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SANDS Month of Awareness

SANDS United’s Andy Lindley opens up on his story and helping grieving dads

June is SANDS (Stillbirth and neonatal death charity), Month of Awareness to raise money for the charity designed to reduce the number of babies dying, and to ensure that anyone affected by the death of a baby receives the best possible care and support for as long as they need it. 

With that in mind, we caught up with the founder of Sands United Brighton, Andy Lindley, to talk about his story and the importance of the month. 

“We have grandads, brothers, in-laws, so it isn’t just dads, it is men affected by baby-loss. One thing I didn’t realise was how it affected those around me; my best friend plays for the team and I only realised once I turned up and saw him with Dexter’s name on his shirt.” 

When Andy opens up about the journey he’s been on, it really resonates with you just what he and so many dads have had to go through.

Sands United is a unique way for dads and other bereaved family members to come together through a shared love of sport and find a support network where they can feel at ease talking about their grief when they're ready.

For Andy, this journey started through the loss of his son Dexter: “In 2014, we sadly lost our son, Dexter, at about 23 weeks. At the time we were put in touch with SANDS as a charity through leaflets in the hospital. 

“It’s not a service we really took advantage of at the time, we kind of just did the whole self-help thing and the family and friends support network around us.

“As we started to come to terms with not being able to take our son home, we started to look at how we could do things in his name and SANDS Charity was one.

“We did everything from cake sales to asking local schools/organisations to hold charity days, to cycling London to Brighton a couple of times, all raising money for SANDS.

“It wasn’t really until 2018, when I saw a team in Northampton setup exclusively for men affected by baby-loss, called Sands United and, of course, that immediately jumped out at me.” 

When Andy found out about Sands United his first thought was to try and help others. In many ways it’s sad that he wasn’t going to be alone in his grief, but in another way it was the best thing that could’ve happened for him. 

“It was the first time I considered combining my love of football with my need to do something for my son and show that he’ll be continued to be loved and create a legacy for him.

“Just reading about Sands United in Northampton and how every Dad on that team that was able to do exactly that, it just really resonated with me, and it was probably the loudest penny drop - even people outside my head would have heard it!

“I was part of The View FC at the time, a local Saturday and Sunday League side, and I was saying to the committee that we needed to be doing more in the community and find a purpose and they’re making great strides towards that now. 

 “But I just kept thinking that this was something I could do myself, and there must be more Dads out there like me that we can help in Brighton & Hove and the surrounding areas who are suffering in silence.”

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“It was the first time I considered combining my love of football with my need to do something for my son and show that he’ll be continued to be loved and create a legacy for him."

Men often find it very difficult to open up and the idea of lots of men coming together for the same reason, is what helps in combatting that.

“Stereotypically we’re rocks aren’t we, we’re the ones everyone depends on. We’re not allowed to wobble, and we’re supposed to have this toxic masculinity. 

“SANDS held fire with launching a team in the Brighton area at first because no one really came forward, then in February 2019, I got in touch with the Sussex County FA and put the first message out and it’s grown from there.

“From losing my son, to him giving me the encouragement to set something up, it’s done so much for me. Many people say what I’ve done for them in regard to Sands United that I sometimes forget what it’s actually done for me.

“We’ve gone from me putting the word out with a few Facebook posts to now 54 registered players. We’re quite unique in the sense that I had to accept non-bereaved players at first because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to start. 

“One big question on the registration form states that you’re going to be playing with men that are potentially mentally fragile and by joining this team, you’re joining that support network. 

“If someone is struggling then you talk to them. If that’s scary or daunting, then fine it might not be for you, but we thankfully haven’t had that!

“If a game falls on what we call an ‘angelversary’, a term we use which isn’t from a religious point of view, we just like to view our babies as angels that are looking down on us, and we dedicate that match to them. If a Dad wants to, they can become captain for the day, sometimes that’s a nice distraction.”

The support network at the club doesn’t just stop there with many teams and players coming together to support the work they do: “I’m extremely proud of Brighton & Hove and Sussex as a whole for joining us for minutes silences anytime we have an angelversary, teams are always very respectful. 

“At least two times a month we’ll have opposition players come up and tell us their story and share their experience of baby-loss. We’re never on a recruitment drive or looking to poach players, but we always make it very clear that if you need a support network, we can be there for you.”

“Going through what these guys are going through I think it’s really important to have the support around you. Around likeminded people that know what you’re going through.

“We have some Dads that don’t talk, and have never talked, but we’re very confident they are getting what they need, because some people are just readers and will watch what’s going on. 

“At the beginning it was tough for me because I was kind of the conduit for all conversations, and it can be very dangerous to take on everyone else’s emotions and grief and ignore your own. 

“I’m very lucky though to be around such a great committee, so very quickly it wasn’t on my shoulders. It’s been a great distraction for me though and has taught me to be able to say my son’s name, Dexter, with a smile on my face and with pride.

“One of the most humbling things for me was when I found out WhatsApp groups were being made between players, so they could be in touch with each other should they need anything, especially when COVID first hit. 

“Another thing I love is that Dads who were brought to us by a friend, are now interacting with everyone in the team without the help of that friend.

“Other than that period where I wrongly assumed everything was my responsibility, it’s been nothing but positive and it’s changed my life for the better.”

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“I’m extremely proud of Brighton & Hove and Sussex as a whole for joining us for minutes silences anytime we have an angelversary, teams are always very respectful."

Sands United are always looking to do more and will this season introduce a mental health and wellbeing policy to further care for men that are part of the club and those around them.

“At our AGM this season we’ll be introducing our mental health and wellbeing policy and crisis support because we want players to be able to identify potential crisis situations. 

“We’re laying out the steps that they will take. Step 1 being that we will reach out to you and if we aren’t satisfied with the response then we will contact your nearest and dearest. 

“If it escalates further then the club will start to intervene which will involve organising face-to-face interventions then family-led interventions and then emergency services. That escalation process could be an hour, it could be a week, a month, but ultimately we know what mentally vulnerable people can do when they aren’t in the right state of mind.”

SANDS as a charity need months like this to raise crucial funds to lower the rate of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, and Andy believes it shouldn’t stop with just the one month.

“From the charity’s point of view, I think it really gives them a focus where they can stack up their campaigns on social media, but, for the wider community it gives them a focus as well to share these things.

“It really is phenomenal, and it gives us a whole month to promote SANDS and every other baby-loss charity out there. There’s so many out there and unfortunately there has to be, which is why every day is a SANDS day for us.

“They all do fantastic things in the community, and it’s great to be able to shine a light on them, and the amazing work they all do. These charities would be nothing without the volunteers that help them, the people that give up their time for free.”

It’s a hard-hitting conversation with Andy about mental health and the affects baby-loss has had on so many, but he is keen to point out that the grief goes beyond just the dads.

“It blows me away the support that the families get. The mums, the wives, the girlfriends, and especially wives or girlfriends that didn’t experience the loss themselves and have picked up the dad, excepting that emotional stress in their life.

“It's fantastic looking at the side-lines with 50-100 family and friends supporting us, and the team itself has made some people fall in love with football supporting someone in the team.”

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“At the beginning it was tough for me because I was kind of the conduit for all conversations, and it can be very dangerous to take on everyone else’s emotions and grief and ignore your own."

It’s been a real eye-opener talking about everything that goes on behind the scenes at Sands United, it’s incredibly admirable to hear how hard so many have worked to support these grieving dads and relatives. 

Lastly, Andy added his advice for anyone out there that might be struggling: “I can only speak for myself really when I say that I was quite emotionally immature, so I experienced a lot of things that I didn’t know how to express. 

“Telling someone who doesn’t want to talk, to talk, won’t help. My message would be to those around anyone struggling, to just try and notice any differences and try to start a conversation, ask if they’re okay and don’t take yes or no for an answer.

“It doesn’t have to be face-to-face, just try and instigate a conversation by any means necessary. Try to learn to say their babies name, because it makes a huge difference, and it makes it so much worse not acknowledging them.

“There’s key things not to say which we’ve heard before like, ‘at least it was early’, or, ‘you can try again’, and I know those things are never meant intentionally to hurt, it’s just because we become very nervous in what to say in that situation.

“You’re definitely not on your own, and knowing there’s others out there and where to find them is massive for me.”

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