Harry Arter emerges into light after darkest period of his life
Ireland player reflects on year of emotional turmoil following death of his baby daughter
Ireland and Bournemouth midfielder Harry Arter is expecting a child with his fiancee Rachel. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
A few weeks had passed when Harry Arter summoned the strength to look inside the memory box that would unlock so many emotions. Rachel, his fiancee, had been gently encouraging him to do so for a while, yet Arter was mentally unable to take that step as he wrestled with the devastating loss of the stillborn daughter he had never set eyes upon. Now, in a quiet moment at home, he felt ready.
“I looked in the box without Rachel knowing because I wanted to look on my own,” Arter says. “I remember I was sobbing – it was the strangest feeling that I’ve ever had in my life, looking at a picture of a little baby that I’ve never seen but loving her so much at the same time. I just saw a beautiful little girl, who I felt so proud of straight away.”
On Saturday, when Arter runs out for Bournemouth at Burnley, it will be exactly a year to the day since Renée was born. The date – 10-12-2015 – is tattooed on his right wrist and makes this interview, which Arter has requested, particularly poignant as he reflects on the past 12 months and the loss of a daughter who is never far from his mind.
“Every day I think of her,” Arter says, smiling. “And it’s strange because there are days when I feel like a normal person, or how someone who hasn’t lost a baby would feel. But then it will just hit you, driving along and suddenly you see something that triggers your mind. It’s such a weird feeling and one that I don’t mind any more. Even when I’m sad I enjoy that feeling.”
Listening to Arter talk so openly and bravely about everything that he has been through, it is obvious that he has endured some extremely difficult moments since we last met, back in January, when he spoke about Renée for the first time. Arter admits that he was in a dark place for a while, in particular towards the end of last season, when the grieving process threatened to overwhelm him.
The good news is that the 26-year-old is much more upbeat now, determined to see Renée as a positive influence on his life, enjoying his football at Bournemouth, and thrilled to bits that Rachel is pregnant and due to give birth in February. “We’re having another little girl, which is very exciting and something that both Rachel and I are happy about,” Arter says. “Of course we would have been happy with a boy, but it’s nice for Renée to have a little sister.
“I just hope everyone doesn’t think that because we’re having a new baby that we’ll forget about Renée, because that’s totally not the case. Rachel is still so sad about the situation, so I need to make sure that she stays strong now – which she is doing.”
Rachel has been Arter’s priority for the last year. He saw the pain in her face every day and felt the need to “go into survival mode” to give her someone to lean on. By doing that, Arter now realises that he was bottling up his own emotions and holding back the grief that would manifest itself in a way that made him difficult to be around at Bournemouth in the final two months of last season.
“I wasn’t in a good place around that time,” Arter says. “Physically I wasn’t great – I think stress takes a lot out of your body and I was always picking up little injuries – while mentally I was completely in the wrong place. I was very angry towards people, which I now think was the sense of loss taking over. I was lashing out and the closest people were those at work. I never got angry with Rachel. I was probably storing up so much at home because I was looking after Rachel, that I didn’t grieve in my own way.
“I can reflect on this now because I feel like I’m in a much better head space than I was then, but at that time I honestly didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I just thought it was everyone else. All it took was one person to say something to me and I was ready to kill the world.
“I probably should have been a little bit more professional and decided I needed a little bit of time off to get my head straight. But I never asked for a day. I got upset, I did shed tears, but probably nowhere near as many as I should have and all of that came out in the wrong way some three or four months afterwards.
“To be honest, at times I felt a bit envious when I’d see the lads with their families – a lot of them had babies around that period, which was just a coincidence. It was strange, if I heard them talking about things to do with their children, for example someone saying: ‘I haven’t had any sleep tonight, it’s doing my head in’, I would think: ‘I’d do anything to have a restless night.’
“I think at that time – and this obviously wasn’t the case – I just felt everyone had forgotten my situation and no one was really bothered, when in reality they were bothered and they probably just didn’t want to say every day: ‘How are you doing, Harry?’”
Looking back now, Arter acknowledges that he was probably “reaching out” when he tweeted on June 10th that “six months feels like six years”. Everything seemed to be unravelling for him at that time. He had just withdrawn from the Republic of Ireland squad through injury, ruling him out of Euro 2016, and a few weeks earlier he broke down in tears in front of his dad.
Arter mentions Jake Livermore, who tested positive for cocaine 12 months after his son died during birth, and says that he can empathise with the Hull City player’s depressed and desperate state of mind. “All I kept thinking was: ‘Nothing can be worse than how I’m feeling now,’” Arter says.
It was as if his life had reached a crossroads and there was a brief moment in the summer when Arter contemplated whether he should head in a new direction and leave Bournemouth.
“I wanted something to change in my life because I was that unhappy; I needed something just to change my mindset and thankfully it wasn’t getting a move from Bournemouth because I feel that would have been the worst thing for me,” Arter says. “I love it here and I’m very lucky that I’ve got a manager like Eddie Howe, so I’m glad I never made that decision.”
The one chink of light within a really tough period was the auction that Arter organised in April to raise money for 4Louis, the charity that provided the memory box that means so much to him and Rachel. For the first time, Arter and his fiancee had something positive to focus on in relation to Renée.
“That was a massive help,” he says. “With the charity, which was started by a family who had been through the same situation as us, they take pictures of the baby, they take the baby’s handprints, they do other little bits, and I remember saying to Rachel after I looked in the memory box that I’d like to do something for them because the feeling that they’ve given me is something that I wouldn’t be able to physically return. To donate some money was a small way of saying thank you to them.”
With the help and support of his Bournemouth team-mates and the staff at the club, as well as players from elsewhere, Arter raised just under £14,000 for the charity and it was a special moment for him when he walked into the neonatal department at Southampton hospital a few months later to donate a cuddle cot.
“They put a little plaque on it, saying in memory of Renée Arter, which makes me proud of her,” Arter says. “It’s a special cot where, if a baby dies, it’s set at a certain temperature to allow families to spend the night with their baby. I wish I’d been able to do that at that time, that’s probably one of my biggest regrets to have not seen Renée in real life. But I also know, given how I was feeling then, that I physically could not have done it.”
It is deeply moving hearing Arter talk so candidly about his emotions and his affection for Renée, yet he is aware that some people may find it hard to understand exactly what he has been through and the extent of his grief.
“Wrongly so, I think some people look at it and think: ‘Well, you haven’t got to meet the baby so it’s easier than if you had, or if you lost your child at a later age.’ I can understand why people might think that. But I can tell you now that I don’t feel it would be any different,” he says.
One thing that Arter never considered back in January was that he was helping others as much as himself when he first spoke about Renée. With 11 babies stillborn every day in the UK, he now recognises the importance of raising awareness around a traumatic and sensitive subject.
“On social media I get a lot of messages from people thanking me for telling my story, saying that it helped them a lot,” he says. “In a selfish way, when I did that first interview with you, I was just saying how I was feeling to get things off my chest. But now I’m really happy that I can help people and I’d be prepared to speak to anyone to make them feel better in their situation.”
There is such a long list of people who have done so much to help Arter, including close family, Howe and his team-mates, that it would be impossible to go through them all. But Arter would like to make a special point of expressing how grateful he is to Scott Parker, his brother-in-law, who has “always been at the end of the phone and showed me how strong you can be when he played for West Ham in 2011, the day after his dad passed away”, and to Richard Hughes, Bournemouth’s head of recruitment, and Hughes’s partner, Alina.
“Richard and Alina have been unbelievable. No matter what, they’ve always been there for us,” Arter says. “They stored all Renée’s things, all her clothes – we actually picked them up the other day for the new baby. So we’re really thankful for all their help.”
Back on track
As for Arter himself, everything started to get back on track just before the new season got underway. The news that Rachel was pregnant gave them both a huge lift. Not long after that Arter opened his own football academy in Bournemouth and took great enjoyment from looking at the smiles on the children’s faces. More than anything, though, he came to see Renée as a source of inspiration and someone that should spur him on in every aspect of his life.
“I’d say since August I’ve not really looked back,” Arter says. “I’ve used Renée as my motivation to come in every day and work as hard as I possibly can. That self-drive to want to be the best was always there. But my drive now is to become a better person and a better player, that’s the difference. So, as much as I would love for Renée to be here, the best thing now is for me to just try to do her proud.”
He knows that it will be an emotional moment when he returns from Burnley on Saturday evening and heads to church with Rachel to light a candle for Renée. Yet it is a measure of Arter’s positive mindset these days that he talks about “celebrating her birthday” and cherishing those memories that he unlocked, rather than feeling sombre and keeping them hidden away.
“Having Renée on my mind doesn’t fill me with depression any more. It feels me with a bit of happiness,” Arter says, smiling. “I enjoy talking about her like any dad would talk about their little girl. That’s probably down to feeling a lot better in myself and seeing Rachel a little bit happier, because we both know that Renée wouldn’t want us to be sad. She’d want us to be happy and to make sure that we look after one another, and that’s certainly what we’re doing now.”