In the fast-moving world of elite rugby, how are the complex and isolating emotions of loss and bereavement handled? This is our special report
Suffering loss is universal – grief touches all of us eventually.
Everyone feels it differently though. And in a game forever tethered to the notion of being for all shapes and sizes, the vastness of grief is navigated in myriad ways. Nearly every single person interviewed for this special report used a variation of the idiom about there being no handbook, no manual, no playbook for handling loss.
In a recent interview with BBC Breakfast, former England and Leicester Tigers hooker Tom Youngs talked of losing his wife Tiffany to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He said: “The loneliness really hits you. It wasn’t until the dark nights came in during the winter time, when it gets dark at 4pm. You start ringing people but it is still not the same, it is still not the same as having someone alongside you to talk to.”
With this feature we intend to share some differing stories of grief and loss through our sport, to show the gamut of human experiences – as well as highlighting the help that is out there, and even a positive or two. Our intention is to show the human side of elite athletes. Hey, of all of us…
Dealing with loss
“IT’S DEFINITELY something you think about every day,” says Glasgow Warriors and Scotland full-back Ollie Smith.
In 2019, his older brother Patrick fell from a third-floor window during a party in Edinburgh’s Marchmont area. He was pronounced dead at the scene. It was earth-shattering stuff, however today Glasgow’s Smith, 22, talks openly and evenly about his experiences.
“You almost start to appreciate other things a lot more and maybe deal with things better, just because of the magnitude of losing someone so close, so suddenly as well. You kind of take everything else with a pinch of salt, it just doesn’t matter as much.
“Whether that’s with selection or in general, the things that happen in your life, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, things can always be worse. That’s what I tell myself.”
Smith talks of differences in brothers’ personalities. There was bickering when they were younger. Patrick wouldn’t be caught near a rugby pitch. But after Ollie went to boarding school and Patrick to uni, the pair somehow felt closer.
“He became way more comfortable in himself when he went to university which seems to happen quite a lot,” Smith says. “If I ever had to go to Edinburgh for training or whatever, I’d stay on his sofa and we’d have that one-on-one time together, which was quite nice – we’d go out for dinner, stuff like that. And so we really got to a place where we had a good relationship, which was nice to be going in that direction before it ended so abruptly.”
When Ollie scored two tries against New Zealand in the U20 World Championships in Argentina, his brother recorded clips of it, and himself, clearly “buzzing”. The younger brother doesn’t get teary, but he’ll watch those back now and get a warm feeling, knowing what it meant to Patrick to see him play.
That sense of thankfulness has extended through his life in interesting ways, as he tells us: “I’ve almost been lucky in kind of stumbling into a coping mechanism that works for me really. And that kind of changed my perspective.
“I remember speaking to my mum a few months ago, walking the dog, and I said that it sounds terrible to say, but something like this is the best thing that can happen to you in terms of growing up. in terms of growth and character.”
It’s important to note not everyone is the same. For example, Wales Flanker Dan Lydiate played against Argentina in November, a week after his father John passed away. In the build up, before it was public knowledge, national coach at the time Wayne Pivac said: “Dan Lydiate is a special person. This is outside of the rugby player, he’s just a top, top person and we talk about putting the team first.” The side wore black armbands in John’s honour. Clearly the team rallied around.
Smith also tells us of the team-mate who stumbled across a video of him talking at a charity event, about grief and loss. This team-mate, he discovered, had lost his mother, young. He didn’t feel he could open up about it quite yet. And it’s something others have come to explore.
In a recent column for Rugby World, Leinster and Ireland prop Andrew Porter wrote of his emotions through childhood: “It was quite hard to pinpoint exactly what was eating me up. I was so, so angry. I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking ‘why is this happening to me?’ after I lost my mother at 12. I thought, ‘I’ll get through this by myself’.
“By all accounts, I was one of the happiest kids you’d have ever met. But to have such a huge event in my life, with the loss of my mother, that sparked everything. It was at such a challenging time in my life.
“The funeral was the day before I started secondary school. You were thrown into this environment where you felt even more isolated.”
Today, as an adult, he’s come to realise that his friends, and the sport he loves, helped him through. And now, he wants to talk about it, to help others.
Talking about grief out loud
IT MAKES sense there is no consensus on best practise for pulling through, for the homogenous label of ‘the grieving.’
How do you find a catch-all that suits someone who has lost a lover, a guardian, a child? As Bristol back Charlie Powell, currently with Jersey Reds says, “This is an individual thing…”
On his experience he says: “Back in 2018, I lost my mum to cancer. It was an aggressive form called mesothelioma and it happened very quickly.
“The sad thing is my mum never actually managed to get any sort of treatment for it. She was never well enough to go through chemo because of the type of cancer it was, there was no other option for her. I remember very clearly the doctor telling us that there was nothing they could do for my mum and the only question he had for us was: does she want to die in hospital, or does she want to go back home? She went from that first visit to the doctor back in May (2018) to actually passing within what I think was only a nine-week period.”
You know what we mean, about every situation being different? For the Powells, they could see the end coming. Charlie cannot tell you how that affected things, but it happened. The family pulled together, and much like Smith, the young backs are happy their relations strengthened bonds after adversity. But they acknowledge that is not a given.
Not everyone has a family either. But Powell remembers with a smile the fact his mother, Amanda, insisted that he go on a lads holiday around the time she was awaiting diagnosis; even when she had the results, she didn’t tell young Charlie.
And that tale leads us to something else, and it’s a thing Powell feels is part of the wider discussions we should all be having about bereavement and our experiences.
“I remember going through all sorts of emotions during that time,” he says. He tells of the moment the doctor told them there was nothing they could do for mum, how the end was coming. He felt anger, even though rationally he knows it’s no one’s fault. But there was nowhere to funnel energy, because he couldn’t do anything to help. Still, life was changing.
“Timing wise. Mum just passed away and I was pretty much ready to move out. I signed my first contract and Bristol put me into their academy house with John Hawkins, James Dun, and Sam Bedlow. They were all really good with me and I knew they and friends outside of rugby had chats about what they could do for me. And they decided just to treat me like normal. Because I’m still Charlie.
“That was the best thing, and they still gave me banter. But they said to me if you ever want to chat about it, Just bring it up and just talk to us. And that was the best thing all my mates did.
“A big bit of advice is just: don’t beat yourself up if you are going through that roller-coaster of emotion. There is one big thing which is fairly powerful when I tell people. I’m quite up front with my emotions. If I did feel really sad, I’d allow myself to just cry. So I remember living in that academy house, when I waited for the boys to be out, and allowing myself to cry. I’ve done it a few times. I still do it to this day, even though it’s five years on. I’ll look at pictures of my mum and just allow myself to get upset about her.”
Powell sees it as a relief, allowing the emotions out. But he is also keen on hearing from anyone who wants to talk about their experiences – and has done. He laughs about how, ‘selfishly’, he benefits from the catharsis of talking with others about loss. But it’s all sharing.
According to Luke Cheyne, the head of player development and wellbeing at the Rugby Players Association, it is vital to recognise there is a diverse field of experiences when it comes to feeling loss and that elite men’s and women’s athletes need a menu of support options. The RPA hope that through their confidential counselling service (Cognacity), via direct contact with player liaisons who can then make referrals, or by other means, they can get members the support they need. The start point, he says, is that every player deserves the same recognition as a human being, and that it is okay for them to feel how they feel. But secondly, that the athletes see that they can come to them for help.
Not everyone has the luxury of a players’ union looking out for a buffet of issues they might face, though. The Good Grief Trust was set up for this very reason, because of the disparate, differing and sometimes hidden nature of bereavement support groups. And so today, they have an online listing of 900+ charities and groups that can help, depending on your situation.
Linda Magistris set up the Trust in 2016, after losing her partner Graham to cancer in 2014. As she explains: “I couldn’t cope at all and I struggled to try and find support. So I went to a GP as a first port of call, and I was shocked by the fact that actually he didn’t have anything at his fingertips to be able to signpost me to help.”
We suggest that being handed a load of leaflets by someone at the doctor’s office may also be overwhelming at an already overwhelming time, and Magistris replies: “Completely. Or it can be the opposite and you don’t get anything. You literally have the police knock on the door and they leave you with news of a sudden death or a road traffic accident or potentially suicide, and they do not have any resource. They don’t, as a rule, have something to leave you that’s comprehensive. So we produce this card you can leave that has the website on it.”
Magistris points out the statistic that every 22 minutes in the UK, a parent dies. There is legitimate fear of simply leaving people to find their way through a bewildering time, too. As she adds, there can be “serious consequences if you don’t offer support from day one.”
That doesn’t mean you have to use it, but the option should be there.
Losing a team-mate
RUGBY RIGHTLY fears on-pitch tragedy. And an unlucky band have seen it. Just ask Stephen Ferris.
In 2004, at the Junior World Championships in Durban, John McCall took contact for Ireland against New Zealand and never got back up. It was later reported that the talented back-rower had suffered cardiac failure. But in real time, no one knew what happened. The game went on.
In the second half Ireland lost heavily but then came the real blow. As Ferris explains: “We were standing in a huddle at the end of the game on the pitch. And we were told there and then that John had died, on the pitch. With spectators still in the stands. With New Zealand players still walking around and celebrating. It was the most bizarre, peculiar thing to ever come across me.
“Then, within five words, everybody broke up. Boys are on their hands and knees, bawling their eyes out. Like, ‘what the f*** just been said to us?’”
Ireland withdrew from the rest of the tournament. Ferris recalls the phonecall home, when he was barely intelligible. And in days that followed, his emotions went “up and down, up and down, like a yo-yo”. Cheyne says something similar of grief, that one friend describes it as like being on the waterline of the beach with your back to the tide. You know the wave is coming, but when will it hit?
If Ferris has any regrets at that time, it’s that he agreed, as part of the larger group, to go and see McCall’s body as it lay, wait to be transported home. He tells us straight up: “If I was given the option again, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. Because the last memory of John I have is of him lying in a box in South Africa – not surrounded by his family, not surrounded by his close friends from home or anything like that.”
What was the support like back then? It’s tough to say. People do the best they can with the knowledge they have, and the resources available. However you cut it, this was horror scenario stuff.
The people of Ulster rugby would know tragedy again, when in 2012, centre Nevin Spence and his father and brother perished in a slurry accident on the family farm. As team-mate Ferris explains, as an adult he was better equipped to understand what happened than he was as a teenager, back in 2004. Yet there was that yo-yo again…
What he can say is there was greater access to support from trained professionals, but he also recalls the team linking together to catch anyone who needed help. There are stories of colleagues who felt like they had to say something – the group listened.
“Maybe something like that does bring you closer together,” Ferris ponders. It is a great unanswerable. Because there was quality in that side and they finished top of the table in the regular season.
There will be mosaic accounts from a sports team who have lost one of their own. We are all still coming to terms with the loss of Scotland’s Siobhan Cattigan. The former Scotland forward died suddenly in 2021 and in interviews, her family have called for an external investigation into her time on national duty. While Rugby World has reached out to some who played with her, those affected will have their own processes – the hope remains that there is access to help and that dialogue can be opened up for anyone who needs it.
But what can we learn from the world of psychology, and how it pertains to rugby union at the toughest level?
Tackling the feelings of grief
“‘SHOULD’ IS a very challenging word in this kind of process,” says Mark Smyth, the lead clinical psychologist with Rugby Players Ireland. “Because that sets up expectations, whereas it is unique.”
The key messaging for Smyth and RPI for the last few years, when it comes to athletes’ mental health, is around early intervention; for players to pay attention to their emotions. If your typical centre felt a niggle in their hamstring in training, they would seek some medical expertise. This group want players to do the same with their mental health.
As he tells us: “if you’re in crisis, absolutely come to us and we will provide you with whatever support you need. But it’s much more effective if we can intervene before it gets to a crisis point. And rugby players are quite pragmatic. Many of them like solution-focused approaches. So it kind of makes sense to them. But it’s not always easy either, to go and seek help.
“So one of the things that we’ve been trying to do through workshops with each of the provinces and the sevens of the women’s 15s teams, is to explore player experiences of help-seeking and also around challenging stigma and myths around mental health. But also, as individuals, how would they like to be best supported – not just by ourselves with professional services, but by each other, with your own colleagues.”
That pragmatic side is an interesting topic to explore. Because as soon as you tell top players or coaches that something can affect performance out on the grass, people pay attention. In a previous issue of Rugby World, we told the story of Portugal’s attempts to qualify for the Rugby World Cup. After losing to Spain in the Rugby Europe Championship, head coach Patrice Lagisquet felt the need to apologise to his team because he felt he hadn’t offered the right energy to his players in the build-up. A dear friend of his had passed away suddenly the week before and the coach felt floored by it.
That is a real-game case study of someone’s performance being affected. At least that’s how they saw it play out. However, so much of our focus has been on the loss of a person. And from a psychological point of view, Smyth opens up a discussion on a sense of loss many athletes will know of.
“Traditionally, when we talk about grief and loss, instinctively, we would go to the loss of a loved one,” Smyth starts.
“But what I find interesting is what it comes up as a theme with professional rugby players around two different transition points. The first one is around career-ending injury at an early point. That’s when someone has to give up on their dream of maybe of playing for their country, winning a European Cup – they’re on a fast track to to being a superstar, and then it’s just taken away in an instant. And that impacted a sense of loss of their identity that they’ve probably had since their mid teens. The hopes that they’ve had the loss of their dreams is very, very similar to grief.
“A similar process occurs in retirement, where you no longer have a sense of identity that’s been there longer, a more core, rooted identity has come to an end. A player might become a a parent, and they’ve then got to consider future career prospects. That transition point can feel like quite a loss as well until the player gets a new sense of identity with a new direction in their life.”
It’s something the RPA have a lot of conversations about too, with Cheyne and wellbeing and transition manager James Bailey at the forefront of those chats. As Cheyne tells us: “Interestingly enough, we’ve spoken with a lot of the players who have come through the whole debacle at Wasps and Worcester, who actually liken some of the process of going through that as like dealing with the loss of a loved one. Of, well, grief.
“We’ve got players in that room (when they heard of the loss of their club) who were at the start of their career. And some will sense a loss of their career – there will definitely be players in that room who won’t play in the Premiership again. And those are the players who have had to go in and do various different things.”
Back in Ireland, Smyth shouts out the ‘Tackle Your Feelings’ campaign where top-end stars have allowed themselves to be vulnerable, publicly. The idea is that if anyone from the grass-roots or wider society can take anything from that, it’s a success – which is where the likes of Andrew Porter talking up comes in. And the programme has since been rolled out into schools, with the scheme specifically targeting 14 and 15 year olds with their messaging.
Smyth concludes on this that the aim is “providing them with the skills to literally tackle their feelings as they occur, and not expect that they will just sort of figure it all out for themselves. So I think that that’s been really helpful, a real positive over the last couple of years. And we’re hoping in the next couple of years that we’ll have a lot of quantitative data that will help us to actually evidence the positive impact.”
Ollie Smith offers some thoughts on avoiding bottling things up, telling us that he believes in owning the grief. He never expected to lose anyone so young – no one does. But he has since talked to others who lost loved ones years ago, who still will not talk about it. The working theory is that they never did, and things have dragged on. “It can be so detrimental,” he offers. “And if you don’t have a tight-knit group, then it can sort of spiral from there.”
Once again that doesn’t mean we need mandated talking slots for all. What many yearn for is just that the option of support is there from the off, and that athletes are aware. Hell, not just athletes.
No one promises a cure, a catch-all or a roadmap. Sadly, there is no bypassing what is coming. But as figures like Charlie Powell say, you shouldn’t feel guilt over what you do or don’t experience. There is something poetic about us all sharing the inevitability of something, but the feeling of it being different for all.
If you have been affected by grief or any of the issues discussed in this feature and would like to seek help, why not try the following…
ELITE PLAYERS AND GRIEF
In England, the RPA provide services through their confidential service Cognacity – cognacity.co.uk or call 0203 219 3080. Player Development Managers are also on hand and can help refer you to the right person with Cognacity, as a first port of call. In Ireland, the RPI offer a range of services you can find via tackleyourfeelings.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
GENERAL PUBLIC AND GRIEF
The Good Grief Trust offers a comprehensive list of services and links to the best place for you – simply visit thegoodgrieftrust.org to find out more. For young men, strongmen.org.uk is another good place to go to discuss grief, while in Ireland you can search for bereavement support at HSE.ie, for general advice.
If you have any questions or comments about grief in rugby or the issues covered here, please reach out at email@example.com
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