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House of Commons Hansard
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Bereavement Counselling
26 March 2019
Volume 657

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

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“You have a lot of misfortune in your family.” Those, Mr Speaker, are the words that a registrar spoke to me when I registered the death of my mother, who died 20 years ago today, aged 53. Kind, compassionate, understated, he said them because just six weeks previously I had registered the death of my father.

I was, Mr Speaker, 27. I was not a child, but I was, I think, too young to know how to bear some of the sadness that I felt in 2009. Some people have, by the age of 27, borne far more emotion: they have married, had families, served and sometimes died for their countries, and in many instances they have also buried both their parents. However, 27 is young to be an orphan in the western world. I struggled to admit it then and I struggle to admit it now, but I found it impossibly hard. I should have looked for help, because grief makes us all angry, irrational, upset and difficult.

Perhaps too many of us in the House think that that strength is incompatible with weakness. Perhaps too many of us are stubborn. It is often said that that which does not kill us makes us stronger; perhaps that which kills those closest to us can make us stronger still, but few can do it on their own. In this Adjournment debate, I want simply to say to those who struggle with the loss of loved ones—and even the loss of close family members who are not so obviously loved—that there is already help out there, and to say, “You are strongest when you take it up, and go to the doctor or just talk to friends.” However, it is also true that more can be done by Government and by others.

This week, we celebrate Mother’s Day. Mothers up and down the country will be appreciated through cards, breakfast in bed, and often questionable artwork from their children. For some, though—myself included—that day is a reminder of what we have lost. To use the modern jargon, it is a trigger. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for letting my personal circumstances have some influence on the parliamentary calendar. Changing it seems to be all the rage at the moment, but you know that MPs are surely at their best when we draw on our personal experiences.

The coming of Mother’s Day gives this debate a broader relevance, because I also want to raise the question of what more we can do in government to support those who have been bereaved, and how we can encourage wider society to make small, seemingly insignificant changes that can prevent immense upset for so many people. The bereavement charity Cruse currently claims on its home page that it can “help this Mother’s Day”, and that is hugely welcome, but such is the volume that the charity has suspended its email help service, and its phone lines are not open 24/7. It takes more than charity to tackle bereavement; it takes society, in all its little family platoons.

The Government have done great work in introducing bereavement counselling for parents who lose children, thanks in part to my hon. Friends the Members for Colchester (Will Quince) and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), as well as other Members on both sides of the House. I am not calling for a similar kind of bereavement leave for everyone, because businesses, in truth, are largely respectful, and they are also hugely varied. However, I know from personal experience that many people do not feel the true impact of their loss for weeks, months, or even, in some instances, years after the person whom they have loved has passed away. Often they are in shock or trying to be strong for others, and that is on top of all the mundane considerations that have to be dealt with in such circumstances.

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My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech, and I know how proud his parents would have been to witness him doing so. I know about the delay that he has mentioned. My father died 30 years ago this year, of mesothelioma, and I remember reading my mother’s diary, in which she was crying out for help nine months later. It is incumbent on us to recognise that delay, and I appreciate everything that my hon. Friend is saying.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and that is why in some ways I am calling on the Government to have ongoing support for those who are recently bereaved and an open-ended offer of counselling on the NHS which can be accessed when they are ready, not at the easiest point for the NHS.

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I also commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and telling his own personal story. Across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland one in four people suffers from mental health issues, and many of them are a result of the grief from someone close to them leaving, especially when that is sudden. Early intervention is key, and I would like the Minister to respond on that. Does the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) agree that we should have early intervention through the use of Cruse and perhaps other groups—I am thinking of church groups and ministers who are on call if needed?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him and will mention that issue in a few moments.

There should be a dedicated mental health helpline provided through the NHS, which under the long-term plan will be accessed via 111. It is important that there is an understanding within that that bereavement for a long time is an exacerbating factor in loneliness, suicide and more; it is a red flag that should be recorded for a long time.

The importance of such ongoing support cannot be overstated. We have spoken in this House many times about the tragedy of the rise in male suicide; while things are improving there is still a huge stigma around men feeling unable to open up and show their emotions—although I am hopefully doing all right today.

This is why it is particularly important to normalise the support around bereavement, and we must not leave it solely to those affected to reach out to organisations such as the Samaritans or Cruse. That registrar who I spoke to 10 years ago should have been trained to offer a signpost—although I confess that if he was or if he did I was in no state to listen—and the NHS and our volunteering strategy should include better plans to encourage more people to train as volunteer bereavement friends and counsellors, as in the hugely valuable work we see with Dementia Friends, or, as Sue Ryder has called them, the bereavement “first aiders”.

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My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech and a series of good points. I am not at all ashamed to say that I had bereavement counselling when my son died, and I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t; we go to the doctor when we are feeling unwell, and of course we go to the bereavement counsellor when we need help with grief. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important that we normalise this?

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I absolutely agree.

There is also a role for us to play in opening up the debate and shining light on steps outside organisations can take to make bereavement in general more bearable, but also, on the theme of this debate, to make Mother’s Day or Father’s Day less difficult for those who have experienced loss.

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I wonder if there may be a role for funeral directors in this, given the links they have with families. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his moving speech.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. The Co-op has done interesting and very valuable work on this, and the Department can put some of these initiatives together.

One interesting example I would like to see introduced across the board is the new policy from an online flower company called Bloom & Wild. It has given customers the opportunity to opt out of Mother’s Day emails as it recognises that it can be a very sensitive time for some. If other companies were to follow suit, the dread—and I do mean dread—around this day might be mitigated for many people. I personally do not feel, for whatever reason, the same dread about Father’s Day marketing, but obviously it should be treated equally in case anyone is worried. Organisations such as the Advertising Standards Authority could perhaps make this part of a voluntary code around data. I am not a Tory asking for some enormous nanny state. I am saying that providing another tick box for when people sign up for yet more emails would be kind. Companies bang on about corporate social responsibility all the time, so why not try this?

This debate is important to me for three reasons. Yes, this is a sad anniversary, but I am lucky to have this platform to say that the Government are right to acknowledge that they need to do more to ensure that there is ongoing support for those who have lost someone they love. This is also a chance to open up the discussion on how everyone in society and business can play a role in increasing the sensitivity with which these difficult days, which last for many years, are handled. I hope that by securing this debate, through your good offices, Mr Speaker, we will move fractionally closer to ensuring that all men and women who, like myself, have not always felt comfortable discussing such emotional topics are able to do so more freely, to seize the help that is there and perhaps ultimately to need that help just a fraction less.

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Thank you for allowing this debate, Mr Speaker. I am really glad to have this opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), who has spoken incredibly movingly about his personal experience. In this place, it is difficult to speak rawly from the heart, but I have to say to him that he has done well today. He has done extremely well. His speech sets in stark relief the fact that we are all human beings in this place, although people might be forgiven for thinking otherwise in recent days. We all bring our own experiences here, and it takes a lot of courage to share some of them. I am not always as confident and brave as he is when it comes to sharing my own stories. It is a pleasure to reply to him tonight.

The effects of bereavement and loss are different for all of us, as my hon. Friend said. They can differ depending on age, on family circumstances and on whom we can reach out to for help, but one thing that I would really like to land is the fact that grief is lifelong. Grief never leaves us. When we lose a loved one, it stays with us for the rest of our life. My hon. Friend mentioned triggers, and they can happen at any point. It is important that I, as a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, ensure that we have sufficient support for people who are grieving, because it can come from nowhere. He used the word “normalise”, and that is so important when we talk about any aspect of mental ill health and mental stress, because it is not uncommon for all of us to go through periods when we feel like that.

It is difficult, particularly for men, to reach out and ask for help. That is because it is seen as a sign of weakness, but it really should not be. “No man is an island” is the trite phrase that we often use, but it is also true. Sometimes, people feel that they cannot show weakness because they are the linchpin of their family and cannot grieve because they need to be strong for everyone else. It will be the mark of a compassionate society that we ensure that we have services for all those people. From a health perspective, it is also really important that we do that, because people who are suffering in this way are more likely to suffer from physical ill health and from weight loss, depression and anxiety. I have witnessed this within my own family following a bereavement. We must encourage people to access support from bereavement counsellors.

My hon. Friend spoke movingly about the fact that Mother’s Day was a particular trigger for him. He lost his mother and father at a young age, and the sense of grief when life ends prematurely is perhaps even more acute at that time. I was reminded of people I have met who were victims of terror, for example, or of Grenfell Tower. There, too, life ended very prematurely for those people. Sometimes we do not even think about the effects of seeing pictures of that fire flashed up every time Grenfell Tower comes up on the news. We risk re-traumatising people in that way, and as a society we really need to start looking at some of those behaviours. These things are often done with the best of intentions. I remember when we started the independent inquiry into Grenfell, there was obviously great interest in it on the news, but those pictures being flashed out on every news programme cannot have been pleasant for those left behind. There is a role for us to think carefully about news reporting, broadcasting and what is available on the internet. There is also a challenge for editorial teams about how to report such things after the event, because we really should not expect people just to tolerate living with ongoing trauma.

Bereavement counselling is available to people at any time, and it is important to realise that the grieving process does last a lifetime and that feelings could be suppressed for decades before being triggered again. The first step for someone wanting to access a counsellor should be to go to their local GP or to self-refer to Cruse, as my hon. Friend mentioned. I am pleased that we will be making more services available through the 111 facility, because people being able to access care, advice and support when they need it will mitigate any harm that they are experiencing.

Cruse Bereavement Care is funded by clinical commissioning groups and local authorities and has branches all over the country that offer free, confidential advice to anyone who needs it. Cruse’s aim is that everyone who loses somebody should have someone to talk to when they need it, and I am pleased with the service it offers. The quality of service could be improved, however, so we are working with NHS England to develop better provision so that everyone can access it.

I also cannot commend the voluntary and charity sector’s input enough. I keep saying to CCGs that we should not look at mental ill health just as something to be medicalised, because support from voluntary providers and people with other skills can be just as important in helping people to get better and get used to their condition as any appointment with a clinician. The 111 service will provide 24/7 mental health crisis support, enabling access to a trained mental health professional who can signpost to treatment and other support, but the system should be holistic, so we need voluntary services, bereavement counselling and mental health professionals where they are needed.

My hon. Friend told us this evening that Mother’s Day is a particularly difficult time for him, and any kind of anniversary can reignite grief. I was interested to hear about Bloom & Wild’s policy, which is a good reminder of how a bit of sensitive thinking can make life so much easier. I would encourage all companies that are involved in activity around such times—any business that builds relationships with its customers—to be more sensitive in how it contacts people. That is just good corporate social responsibility, as he said. Advertising in the United Kingdom is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, but it could do more to spread good practice and encourage companies to think more carefully, because everyone can support people who have been bereaved.

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) here, and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) was here earlier. The Baby Loss Awareness Week debate is now an annual fixture, and there is never a dry eye in the House when hon. Friends share their direct experiences. I find it amazing that it was so taboo to talk about such things until recently, but in this sphere we have led the way in acknowledging our grief and talking about it, and in so doing we are setting a good example for the rest of society. I know that it is difficult for colleagues, as I said, to talk so rawly about the emotions that they have experienced, but when pictures go out from this House showing not a point-scoring bearpit but real naked human emotion, that is what the public want to see. They are the things that remind them that, in this place, we are all citizens of the United Kingdom with all the problems and challenges that everyone else has. We are not some class apart living a completely different life—not living in the real world, as some would say.

Those pictures from the annual baby loss debate open people’s eyes and tackle the taboo. I very much hope that people watching those debates will think, “Do you know what? It’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to have a good cry about something that happened to me many years ago.” Grief is something you have to manage. You will never stop missing that loved one, and you will never stop regretting the fact you have lost them. Much of the time memories are happy and, in your own mind, you can celebrate their life and their contribution to your life, but the regret that they cannot see what you are doing now is something that never leaves you, and that is just a sign of being a good human being.

I sincerely thank my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness for securing this debate. He raised the issue of suicide, and particularly male suicide, which underlines the need to encourage men to acknowledge that it is okay to have a good cry and to ask for help. They do not have to be superhuman and it is not a sign of weakness. We need to do much more to encourage men to open up, and I have seen that directly in my role as Minister for suicide prevention. I have met families who have lost young men to suicide, and it might sound weird, but it is a privilege to have heard their stories and for them to be able to share their pain. I find it so inspiring that people who have gone through the most tragic things want to use that experience to make life better for everyone else.

Perhaps that is a good note on which to finish. We are all very proud of my hon. Friend, because he has done exactly that. He has shared his pain so we can all learn from it. That is the best of Britishness.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.