Ex-Black Cats to join bereaved fans at new initiative by Sunderland Supporters' Heaven Branch

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Sunderland supporters’ innovative Heaven Branch - a special supporters' club for red-and-white fans who have passed away - continues to break new ground, writes Bill Bradshaw.

This Wednesday (August 30) families and friends of Heaven Branch members will join several playing legends of the club at an event at Chaplins bar in the city centre. It is the latest bid by the branch to offer support and solace to the bereaved who have lost Sunderland fans.

Joining the families and friends will be ex-Black Cats stars including 1990s goalkeeper Tony Norman and Sunderland 1973 legends Mickey Horswill and Richie Pitt.

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The Heaven Branch was launched two years ago and now has more than 150 heavenly "members". It has its own committee of late fans; a chairman, secretary and even its own mascot, the late Bradley Lowery, who captured the football world's hearts with his battle against cancer.

Branch co-founder Joanne Youngson said: "Tony and Lorraine Griffiths, of Chaplins, wanted to do something special for the branch and so they have organised this event on Wednesday. It will enable families, who have lost a red-and-white loved one, to get together.

"There will food, a quiz and we are delighted the Sunderland Former Player Association is again supporting us with several legends attending.

"As the number of 'members' grows, so does the community of people connected to the branch. We offer support at the point of funeral arrangements - providing Sunderland-themed coffin flags and pitch clippings so that the loved one can take a little piece of the Stadium of Light with them on their final journey.

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"We hold a monthly peer group, aiming to bring people together for activities or just a coffee and a chat. We've had a number of get-togethers and quickly realised after the death of someone - especially a spouse - the bereaved can feel a little lost and isolated. Having grief and Sunderland AFC in common was a surprisingly easy ice-breaker and people have started forming friendships and supporting one another."

A Candlelit Remembrance Service was held by the Heaven Branch last December and it also maintains a memorial area outside the Stadium of Light's main entrance.

Fans are encouraged to paint pebbles and leave them in memory of their loved one. And the branch holds regular painting events at the Foundation of Light.

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