“What is deservedly suffered must be borne with calmness, but when the pain is unmerited, the grief is resistless.” Publius Ovidius Naso, 19BC
I never had any intention of writing something like this about any of our players and their personal struggles, as much as conversations with former players, sports psychologists and the like about certain subjects are now more readily accepted in sports related media.
Subjects of mental health, addiction and the pitfalls of ignoring the human element in a young player before he/she is given enough rope to hang themselves with (and the support that holds them aloft begins to creak and flex, before snapping like an old chair leg under the weight of their own internal expectations) are now far more present in the minds of the support, and society in general, thankfully.
Grief, however, is often private. Not in the sense that it’s not understood or spoken about, but unlike certain issues it’s something that will affect all of us, regardless of how far you try and run from it.
Death has never known defeat and there is no escape. It is as inevitable as the dawn. Logically therefore the same can be said of grief, unless you happen to lack empathy, and fail to love/depend upon anyone throughout your entire existence on this planet, you will face it just as we all do.
Statistically speaking, the vast majority of the readers of this piece will have experienced loss any number of times over, and each loss - in my personal experience anyway - will have likely affected you differently. Some sting, some are “accepted and prepared for” ahead of time, some hit you like a brick to the face.
My first memory of loss was like many I imagine - as a child, I lost my grandfather. I was seven years old and I remember the day I found out like it was yesterday, despite it occurring three decades ago. To think about him even now fills me with an emotion that over time became all too familiar. For a while I truly believed that was as bad as grief could get.
Unfortunately as we’ve all no doubt learned, that pain is but a drop in a far larger and darker ocean. I won’t sit here providing a full list of personal struggles, as this is something a touch more focused on the present rather than the past.
That being said, in short, in a week it is unfortunately my father’s memory. An event I didn’t realise until recently I actually dreaded and since his passing last February I’ve tried to tell myself that this won’t affect me, as my personal opinion is that honouring the day of a loved one’s death and not their birth is a strange custom.
Being an atheist I don’t believe in a heaven in any classical sense, and I don’t believe I’ll ever speak to or see me Da again (outside of my own thoughts). That’s the cold, logical approach my mind insists on adopting.
Some people still have faith in something greater, and I’d love to believe in something like that, as essentially it allows you to ignore the finality of death. It’s a comfort. But what do I know, your faith is yours and your God/Gods with your loved ones at their side may chuckle at my opinions on their existence, this again isn’t a subject you can simply approach in a way where your opinion can be presented in a purely factual way as we lack a great deal of knowledge on the subject.
Everyone can acknowledge certain facts of death of course; that the body ceases to support life but... the idea of what the soul is, whether or not it exists and what happens to it when we leave this mortal coil is a subject that will be debated for a great many years to come, as it has been since the first sentient beings presumably grunted their ideas at one another somewhere in the distant past.
But how do you describe grief and loss to those who haven’t yet experienced it? How do you vocalise your own grief in order to share the terrible burden with another willing to bear it? These aren’t questions easily answered and are very dependent on your ability to communicate anything beyond what you would normally allow yourself to.
I’m not going to try and put this in any way that strictly adheres to the standard response to those who are in a period of grieving, so if any of the following (or indeed the above) offends you, upsets you or enrages you for whatever reason, I offer an apology. Accept it as a given should you require it.
The privacy of grief is bound in the thoughts and emotions that rack your mind, and often due to that fact, your body also. It is in my experience as pure and as raw a state of being as can ever be achieved. You may often drift in and out of this, it may slip up around your toes as you stand on it’s beaches like gentle lapping waters, and it may hit you with the full force of a giant and malevolent wave in the midst of an earth-shattering storm.
You may find yourself mid-conversation/activity/inactivity temporarily unable to move, unable to speak or focus. Lost in a thousand moments, moments which you almost inevitably cling to the further away in time from the initial loss you travel. Such memories can be profoundly debilitating and some can be, somehow, almost euphoric in nature.
We often feel the touch of our loved ones hands in life and death, and that contrast alone is enough to break anyone. You find yourself imagining the former, and craving it more and more the older you get. You can feel at times like your every moment should be spent reliving these memories of comfort and contentment you may not have realised existed prior to their passing.
Simple things are often the things most sorely missed. The sound of their voice can become distant, and the next minute be as clear as if they were there with you. Their faces, their laughter, their jokes, their stories, their smell, the way they drew breath, the things they loved; their musical preferences, their favourite films and topics of conversation.
Everything that shaped you as a person, speaking particularly of a parent here, is present in everything that you are. The loss of all of that which created you can devastate the mind in ways that you simply hadn’t anticipated, and there are things I’m thinking of while typing that short summary that I simply can’t express adequately. In particular a sense of guilt that may exist for many.
Guilt that you didn’t answer the phone the last time they called; you perhaps begrudged being distracted at a particular moment and you never got the chance (and you may feel this way regardless of whether their last moments were with you by their side, or if you were at that exact moment unaware and not present) to say goodbye. Said so often by so many it’s almost a cliche, but the process of wishing a person you may or may never have realised you can’t seem to live without is an impossible task for most of us.
I still have messages from my father in my voicemail left days before he died I haven’t yet listened to, I simply can’t as I’m terrified of another one of these moments I've been talking about occurring, a moment where you forget they’re gone; a temporary relief/ignorance of reality that results in the feeling of loss hitting you again, just as hard as it did when they left the first time.
To suffer this publicly, or in the public eye, I can’t rightly imagine.
To attempt to function during a particularly dark period in a role as physically and psychologically demanding as Grant Leadbitter performs in is, when all this is taken into account, understandably difficult to say the least.
The strength required to carry out your role in front of thousands of people as he did following his mother’s passing is a strength to rightly be admired if not revered. Not that anyone is saying otherwise, it’s just something that you tend to take into account the more you focus on it, and the moments following that particular occasion caught on camera that evening have been used by the fans to express the fan’s and the community’s acknowledgement of his grief, and to show support. It’s an incredibly moving clip.
Now you may consider this piece to ramble on unnecessarily, you may consider it seemingly devoid of any real mention of the man in question whose struggles triggered it, but I’d argue it is more a piece that looks at us all. I’d hope anyway.
The feelings we develop as a fanbase and as individuals for fellow fans and players is strong. This can result in an explosion of emotion and feeling that goes beyond that of say, your feelings toward a favourite public figure outside of this church and faith we built for ourselves, outside of the community we all are drawn to regardless of our opinions and occasionally petty (even major) arguments.
Football, particularly in our region, is something that can unite far more than it can divide.
Grant is a local lad, he loves Sunderland and its people and that cannot be questioned even if you didn’t consider his inner turmoil as a factor in his performances on the pitch, choosing instead to judge “the player” and not the man (and I’ve personally questioned his ability in recent months vocally, and this isn’t an apology for that, It’s a statement of fact I refuse to hide from).
It’s simply that in times like these, all that becomes meaningless, and in many ways his loss and the feelings it inspires in others is a result of him acting as a mirror of sorts to ourselves and our own pain, our own grief and our own issues.
It’s also a reminder of our love for him and those like him, the local lad who came up supporting the Lads with his Da; the man that inspired his love of that which we all hold dear. A man whose ashes lie beneath the sacred soil of the Stadium of Light that Grant has been walking out onto every week since his return.
Ultimately I wish Grant more light than darkness in the coming months and years, as I do anyone reading this who has loved and lost - it certainly won’t be a short struggle, and I wish both him and you (aye you) a great deal of happiness that makes the sadness that little bit more bearable. There are many ways to express your support for him, and for each other, and I urge all to do so if they wish in any way they feel is adequate. Or we do as has been suggested and chant his name on the 23rd minute - a lovely idea.
I think if this is the way you want to show your love and appreciation, then you should.
What I’m trying to say is sing for Grant, sing for all those who have loved and lost, sing for your own loved ones. Sing from the depths of your heart and show him that you may not know exactly how he feels, but you know enough to let him and all others suffering right now (of which there are many) that you are right there, in that moment, with him and with each other.