The grieving process hits everyone differently. For Shareef Mani it took about a year to overcome the sadness of his son’s stillbirth. He took four months off work and, in his own words, needed time before he felt capable of facing the outside world. When that moment appeared on the horizon, he found football as a vehicle to express his emotions after months of suppressing them.
From an early stage of mourning, Shareef felt there was a shortage of support for men. “All of the attention is diverted to the mother who carried the child,” he says. “Men, unfortunately, are left to themselves to go through the emotions.” But there was one outlet that he had heard about early in the process that he had procrastinated over, predominantly because he did not feel comfortable opening up with strangers.
Enter Sands United London, one of a couple dozen regionalised teams linked to the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, where men who have been affected by the loss of an infant can find a support network made up of people who have lived through similar experiences and understand the pain.
The London team was founded in the autumn of 2019 by Johan Hargreaves, whose daughter, Hope, was stillborn in October 2018. Shareef had heard about the team’s existence via the bereavement midwife at the hospital where his son, Noah, arrived and although he was in two minds about getting involved it has been an invaluable outlet to help him make sense of the trauma.
“It took me a while to get my head around things, to face the world and get a sense of reality,” he says. “It played on the back of my mind that these were all strangers, it was all alien and foreign to me. I didn’t know these people and they didn’t know me so how can I feel comfortable and how can I trust them with my emotions and story, become vulnerable in front of them.”
The London team is one of the more recently established but has already swelled to more than 40 players, each man with a personal story of enduring sadness. They wear shirts with the names of their sons and daughters and speaking about their experiences is encouraged but not forced. Sands say an infant passes every 90 minutes, or the length of a match, meaning there are far more than 40 men across London who may get solace from the team’s existence.
“It shows how many men have to go through this horrible and tragic experience but ultimately it shows they are comfortable when they join us,” Shareef says. “There’s no obligation or commitment to talk about it but they can discuss their grief when they are ready.”
He had played semi-professionally a few years back but the standard is irrelevant at Sands United, where the age of players range from early 20s to mid-50s. They are not part of a league but are organising an increasing number of one-off games against other charity and corporate teams in addition to five-a-sides, when they meet up once a fortnight.
Today, at Eltham Town, they face a team of former players and celebrities including Jimmy Bullard, Neil Ruddock and Michael Duberry with the purpose of raising awareness and, crucially, generating funds.
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“It’s all about getting the message out there,” Shareef adds. “We’re not funded so we’re using our own money from our savings to run the club which long-term is not sustainable.”
Going forward the plan is to make more men who have suffered from the bereavement of a child aware that they exist. Players now visit hospitals to give leaflets and speak to midwives and doctors.
“It is so bittersweet, so unfortunate that a team like this needs to exist but ultimately it does,” Shareef says. “Statistically, one in four families will have to endure the pain of a baby loss – whether it is miscarriage, stillbirth or sudden infant death syndrome. It’s all about getting the message out there.”