Heckmondwike fathers team up and support each other through baby loss

When a baby dies it tends to be the mother who gets the attention, but fathers need support, too. Catherine Scott reports on the bereaved fathers  helping others to cope.

Friday, 16th October 2020, 8:25 am
Updated Friday, 16th October 2020, 8:28 am
To help with his grief Alex Walmsley set up SANDS United Huddersfield, a football team of dads and other family members affected by baby loss. Pictured with wife Olivia and Toby (7 months) and Isaac (7).

When Alex Walmsley lost three babies in less than two years he was devastated.

But on each occasion he was expected to return to work the following day and just get on with it.

“Work were good, but people just expect you to have a stiff upper lip and get on with it.”

It was only when Alex, 33, found himself in a pub in tears that he realised he needed to do something to help him tackle his grief.

He had heard about Sands United FC, set up by a Northampton father who had lost a child. But the nearest club to his home in Heckmondwike was in Doncaster. And so he set about starting his own.

Huddersfield SUFC was launched in March and now has 38 members – all of them men who have been affected by the loss of a baby.

“It isn’t just about playing football, it’s about being able to share what you are going through if you want to without having to explain yourself first.

Alex’s experience of baby loss goes back further than the death of his own children.

He recalls his pregnant mother going into hospital when he was aged six and her coming home without his brother.

“I just remember being very angry at her for coming home without my little brother, but it just wasn’t spoken about in those days.”

Alex didn’t deal with his grief and just buried his emotions until his partner Olivia was pregnant.

“We went for the 12-week scan at Dewsbury and were told that the baby’s head hadn’t formed properly, it’s called anencephaly,” says Alex. “I was devastated as it was the same thing my brother had and I so I felt what was happening was all my fault as Olivia has a perfectly healthy son from a previous relationship.”

Babies with anencephaly do not survive and so the couple took the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

But they were still determined to have a baby and when Olivia fell pregnant again they hoped for the best.

“We couldn’t believe that we would be so unlucky that it would happen again.”

But the 12-week scan showed the baby had the same condition and had to be terminated. Tests could find nothing wrong with either Olivia or Alex.

“The third time we got pregnant, in 2018, because of what had happened in the past we were with the early pregnancy unit at Pinderfields Hospital,” said Alex. “The team did some extra scans and found the baby didn’t have a heart beat at five or six weeks old. We’d miscarried.”

Losing three babies could cause problems in some relationships, but Alex says it has brought he and Olivia closer. The couple got married in December a month after their third baby would have been due.

“It was hard as our baby should have been there,” says Alex. “My sister and Olivia’s sister had both had babies and they carried them in the church as bridesmaids in tribute to our babies. But I couldn’t help feeling jealous.”

It was shortly after this that Alex broke down in the pub and decided to do something positive by running 10ks for Sands – raising more than £2,000 – and starting the football team.

“It helps that something positive came out of such sadness and that through the team I can help other men who have been affected by baby loss.

“Each player has the name of the babies they have lost on their shirt. We never named our babies and so I have four stars on my shirt, one for each of the babies and one for my brother.”

Alex talks openly about what he has been through on social media to raise awareness that men as well as women need support after losing a baby.

He also wants people to know that things can end happily.

On March 3 Olivia gave birth to Toby. “I wouldn’t believe it until he was in my arms,” says Alex.

Joe Ramsden is also dealing with baby loss. In May he and his partner Katie, of Roundhay, were eager to find out the gender of their first child together. The couple were excited for their new arrival and had bought all the supplies to share their happy news with friends and family.

Due to the pandemic, Katie had to go into the 20-week scan alone while Joe waited outside in the car. Joe remembers the heartbreaking moment when Katie came back to the car, after finding out that her baby boy had Edwards’ syndrome and wasn’t going to survive.

“Katie came back to the car and burst into tears. I knew there was something terribly wrong, they weren’t tears of joy, we were both devastated. It all happened so quickly, it didn’t even feel real,” says Joe.

Edwards’ syndrome is a rare chromosome imbalance that affects around one in 5,000 babies a year, causing problems with how the baby develops.

Two weeks later, the couple were brought into the Rosemary Suite, a special area at Leeds General Infirmary dedicated to bereavement care, where baby Tobias was born sleeping.

“Everyone really looked after us, we were given little mementos like a teddy bear to remember Tobias”

Joe is now fund-raising for Leeds Cares, the charity for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust including the Rosemary Suite. In August, Joe and some of his rugby friends walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks with the hope of raising £200 for the ward, but he smashed his initial target and raised more than £1,500 to help other families.

www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/j-ramsden

Huddersfield SUFC meets at 12pm every Sunday at St John Fisher’s High School in Dewsbury.