cardiac arrest at just five hours old.
Despite the best efforts of the medical team to keep his heart going, his parents were asked to say goodbye to him.
John, 27, of Carcroft, says: “He died in my arms. Later we discovered he must have had a twin, who was lost about five weeks into the pregnancy.
“It was very hard and very surreal. Even now it’s a struggle to put in to words how you feel. Arthur died just before Mothering Sunday last year and that day was so difficult to get through.
“After the funeral we wanted to be active and do things in his honour, to help others.”
The couple raised £800 by climbing Ben Nevis, for Leeds Children’s Hospital, where Arthur was treated. It was at the top of the mountain that John proposed to Grace, and they married in December 2018. A charity night at their local pub raised another £1,000 for Bluebell Wood Hospice, all in Arthur’s memory.
“Not a day went by or goes by when Arthur’s name isn’t mentioned,” says John. “There isn’t a great deal in Doncaster to help people who have gone through the trauma of losing a child.
“We are lucky in that we have very supportive family and friends. But we wanted to reach out to others. Dads can sometimes be overlooked.
“I got the idea of the team when coaching Doncaster Belles U15s. My love of football came back and I wanted to get back playing.
“I’ve been channelling my grief in to this.
“It’s early days but on our first meeting 13 turned up, and more have signed since then. Goals on Wheatley Hall Road gave us our first session for free and have offered reduced rates.”
John and Grace recently had their second child, a daughter called Theadora.
He says their experience with Arthur meant it was a challenging experience despite the joy of her arrival.
“The pregnancy on its own was stressful enough. You are quite naive as a male when you think about people getting pregnant but once you have been through a loss, you get to know everything to look out for and you are constantly worried. Luckily, it was a straightforward textbook pregnancy but we were worried about her movements.”
After being born, Theadora then had to spend a week in a neonatal intensive care unit.
John says: “It was similar to the experience we had with Arthur. We had to leave hospital without our child in the car for the second time which was very hard. Luckily she has made a full recovery and is now home. But you are too aware of what can go wrong.”
He says her birth – 412 days after her brother – has been somewhat bittersweet because of the experience of losing Arthur.
“It is very hard and I can only imagine it gets harder. We never got any of Arthur’s firsts – things like his first smile and we didn’t get to bring him home for the first time. It is obviously different having a girl but you do think of what Arthur would have been like now – whether he would have been walking or said his first word.”
The death of a baby or child is still a taboo subject for many people, explains John. But so many people are affected, not least the midwives and hospital staff who are involved.
“One of my most abiding memories is of being given Arthur, and of all the doctors and midwives in tears. They were in bits, as if he was their own son.”
Grace too, is busy considering a SANDS committee working with mothers, in Doncaster.
“We have met some wonderful people. This is the club you never want to be a part of, yet it is so supportive.”
He says although it is in its early days, the football team is already having a positive effect for the men who have decided to take part.
“It is like a family almost. There are hundreds of messages every day in the group chat between everyone.”
John’s initiative is growing bigger at a pace, with members from across South Yorkshire. The men have recently been filmed by the BBC, with the online video of one of their training sessions reaching tens of thousands of people.
“There’s a strong link in that a child dies every 90 minutes, the same length as a football game, which is a constant reminder,” said John.
He hopes eventually there will be a tournament of SANDS teams. Babies’ names are to be mentioned and honoured by team members on their birthdays, and each player will bear the name of their child or grandchild on their shirt.
“No-one deals with grief in the same way but together we can get through anything,” says John.
Tragic statistics on infant deaths
Every day in the UK around 15 babies die before, during or soon after birth.
In the UK in 2015, one in every 227 births was a stillbirth, and there were 3,434 stillbirths in total – around nine per day. A spokesman for SANDS said: “Stillbirth rates remained largely unchanged from the late 1990s to 2011. Since then, the rate has declined and it is now at its lowest level since 1992. But more deaths could be prevented.”
In the same year, 1,652 babies died within the first week of their lives, and another 465 died within the following three weeks.
John is still looking for sponsors to come forward to ensure his team can continue into the future. Anyone interested can email on firstname.lastname@example.org.