How do you get bereaved fathers to talk? Bring a football

Tony Owens with Arthur.
When the home team runs out for an international charity soccer match in Dublin’s Dalymount Park at the end of May, every player will have the same big white number zero on the back of his purple jersey – along with at least one child’s name. It will be a visual and poignant reminder that all the team members are bereaved fathers who have lost babies that never got a chance to celebrate a birthday.

A squad of 37, comprising men from 14 counties across Ireland, has recently started monthly training sessions for the inaugural match, between fathers of Féileacáin, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland and a Cardiff-based team from its UK counterpart, Sands.

“The issue with men in general is that they don’t talk,” says one of the match organisers, Tony Owens (45) from Ringsend in Dublin. The idea is to get bereaved fathers into an environment in which they are comfortable “and if they need to talk, they can talk”.

I love saying his name

Personally, Tony has no trouble sharing his feelings about the death of his son Arthur. “It certainly helped me,” he remarks. “I love saying his name and I love other people mentioning his name.”

He and his wife Claire were expecting their first child in October 2013, after a previous miscarriage, and all had gone well with this pregnancy. After her contractions started, a couple of days beyond the baby’s due date, they headed for the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street.

At the initial check, “the nurse went white”, says Tony, and went to fetch another ultrasound operator.

“We sort of clicked in our heads, although we didn’t want to admit it, that there was something seriously wrong.” A doctor was called and they were told the baby had died in the previous few hours. The advice was that the best thing for Claire was to go through natural labour.

“It was horrific and just feeling you can’t do anything – the emptiness,” says Tony, who points out that for mothers in this traumatic situation there is both physical and mental pain. “I wanted to feel my pain.”

The match will be played at Dalymount Park in May. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The match will be played at Dalymount Park in May. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Mairie Cregan, chairwoman of Féileacáin, which she helped to set up in 2010 after the stillbirth of her daughter Liliana, acknowledges that “women who have carried and birthed the baby are seen as having the harder road. But if you have ever watched anybody suffer, you’d prefer to suffer yourself.”

She welcomes how changing views of masculinity means bereaved fathers are allowing themselves to feel their grief more. “They’re out there saying it – ‘I have lost my child and my heart is broken’.”

Féileacáin (named from the Irish for “butterfly”) is also being contacted by older men, for whom the bereavement may have been decades ago but they were told at the time it was best to forget it and get on with life.

“These men are saying they realise they have missed out on years of mourning,” says Mairie. “They are coming to the end of their lives now – it’s heartbreaking to see it.”

1759 Guinness Time

Tony and Claire hadn’t found out the gender of their baby in advance and while they had always agreed if they ever had a daughter, they’d call her Grace, they were undecided for a son. When the male baby was delivered, “they asked us if we had a name and we said ‘no’,” says Tony. “I looked up at the clock and it was one minute to six and you know that Guinness ad, 1759 Guinness Time, and I thought of the name Arthur.”

He and Claire agreed to put it down provisionally “and then the name just grew on us. We always get a giggle out of that.”

The couple were able to stay in a private room in the hospital for three nights with Arthur, whose death was subsequently attributed to a leaking placenta, and extended family could call in to see him.

“We just didn’t want to go home; you’re piling a lifetime’s memories into three days,” says Tony, who works in The Irish Times accounts department.  “If anybody asks me what time I’d like to go back to – even in that grief, I’d like to go back to those three days. Just hold him again.”

'He knew that not talking about it would be no way to cope with this new, deep grief'

He remembers they were handed a memory box that Féileacáin supplies to hospitals, offering information and support to bereaved parents and ways to create precious memories in the short time they have with their baby.

“At that stage,” says Tony candidly, “you want to just, excuse the language, f..k it right back at them.” But now that box, residing in a specially built cabinet beside the television and including Arthur’s hand and foot prints and a lock of hair, means so much to the family.

The couple went to their first Féileacáin support meeting at the end of that month and found it helpful to meet people who had a similar bereavement. However, he noticed that fathers they had met at that first meeting, very quickly fell away over subsequent months. Sitting around talking, it seems, was not for them.

“Whatever way the men’s psyche is built,” he adds, “we’re feckin’ eejits.”

A friend of Tony’s, Mark Boland (34), took that stereotypical male approach to grief at the age of 18, after the death of his father: “I locked it all away, I was going to be strong. It didn’t hit me until I was probably 25.”

When Mark then lost his son Benjamin in 2017, he knew that not talking about it would be no way to cope with this new, deep grief. “I definitely wasn’t taking that approach again – it didn’t help me; it didn’t help anybody.” While he would advise all bereaved men to be open about their feelings, he acknowledges, “it might not be for everybody, but I tried the other way and it didn’t work”.

Mark Boland with Benjamin.
Mark Boland with Benjamin.

Mark and his wife, Lorraine, who live in Athy, Co Kildare, had been looking forward to telling their families on Christmas Day 2016 that they were expecting their second child. Everything seemed fine at a private scan at 10 weeks but when they went for their first scan at the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital in Dublin, just before Christmas, medical staff said they wanted to do a few tests.

With alarm bells ringing in their head, the couple feared something was wrong but didn’t know how bad it would be. And as samples had to be sent to a US lab, they couldn’t get the results until after Christmas.

“We just had to tell them [their families] we were pregnant and everybody was happy but we knew underneath it all that something was coming.  We knew it wasn’t good,” says Mark.

The news, when it did come, was devastating.  Their baby had hypoplastic left-heart syndrome; basically, the left side wasn’t going to grow like it should, Mark explains. They were told he could die in the womb or he might go full term “but the chances of him living beyond a few hours were nil”.

At every subsequent scan, the couple hoped against hoped that something might have changed for the better.

Féileacáin – the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland – is organising a football match between Irish fathers who have lost babies and a similar team from Wales. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Féileacáin – the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland – is organising a football match between Irish fathers who have lost babies and a similar team from Wales. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I was trying to be that pillar of optimism; my wife was probably more of a realist,” says Mark, a project engineer. “Every scan started with optimism and ended in pessimism.” Until, at 30 weeks, in March 2017, a scan confirmed their worst fears: “He had passed on.”

Watching his “inconsolable” wife have to deliver their son was “horrific” says Mark, who felt so helpless through it all.

“Afterwards I could console her, but the labour itself, knowing what the outcome would be, was absolutely harrowing. It will live with me.”

While he can recall the “beautiful time” they had with Benjamin in a crib after he was born,

“We knew ultimately we weren’t taking him home.

“We took it very badly, as you would,” Mark continues.  “But we got great support from both our families and both of our jobs.”

The couple availed of bereavement counselling offered by both their employers. “Although it was extremely tough, it was very important for the grieving process that we went through.”

While Lorraine was entitled to full maternity leave, Mark was told by his boss just to come back to work when he felt it was right for him. When he did return at the end of May that year, it was on a phased basis, which “really helped”.

Another huge support to him was Tony, being a long-time close friend who had experienced a similar bereavement.

“He knew exactly what I was going through and what my wife was going through and the same for his wife Claire, she was very good as well. I was lucky that I had that.”

'It has helped me and it seems to help a lot of other people involved as well and has opened up a little community'

A lot of men in this situation are regarded as primarily being there to support their wives, he suggests, “and they should be, but I think the fathers need a bit of support as well”.

For him, as with Tony, talking helps. “I find the speaking about it intense but then afterwards I get huge relief.”

However, you never get over losing a child, “you just learn to live with the grief”. He took some consolation from the safe arrival of their “rainbow baby”, Ruby, 16 months ago, a little sister to Willow, now aged four, and their “angel” Benjamin.

As an active soccer player with Suncroft AFC in Co Kildare, Mark was “mad keen” to play as soon the idea of a Féileacáin team was first mentioned. He is sure the 37 men who have signed up will bond over the training sessions.

The match will be launched at their first training session at Irishtown Stadium. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The match will be launched at their first training session at Irishtown Stadium. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I would call them therapy sessions – the goal is not to improve our footballing skills; the goal is just to get men together.” However, Tony has roped in three League of Ireland players, Daniel Kelly and Sean Gannon of Dundalk FC and Sean Kavanagh of Shamrock Rovers, to lead the training.

There will be no pressure on men to share their stories, rather it’s about the “silent common appreciation for each other”, says Mark.  “We are all part of this exclusive club that absolutely nobody wants to be part of.”

He hopes the match will help to break down the stereotypical view that men just pick themselves and get on with life after such a bereavement. It’s also about raising public awareness of, and funds for, Féileacáin.

The football match is not just for the men

Dublin Port has come on board as the main sponsor to cover costs, so all money raised can go to the charity, while Sandymount Hotel has offered the visiting team half-price accommodation.

“I also think the football match is not just for the men,” Mark adds. “My wife is really looking forward to it and bringing our two daughters to the match. That will be a hugely important day for us – albeit it very, very emotional.”

Tony is also looking forward to Claire and his children being there. Their “rainbow baby”, Grace, arrived just over a year after Arthur’s death. 

Martin Smith with his Jersey. Photograp:h Nick Bradshaw
Martin Smith with his Jersey. Photograp:h Nick Bradshaw

Scans came and went during that pregnancy but “nothing means anything until you hear the baby’s cry”, says Tony. “Those few seconds from the baby coming out to the baby crying, it seemed to go on for days.”

Claire had a Caesarean section that time, after her waters broke early. It was only afterwards the couple were told the cord had wrapped around their daughter’s neck.

“It was sort of a good thing it wasn’t another boy straight away,” says Tony. “It was great to have a girl.”  And they went on to have another son, Sam, born in June 2016.

When asked, Tony will always say he has three children.

And at Dalymount Park in May, he adds, “two of them get to watch me in the stand and one of them gets to watch me in Heaven”..

Tony Owens with Arthur.
Tony Owens with Arthur.

What the team is built around is not happiness

There are half a dozen Sands Utd FC teams in Northern Ireland, comprising fathers, uncles and brothers bereaved through stillbirth or neo-natal death.

Omar Barrett (46), whose son Quinn died two hours after being born at 26 weeks on February 6th, 2019, set up a team in Belfast last July.

“I felt there was no support for the dads.”  While his wife, Karen (32), started attending Sands (see sands.org.uk) group meetings, “it wasn’t my kind of thing”.

When he heard about the Sands Utd team, Maiden City, in Derry, he contacted them and decided to follow their example. Now up to 25 bereaved fathers, uncles and brothers attend sessions every Wednesday night in Belfast’s Olympia Leisure Centre and they play a charity match once a month.

Tony Owens at the training session in Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Tony Owens at the training session in Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

“It’s a sad process at the same time: you want to build a team but what the team is built around is not happiness,” says Omar, a head chef who has two children from a previous marriage, but Quinn was his first with Karen.

Club members range from those fairly newly bereaved, like himself, to those for whom the loss may have been many years ago. But there’s no pressure on men to talk about why they’re there.

When setting up the club, Omar had thought it would be a good idea to have a meeting of players before training sessions started.

“Nobody turned up,” he says. So, he got the message that, like him, other men didn’t want to sit and talk but they were happy to come and kick a ball around.

“If there is any talking, it’s after football,” he says, as the group breaks up to return to their cars.

“It has helped me,” he adds, “and it seems to help a lot of other people involved as well and has opened up a little community.”

Read: Stillbirth and siblings