When Ramsgate dad Ryan Stokes was grieving the death of baby daughter Willow whilst also being a new father to her twin Mia he found there was a void of bereavement support for men.
Ryan and partner Kiera Spray were both just 18 when they found out they were going to be parents. It was then revealed Kiera was carrying twins but a 14 week scan brought tragic news, one of the baby girls had a skull and brain deformity that would make survival impossible.
Ryan, now 23, said: “We were given a number of different options but wanted to continue with the pregnancy. One baby (Mia) was doing well but Willow’s condition was fatal.
“We were told the chances of her surviving the caesarean section were very slim but she actually lived for two days. The mindset we have around those two days is that we got the chance to have that much time with her.
“When the girls were born I was just a few weeks off my 19th birthday. It was hard to comprehend all that had happened.”
Mia and Willow were born at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford on January 11, 2019. Willow passed away on January 13. During those two days with their daughter, Ryan and Kiera were able to have photos taken by Remember My Baby charity. Willow’s funeral was held the following month.
Ryan says he and Kiera were given a support brochure pack from Sands, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity, but there was just one page dedicated to grieving dads.
Ryan, who works as a barber at Malcolm’s in Broadstairs, said: “From Willow’s funeral until November 2021 we just dealt with everything ourselves. Sands had support available for my partner but there was a lack of support for men.
“But then I came across the Sands United team on twitter. They are based in London but there was a Kent team in the Maidstone area. I messaged and then I joined it.
“At the time my relationship was on the brink and if it wasn’t for my other daughter, I don’t think I would still be here.
“But the team completely changed my perception. It hasn’t made my grief easier but I understand it now. I know where I am and it has given me an opportunity to use that grief to help others.”
Sands United FC is a unique way for bereaved men to come together through a shared love of sport, to find a support network, and feel at ease talking about their grief when they’re ready.
Ryan said: “Before I joined the Sands team I felt like I was the only person in the world coping with this but after I realised that even in just one small area there were 50 other men who had been through or affected by the same thing. They were all based in the area but I was travelling 60 miles twice a week to be part of the group.
“That made me think, if there were 50 men for that area, how many were there between Thanet and Maidstone?”
Ryan spoke to the team and shared an idea of setting up a Sands team in Thanet
He said: “In Thanet the mental health figures (are high) and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of support, especially for men. It seems to be a taboo subject and that’s what I want to challenge,.
“So I set up Sands United FC Thanet. We currently have almost 20 members in the area. We have dads, brothers, uncles and even a grandad affected by baby loss. These losses have come from a variety of tragic ways, including: SIDS, stillborn, miscarriage and death after birth.
“We cater for anyone who has lost a child. It does not matter if you’re amazing at football or if you’ve never kicked a ball in your life. There are other things you can do to get involved. Our group chat is quite active and the lads often chat on there, we love someone handy with a camera or someone that can bring some laughs.
“Our vision is simply to raise awareness and at least ensure that everyone affected knows we exist and are there if they ever need us.
“Since joining the Sands United set up it’s really saved my life. The pain hasn’t and won’t ever go away but I have come to terms with my grief, I understand it and through this brotherhood, helping others I get to honour my daughter’s name and hopefully we can reach out to more men in the area and help support them and their families.”
Ryan, who has Willow’s name on his kit “on my chest exactly where my heart is” says the group has grown quite quickly and he has been messaged many stories that have been heart-breaking.
The Sands United FC Thanet team had the first meeting at the end of March.
The team trains at the Hugin Vikings ground off Dumpton Park Drive at 7.30pm every Friday. Sessions are free.
There will be some fundraising events to pay for players to have personalised kits.
Ryan and Kiera, and four-year-old Mia, are also getting ready to welcome a baby boy this Summer.
Ryan said: “We are expecting our rainbow baby, we found out a couple of weeks ago that we will be having a baby boy in the Summer. Before I would have been too scared of the risk to have another baby but this group has given us hope.”
Sands charity helpline – 0808 164 3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org