Debbie Kerslake reflects on 18 years helping bereaved people | Cruse Bereavement Care

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As I walked along the streets of South Kensington, I was struck by the sound of children laughing and playing in a school playground against the horrific backdrop of Grenfell Tower. I looked at the Missing posters, put up when people still clung onto hope that their loved ones would be found alive. Messages had been added later – RIP, Always Loved, Never Forgotten. I felt what so many others experienced watching the Grenfell tragedy unfold on TV – shock, horror, disbelief and distress that so many people could have died, particularly in an age when health and safety is supposed to be so important. But what was different for me was that as CEO of the largest bereavement care charity Cruse Bereavement Care I would be in a position to do more than make a financial donation. As with other major incidents I had been involved in – going to New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to support British families bereaved in the attacks and managing Cruse teams working at Heathrow Airport following the South East Asian Tsunami and at the Family Assistance Centre set up after the 2005 London bombings, Cruse would play a key role in being there for those bereaved. 

Looking back as I retire as CEO of Cruse, I am struck by how different the job is to what people expect. As soon as you mention the word bereavement people assume that because this is likely to be the worst experience anyone will ever face, that the work itself is depressing. But the reality is that whether being alongside someone whose parent has died in Grenfell Tower or being there for the 85 year old whose husband has died of dementia, the work of our 5,000 volunteers is about giving people hope – hope that they can survive the next hour, let alone the days, weeks, months and years ahead, develop coping strategies and reach a place where the pain is less.         

With 76 local Cruse services and a sister organisation in Scotland, my job has taken me to all parts of the UK - from Cornwall to Tyneside, Belfast to Powys. We have a worldwide reputation, and an international journal Bereavement Care, and I have spoken at international conferences across the world – Sydney, Miami, Hong Kong and most recently Lisbon where I was invited to meet with the Portuguese government to discuss their response to the wildfires that killed more than 60 people in June this year. I have hosted delegations from countries including Sweden, Japan and South Korea. 

Income generation has had its considerable challenges, set against the backdrop of the economic recession with cuts to statutory funding and increased competition for funding from Trusts and Foundations as well as increasing regulations covering fundraising. But it’s also had its highlights. Not many people have had to look after Jemma Redgrave as part of a day’s work when they supported a corporate charity day or been photographed with Ranulph Fiennes as part of an appeal. 

Our supporters are many. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Her Majesty the Queen, our Royal Patron, when she has hosted receptions for Cruse and attended the service at St. Paul’s to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee as well as the Patron’s Lunch which I went to with volunteers, staff and bereaved children and young people supported by Cruse. One of my most ‘out of the blue’ phone calls was from Kensington Palace to be advised that Prince William and Kate Middleton (as she was then) had selected Cruse to be one of the charities to benefit from donations requested in lieu of wedding gifts.    

Over the years there have been so many events that stick in my mind, like the time I had to speak after 12 year old Murphy had had a standing ovation when he described the difference Cruse support had made to him after the death of his much loved uncle. The Annual Business Meeting of a Cruse Area when an elderly man apologised to me he would have to leave immediately after my speech. He only had two hours respite a week for his wife who had dementia. He used this time to volunteer.

It has been exciting to see the changes in how we deliver bereavement support, the expansion of services and the development of new ways of reaching those who might find it difficult to access support. Cruse now provides face-to-face support to over 50,000 people every year and is the largest provider of bereavement care for children and young people in the UK. Through our local services, helpline and social media we reach more than half a million people. Whether meeting with Government Ministers, sitting on Government advisory groups through to responding to issues in the media, Cruse speaks on behalf of those who are bereaved. 

The bereavement sector is a very collaborative one and we work in partnership with organisations specialising in bereavement as well as major charities like Samaritans who have a wider remit. These partnerships have led to new ways of working, most recently with the charity Adfam to better support those bereaved through drug and alcohol use. The sector comes together to develop services as well as to campaign on issues, most recently combining to challenge cuts to bereavement benefits. 

At an organisational level Cruse is coming to the end of a five year strategic plan which has achieved so much, and is heading for its Diamond Jubilee in 2019 with exciting plans to continue the development and delivery of Cruse's objectives. On  a personal level with a significant birthday approaching, a husband who has already retired  as well as aspirations to do a PhD (in bereavement of course!) and to get fit enough to do a 60 mile cycle ride (in aid of Cruse) the time feels right for me and for the organisation  to step down and enjoy retirement. 

The job of a CEO is of course a demanding one. The economic climate; all the pressures on the Voluntary Sector; and the fact that bereavement is not an issue that gets anything like the attention or resources it needs and deserves add to the challenges. But despite all of this I look back with immense appreciation that I have been in this position.      

So much has changed in Cruse over the time I have been CEO. What has never changed is the absolute dedication, commitment and passion of the Cruse team - the volunteers and staff who provide somewhere to turn when someone dies.

My dad died when I was 11 and I know just how hard it is when a family don’t receive the support they need. I receive emails, letters, reports and evaluations, all of which attest to the impact of Cruse.  I meet people from all walks of life keen to share their story of loss and how Cruse has helped them.   

Many years ago, when I was at school, I was asked what I wanted to do and I replied  “I want to make a difference”. I’ve had the amazing privilege of being part of a team who are doing just that.

Vacancy for Chief Executive

[Grenfell Image by Natalie@Oxford  under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license]