It was an ordinary morning in the Scully-Sloan household, on what turned out to be the most devastating day of the family’s life.
After they’d got their four oldest children to school, parents Paul and Helen began juggling their daily chores with caring for their youngest, 14-month old TJ – Travers James.
By 8pm the children were all in bed, and by 11pm TJ had settled to sleep with his last bottle of milk. Little did Paul and Helen know, it would be the last time they’d ever kiss their son goodnight.
That night, November 19, 2010, their little boy died in his sleep from Rhinovirus, a viral infection which is the predominant cause of a common cold, but can also cause respiratory tract infections. At the time, TJ also had an adenovirus in the lining of his lungs.
“I knew from Helen’s scream that something was wrong” Paul said. “After picking TJ up, I knew my suspicions were right.”
“Before I knew it, a paramedic came into the room and put his hand on my shoulder, and said ‘there’s nothing more you can do’.”
“I was lost”
For Paul, the days that followed were a blur.
“When I lost TJ someone described me as ‘lost’...” he says.
“And looking back that’s exactly how I felt. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to react. There was no right or wrong and I really struggled.
“It’s not something anyone wants to deal with, and I couldn’t find the support I needed. There was a lot of support out there for my wife and other women but not so much for men.”
After losing a child, many fathers experience a whole new set of unfamiliar emotions, he says. Many can struggle to make sense of their loss within a society that assumes it is their role to be strong and supportive, which often means their needs and feelings are overlooked.
“Did everyone assume that I was ok? That I was strong? That I had to keep things together? I had lost a baby too,” he says.
“As a man, I lost many friends after losing TJ. Most of my friends found it uncomfortable to reach out to me and speak to me about my loss.”
Reaching out for support, Paul says he found it difficult to get the help he needed. In some cases, the circumstances of his bereavement didn’t match the criteria, while other organisations he turned to were coping with high demand.
A safe place for men to grieve
“I couldn’t bear being placed on a waiting list, so I turned to social media,” he explained.
So in December 2010, Paul started a Facebook group, Daddys With Angels, to provide a safe place for men to open up after the loss of a child in the family.
Today, Daddys With Angels has evolved into a network of Facebook-based peer-to-peer support groups for angel dads, mums and other family members. With regional groups all over the UK, Paul now also oversees groups based overseas in countries including Australia and the USA.
Although initially focused on providing bereaved fathers with peer-to-peer support to open up and share their feelings, the online forum has naturally evolved to become an inclusive space for any family member who has lost a child to come together, talk and listen. Up to 2,000 people a week now engage with and support one another through the Daddys With Angels Facebook pages.
“Our Facebook groups are for families who have lost a child at any age or gestation,” says Paul. Open to people grieving a child who has died whether during pregnancy or after reaching adulthood, Daddys With Angels network supports people no matter how recent, or long ago their loss.
Reaching out to families
“These Facebook groups have allowed bereaved families to regain friends. They’ve created a sense of community where parents are turning their grief and sadness into friendships,” says Paul.
As well as its Facebook support groups, the bereavement organisation also reaches out to families in the painful early stages of baby loss. It’s behind a charitable scheme which makes and provides burial gowns for newborns and babies who die during pregnancy. It also sends ‘travelling teddy bears’ to bereaved families.
“These travelling bears join families on walks to the park, or meals at the pub. It makes them feel less lonely.
“After a couple of weeks they send the bear to the next bereaved family who’ll do the same.”
Each Daddys With Angels Travelling Bear has a name, and their main purpose is to help bereaved families interact with one another.
One teddy bear, named Angus Wallace, travelled to a little boy in Scotland called Lennon, who lost his baby brother a few months earlier. Every so often, Lennon’s mum walks into his room listening to his conversations with the bear: “How’s my little brother in heaven doing this morning?” he asks Angus Wallace.
“Although our bears are meant to travel on to other families, I made an exception for Lennon and allowed him to keep Angus Wallace."
"The bear helped helped him turn from a sad little boy to a happy little boy, which helped him deal with his grief” said Paul.
Lennon’s mum, Cheryl, says that the travelling bear has really helped Lennon understand his loss.
“Lennon talks and Angus Wallace listens. It’s his job to listen, and that helps make the hard days a little better.
“I am extremely grateful to everyone at Daddys With Angels. Paul has really been the rock my son has needed. I can’t thank him and everyone involved enough.”
- 15 babies die before, after or during birth, every day in the UK. Daddys With Angels provides free, online advice to families following the loss of a child. Their primary focus is on supporting male family members, but also supports other family members with a network of Facebook support groups, which can be accessed online.
- For more information on bereavement organisations within the UK, browse through our helpful list of bereavement organisations.