The day before his club debut for the Panthers, it was announced that Tevita Pangai Jr was withdrawing from the game against the Roosters.
“Tevita and his partner Anna are currently dealing with a deeply personal and sensitive matter, and the Panthers are providing Tevita and Anna with all the necessary support,” the Panthers said in a statement released Friday.
The issue was kept under wraps until later in the weekend, when Pangai took to social media to reveal he and Anna had lost their daughter, Georgia, 24 weeks into the pregnancy.
“My baby girl, Georgia Lose Galilee Pangai. My first creation,” Tevita wrote, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I’m going to miss your mum telling me how you kick every morning and always fidgety and couldn’t stay still like me … Be with mum always, and me, my little baby girl, my love.”
It was a touching, heartfelt post in the face of an unspeakably devastating turn of events for Tevita, Anna and their families.
And if it’s the last we hear from Tevita for the rest of 2021, that would be more than reasonable.
Because what has just happened to their young family is an emotional injury the full toll of which is not apparent for months and which, in my experience, never fully heals.
Being about as far removed as one can possibly be from a professional athlete – my ineptitude in any sport needs to be witnessed to be believed, I’m just that bad – it’s rare I can bring any personal insight to my weekly columns.
Unfortunately, this week, I know all too well what Tevita is going through.
In late 2019 my wife and I lost our son, Harry, 24 weeks into the pregnancy.
I’d been through a bit in my lifetime to that point – odds would suggest anyone in their mid-30s has got a few scars – but nothing compared to the devastation of losing our child.
It’s awful that I need to even say this, but there will be those who attempt to minimise this grief due to the fact baby Georgia was not at full term.
I have some choice words for such narrow-minded cretins, but rather than putting down the rantings of an angry father, I spoke to Amanda Bowles, who is the co-founder and CEO of Bears of Hope, a wonderful Aussie charity that delivers pregnancy and infant loss support, education and awareness.
“We are very absent in our approach to the loss of a baby, and it’s so outdated, the way in which it’s still such a taboo topic,” Amanda says.
“I have had conversations with doctors where I’ll ask, ‘How many breaths does the baby need to take for you to believe the family deserve to have support made available to them?’
“They don’t have an answer because there is no answer to that question.”
It’s part of a broader issue in this country, Amanda added, due to the fact “Australians do not do death well”.
“If you look at European cultures, they have periods of mourning; Australians go and have a beer and ‘carry on mate’. We’re not very good at facing those deep, heavy grief spaces,” she says.
“Add to that it’s a baby that much of our network, family and community didn’t get to meet and it makes it hard for them to understand – ‘why are they sad about this?’”
All of which is to simply reiterate that Tevita and Anna lost their daughter. That she was 24 weeks does not make Georgia less-than, nor does it make their suffering any less real.
What’s more, there are processes around the death of a baby that has not reached term that mean the events can be agonisingly drawn out.
For starters, labour still needs to take place. This is perhaps the most physically painful process any human ever goes through, although the light at the end of the tunnel is usually blisteringly bright.
Labour for a child you do not then get to take home and spend the rest of your life loving in the flesh is an entirely different beast.
What’s more, this altered emotional state can affect the birthing process itself.
The hormone oxytocin – sometimes called the ‘hormone of love’ – is critical in labour, yet a mother in a state of emotional turmoil is going to struggle to produce it.
Add in the fact the body knows that it’s not supposed to be giving birth this early in the pregnancy and you can be looking at days between being admitted to the hospital and the baby actually arriving.
I would hope, as was the case for us, Tevita and Anna had some time with Georgia after her arrival – Bears of Hope provide ‘cold cots’ that make it possible to spend precious hours with your baby after they have passed away.
After that, however, comes the reality of living in modern society – specifically, of dealing with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. You need to register the birth of your child and purchase a birth certificate that states that they are deceased.
You also need to organise a funeral – and, obviously, attend said funeral – as well as decide whether to bury or cremate your child.
That’s at least a week of emotional gut punches, all of which you know are coming but none of which you can really prepare for.
And that’s to say nothing of the time prior to labour. Obviously I don’t know the specifics for Georgia, but Harry’s health issues were brought to our attention about three weeks before he was born. There were countless hours spent in doctors offices having distressing conversations, separated only by sleepless nights.
Put it all together and it was a month of upheaval. And that was just the start.
Because you don’t then just put it in your rear-view and move on. Your life has been turned upside down. Suddenly the person you loved the most, who only six months earlier hadn’t even existed, is gone forever.
It was about four months later that it became clear I wasn’t dealing with Harry’s death well. I had so much anger and nowhere to put it – because who do you blame for something like this?
We’re now coming up on Harry’s second birthday, and while it doesn’t hurt the way it used to, the pain is still there. I suspect it always will be – truth be told, I hope it is. At least it’s something.
But I can tell you one thing for goddamn sure: going back to work after three weeks off was a mistake. I was in no way ready to turn up to the office and make pretend any of the tasks assigned to me mattered, because by comparison to what my wife and I had just been through, everything getting tossed up was so trivial.
Which brings me back to the idea that maybe it would be best for Tevita to just hang up the boots for 2021.
Because an NRL grand final victory is a complete non-event having lost your first and, to date, only child.
And while I am sure the Panthers are doing a great job putting their arms around Tevita and Anna, he has been at the club for less than three weeks. The support network they offer, simply by virtue of how new it is, won’t be as strong as if he was turning up at a workplace where he has established, robust, years-long relationships.
That said, grief is completely personal. It may be the case that Tevita feels the best way for him to deal with what he’s going through is to throw himself into his work. It’s not without precedent in rugby league either – it was what Warren Ryan did following the death of his son in 2006.
However, if Pangai were to decide that the best thing is to say he’s done for this year and focus on himself and Anna, it would be entirely understandable.
We as a society are at long last starting to understand that emotional wellbeing is just as important as physical. In fact, as was recently highlighted by Simone Biles, poor mental health can lead directly to physical injury for professional athletes.
Well, Tevita Pangai has suffered what, I pray for his sake, is the worst emotional injury of his life. The pain right now would be raw, and the road back to some semblance of health and normality is long and dark.
What’s more, unlike a broken bone, this is very much a shared injury. Anna would surely be at the forefront of Tevita’s mind, particularly given the Panthers are in camp on the Sunshine Coast and their home is in Brisbane.
I hope we see Tevita Pangai Junior on a footy field again soon. But for the sake of himself, his partner and the memory of his daughter, he should take whatever time he needs to heal first.
Here’s to your daughter, mate.
Georgia Lose Galilee Pangai. Just beautiful.