Rachel Eason-Whale, customer care manager and vulnerability strategic lead at London & Country Mortgages, speaks to Health & Protection about losing four fantastic women she was close to, how company support helped her navigate these losses and continuing to talk about her much missed friends.
Experienced more loss than most
“I have had many family and friends pass away over the years – probably more than most at 37 years old, but I consider myself quite a resilient person,” Eason-Whale tells Health & Protection.
“I work in a role where I can face vulnerable situations including bereavement daily, but when supporting customers it’s not personal to me, so I am able to be empathetic and supportive while separating myself from the situation.”
I wasn’t Rachel
But Eason-Whale explains last year became a “bit heavy”.
“I lost four fantastic young women around me. I think the easiest way to describe my experience was feeling a bit broken, I wasn’t Rachel, and I was angry at the world.
“I am normally a smiley happy person, and I realised grief was becoming an issue and changing me as I was crying at night when my family was asleep, and I was finding it hard to have a reason to get up in the morning and I was putting on a front for others.”
Losing Lynsey and Char
These losses included her close friend Char.
“Char passed away after being diagnosed with a brain tumour,” Eason-Whale explains.
“Char was just 33, married to Mike and a mum to Chloe. Char was part of a group of girls I had grown up with. We had gone from being the party girls in town or at our local on a Friday night to later becoming mums comfy in our dressing gowns and trying to find a night we were all free – but we spoke almost every day.
“Char was sometimes quite blunt which I loved as she brought humour at times when she didn’t even mean too. Although we knew the prognosis with Char, I felt I started to grieve even before she passed which to a degree helped me accept things a bit more, but I kept questioning why something so cruel could happen.”
But right at the end of the year Eason-Whale was hit by the loss of her best friend Lynsey, who died after a week of pneumonia and sepsis.
“She was admitted to hospital and put in an induced coma, and I never got to say goodbye as she never recovered,” Eason-Whale adds.
“Lynsey was a mum of three, living life to the full down by the beach. We met in 2009 at a Calvin Harris concert and we loved to go out and dance and holiday together.
“When Lynsey died, I went into a kind of survival – almost military-like – mode. I knew I needed to support her family and help with the next steps and the best thing I could offer was what to do when someone dies and to support with planning her funeral.
“This meant I didn’t need to stop and think, although once I had nothing else to plan and the funeral was over, I was lost.”
Benefitting from flexibility
But thankfully Eason-Whale was able to benefit from a flexible employer.
“I knew that in both instances I may have to drop everything and go,” she continues.
“I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t at least try and say goodbye near the end.
“There was flexibility with my day-to-day role, they understood that supporting others with empathy at a time when I was struggling was difficult, so they adapted my role.
“We joked at the time about it, but it was a question of what do you do when the vulnerability person is feeling vulnerable, but L&C were prepared with a wellbeing programme available.”
Eason-Whale reveals her support on offer included Champions with mental health first aiders, an employee assistance programme (EAP) which was 24/7 including day-to-day information services and a counselling helpline, GP 24/7 services, good manager/HR support, compassionate leave, manager training on bereavement (Winston’s wish) and flexible working.
And it was the sheer breadth of support that proved so valuable, Eason-Whale relates.
“Everyone is different so I think having a range of support is so valuable.
“At first, I thought I didn’t need anything, and I wanted to keep busy at work and with my homelife.
“When I reached out, the most effective part of the support for me was convenience, especially with GP and EAP being 24/7. I I had to go and sit in the waiting room of the GP, I wouldn’t have reached out for help.
“I also could use the app at any time convenient to me and appointments with the online GP were within a couple of hours.
But Eason-Whale also explains that the big difference this support made was the provision of instant support when she needed it most.
“One night I was feeling very overwhelmed and couldn’t sleep. But through the app I was able to use some mindfulness techniques to relax myself to eventually get back to sleep,” she continues.
“At this time, I haven’t needed to access the counselling services but I am aware that if I do there is only a couple of days wait for an appointment – whereas I know the NHS services are under a huge strain and it might be weeks before you even get an initial online consultation.”
And Eason-Whale adds the support also helped her remain on track.
“The easy option would be for the doctor signing me off and although that might be the right option for others, I didn’t want that,” she maintains.
“I wanted to be able to shape my own recovery and feel like I had some control over managing my own grief with the wellbeing benefits.”
In terms of learnings from her experience, Eason-Whale maintains self-service options alongside face-to-face are important as we all have different ways of coping.
“I also learnt that employers can help shape the wellbeing support they can offer by employees sharing their experiences.
“At L&C we have an E, D&I group called We Belong that recently reviewed the compassionate policy after colleagues including myself shared lived experience. This resulted in changes around beliefs, the length of time for leave and who the person was grieving (which was previously direct family only)
“I also think it’s important to talk about our experiences using these tools, so that no one has to face it alone in the future and understands how easy it is.”
Bereavement is why I work in the sector
But Eason-Whale adds bereavement is a key reason she works in the sector.
“The reason I work in protection is because both my brothers-in-law passed away young of undiagnosed heart conditions,” she explains.
“They both were without health and protection insurance and I saw first-hand the impact, emotional and financially, this had and I wouldn’t want to see others have to face this.
“At L&C we have a dedicated protection claims team who support customers who have protection insurance in place with us and need to make a claim, and I truly see the difference every successful claim makes.
“My key message around insurance is that you don’t have superpowers, you never know what is around the corner and lightning can strike twice – don’t keep putting it off thinking it will never happen to you.
“There is so many options available and with the support of a good protection expert they can find the best cover suitable to your needs and cost. I always say some protection is better than nothing.”
Good and bad days
As for how she’s doing today, Eason-Whale says with grief it’s a question people are scared to approach as they think they may open a can of emotions.
“But I am okay. I will continue to talk about Lynsey and Char and will have good days and bad days, but on my bad days I always focus on the best memories we shared.
“This Christmas I am not pushing myself with too much planning as grief comes in waves, but as we approach New Year’s Eve I will be raising a glass of prosecco with friends and family.
“From training with Winston’s wish at L&C I was able to understand more about grief and something they shared really resonated with me. ‘Grief doesn’t get smaller over time .. rather you grow around your grief’ and this I can see with each day that passes.
“I will continue to share my stories and lived experience to act as a champion to support others.
“Awareness is a key plan within my future, I will continue to educate and engage with others about the importance of protection and wellbeing and I know that I have support available for when I’m not okay – not only from my employer but the value added services with my protection policy.”