From truly traumatic circumstances, Dan Cross found a way to create a supportive, safe space for men to come together and grieve
The 20-strong group of men had hiked for eight hours to reach Snowdon’s summit, moving every step of the nine miles as one, travelling only as fast as the slowest. Teamwork at its finest. Finally, at the top, the walkers took a moment to take in the awe-inspiring view, and celebrate their achievement: fulfilling the physical feat of the 3,560ft climb and – many for the first time – overcoming emotional barriers guarding their innermost feelings of grief.
Every two-day expedition hosted by StrongMen, a UK charity dedicated to supporting bereaved men, sees participants start out as strangers, and finish as firm friends, bonded by a mutual understanding of loss.
Studies show that men find it harder to talk about grief than women, with many resorting to ‘grief aversion’ to circumvent pain and live up to masculine ideals. Research suggests men often build a fake emotional image that conveys ‘strength’, but such avoidance behaviour only makes depression more likely. It can also lead to physical health complications, a reality understood by StrongMen co-founder Dan Cross, whose wife Nikki was murdered in May 2015.
“Physical pain is not something you think of as bereavement, but I was in pain physically all the time, with crippling stomach aches and headaches,” explains the IT specialist, who appeared on the 2018 series of Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins. Last September, he launched StrongMen with fellow contestant Efrem Brynin, a sales director from West Sussex, whose son James was killed in Afghanistan in October 2013.
“With StrongMen, our motto is ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ because the two are linked and if you don’t look after one, the other one will suffer,” explains Dan.
Last year, across two StrongMen retreats, a total of 40 men who had experienced the loss of a spouse, child, parent, or sibling, reaped the psychological and physiological benefits of climbing a mountain together.
“It’s a metaphor for what we’re facing; it’s a physical challenge but relates to the emotional challenges, too,” says Dan. “We talk all the way up the mountain, and that’s where the barriers start to come down. Everyone’s sharing their experiences, because they feel the person they’re opening up to really understands them.
“StrongMen is an abbreviation of StrongMentality. Strength is knowing yourself, and knowing when you need to ask for support, and getting it.”
The idea for the charity was born during Dan’s months of recovery after Nikki was stabbed by an intruder to the family home, while Dan was working away. Heartbreakingly, Dan was on the phone to his wife as she died trying to protect her children, Stanley and Isabella, then six and three. He listened down the line as Nikki fell silent before Stanley began pleading for his mummy to wake. Dan has since battled anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
“I was getting flashbacks every 10, 15 or 20 minutes, hearing Nikki’s screams. It felt like she was in the room with me,” explains Dan. “I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t go outside, because I was worried somebody was going to attack us. I feared the kids were going to be damaged for life. My mind was going 10 years in the future, 10 years in the past – I couldn’t control any of my thoughts. It was a living hell.”
I feel when I’m getting tense, when something’s bothering me, and I know the right time to offload that
Six months after Nikki died, Dan’s GP recommended he return to the gym – a pastime he lost passion for following the tragedy – to help release a build-up of stress hormones, which was causing him physical pain. Dan also had trauma counselling, which taught him mindfulness techniques to cope with panic attacks, such as focusing on and describing objects, as well as repeatedly narrating the event in detail.
“I had to write it down, read it out, say it over and over, because eventually you become desensitised to it,” he says. “It’s just something you’re able to talk about, and I do talk about it now.”
Another positive came in the form of road-running with friends, when Dan would inadvertently offload his feelings. Then one year after the tragedy, Dan began volunteering for Victim Support, and during his training met family members of other murder victims, who he instantly “connected with”.
By the time Dan travelled to Morocco two years ago, to film SAS: Who Dares Wins, his idea for StrongMen was well-formulated, and he shared his thoughts with ex-Special Forces soldier and show co-host Matthew ‘Ollie’ Ollerton, who said the plan “had legs”.
Now Ollie, and presenter-turned qualified life coach Jeff Brazier, are ambassadors for the charity, which launched thanks to £10,000 of Lottery funding. This year, using £50,000 donated by well-wishers, four retreats are on the cards, and the aim is to roll out eight more in 2021, building up to 20 annually. More than 750 men are currently on the waiting list.
Crucially, participants don’t stop benefiting from StrongMen once their walking boots are unlaced. “We have a post-weekend care plan,” says Dan. “We set up a WhatsApp group so everyone can chat and share photographs. If somebody’s having a bad day, all the lads rally around them. If there’s an anniversary, it’s an opportunity to help each other from afar. It creates a support network that carries on.”
Before Nikki died, Dan admits he was a “closed book”, especially around the children. Today, thanks to counselling and since meeting his new partner, Alex Wells, a children’s mental health physician who he married last September, he speaks proudly of how far he has come emotionally.
“I’m a more rounded person. I know myself better, and I’m stronger for knowing my limits, mentally and emotionally. I feel when I’m getting tense, when something’s bothering me, and I know the right time to offload that.”
As for how he’s supported Stanley and Isabella, now 10 and eight, Dan admits he has largely been led by his “gut”, but says Alex’s input as both a healthcare professional and a woman who cares deeply for his children, has been invaluable.
“She can recognise quickly when the children are slipping into a down period. It helps a great deal. We’ve got pictures and memory books – things to keep memories of Nikki alive. One of the key things was me showing emotion in front of the kids, so when I was sad, I’d cry in front of them. It’s about giving them the confidence to know their emotions are OK, and to let out how they feel.”
For Dan, who also founded Nikki’s Wishes, a charity providing days out for bereaved families in Hertfordshire, his “never-ending” journey of grief is undoubtedly helped by StrongMen.
“To see the idea grow into an actual charity that’s leading to an improvement in people is a great feeling,” he says. “Grief is hard to control and understand, so having people around you that have your back when you reach those moments, that’s vital.”
Find out more at strongmen.org.uk