In Lucy’s name: how a mother turned tragedy into a lifesaving charity
Jenny Rayner, the CEO of The Lucy Rayner Foundation has turned the trauma of loss into a powerful force for good. Content warning: suicide
“How can I live with this? Well, imagine climbing a mountain while you’re carrying heavy weights. When you start climbing, you need to stop every few seconds because they’re so heavy. But, over time, your muscles develop and, in the end, you find you can carry them and keep climbing. The weight never gets any lighter. You just carry it better.”
‘Loss’ truly is such a heavy word. Think about it and your whole body will feel laden down by everything it represents. Hearing Jenny Rayner talk about her sense of loss as a weight, one that she carries every single day, you begin to feel that heaviness in your own body. You know how it begins too – a sharp overwhelming pain that slows to an exhausting, constant and relentless load. And, as Jenny says, it never leaves you, but becomes part of your life. When you learn the burden of her loss and what it has driven her to achieve, you begin to understand just how remarkable she is. And why her work is so important.
On the 5th of May 2012, Jenny’s daughter Lucy took her own life. She was just 22. A young, energetic, sociable, fun-loving young woman, she had some problems, but nothing that indicated that she might have been struggling. Lucy seemed… happy. Jenny and her family were left reeling with shock, loss and confusion.
“It just came from left field. I didn’t know the extent that she was struggling. I knew she had some issues with her mental health, but I didn’t know that she was contemplating suicide. It was a massive shock.” In the weeks that followed, Jenny’s grief took her to dark places. She and her daughter were so close, she reasoned, how could she have missed the signs? Wracked with guilt, she scrutinised what she could have done differently. Was her career to blame? Jenny went on frequent business trips and questioned whether she had been present enough for her daughter. Then she learned that two weeks before her death, Lucy had tried to access help but had been unsuccessful. And this ignited the anger that turned one family’s helplessness and grief into an urgent need to ensure that no one else should ever lose their child in this way. “I thought, if you guys [medical professionals] can’t even see it, I have to do something,” says Jenny. “I really have to do something. How many more young people have been turned away?”
It wasn’t easy to see that Lucy was struggling with her mental health and her death was a huge shock to her family and friends. Jenny believes that education is the key to spotting the signs and that help should be easily available to all.
The fundraising began almost immediately. First, at a memorial for Lucy where £15,000 was donated with the purpose of providing the local area with additional mental health resource. Then six months after Lucy’s passing, Jenny took the decision to leave her job. It was impossible for her to continue, with every day an exhausting, traumatising charade. The pressure of pretending was just too much to bear and her high pressure, high responsibility job did not give her the necessary space to grieve and heal. “Every day that I went, I had to put on this mask, but when I went home, I just used to be in floods of tears, I would lay on the floor and cry,” she remembers. “So, I did what I had to do. When I left, I thought ‘I can go to start the charity, and I’m going to make a difference.’”
In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 35, and the scope of charity set up in her daughter’s name – The Lucy Rayner Foundation – reflects the scale of the challenges that Jenny, her family and their supporters seek to address. They have experienced first-hand how devastating it can be when mental health problems don’t receive the attention they need, but equally, they understand how difficult they can be to identify in the first place. Mental health issues are on the rise and the reasons are both complex and challenging, but it was clear to Jenny that firefighting is not the answer. So, The Lucy Rayner Foundation takes a two-pronged approach that educates and supports while being informed by clinical best practice and the lived experiences of those who use their services. For example, they are currently organising an open forum where autistic girls can spend time with a group of educators with the aim of improving the quality of mental health support offered to autistic girls in school. This strategy is important – reaching educators with the best and most accurate information at the earliest possible stages can be powerfully preventative.
The charity began by offering free counselling services and now has a team of 50 counsellors working across a breadth of therapeutic disciplines, supporting people aged 14 to 39 who struggle with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, bereavement and more. “We want to be able to support people with life changing things, the things that can cause depression and anxiety – the breakup of a relationship, bereavement of a loved one,” explains Jenny. “We also have support services. Counselling group sessions face to face and by Zoom. We can send a team of people to support bereaved families through that journey, whether it was yesterday, today, or ten years down the line.”
These services grew organically and before long Jenny and the team took the charity out into the community. Today, alongside the counselling services, they offer Mental Health First Aid training for young people and adults and are regularly invited into organisations and workplaces to talk about issues around mental health and resilience, how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and what action can be taken. It’s important and potentially life-saving work that also helps to destigmatise and change the narrative around mental health issues and suicide.
When The Lucy Rayner Foundation approached Canon UK in September 2018, Jenny was looking for sponsorship for an event she was looking to hold. “I wanted to put on a conference where young people had a platform to share their stories called ‘Can Anyone Hear Me?’ and approached Canon for support. They were very happy to, and then we began working with them in other ways – a programme of talks and mental health first aid support, as well as bringing our counselling services to Canon colleagues when they needed it.” The relationship struck a chord, and Jenny and The Lucy Rayner Foundation are now regulars at the new Canon UK and EMEA Head Office in West London. Colleagues regularly fundraise for the charity, both personally and through organised initiatives, and many benefited from the charity’s anonymous ‘Resilience in Lockdown’ sessions and talks during Mental Health Awareness Week.
“Sometimes trauma can transform. I choose to show people that while a death can transform your life into something else, it doesn't have to be a negative thing.”
A source of Jenny’s strength comes from her spirituality, which began with a trip to Peru not long after Lucy’s death. What was a necessary break to remove herself from the overwhelming pace of life and begin to process her heartbreak, became an essential part of her metaphysical understanding. “Because obviously I get overloaded. My capacity to take on and multitask is huge, but there comes a time when I have to stop and kind of offload everything,” she explains. “And to do that I go somewhere that has nothing. I strip back to the essentials. No mobile phone, no electricity, no hot water – six weeks, where I have no outside influence at all.” It brought her into the world of the local spiritual leaders and doing so has given Jenny a new way of looking at the world and how she views her own experience as a mother, wife and leader. “Sometimes trauma can transform. I choose to show people that while a death can transform your life into something else, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing.”
Opening her mind in this way has allowed her to consider all the possibilities that life has to offer and to be fearless and ambitious for the work she undertakes in her daughter’s name. She clearly remembers the moment when she saw, in her mind’s eye, the direction that the charity was destined to take. “I saw the building, the rooms, how it was designed, what it looked like. And I knew this was coming for me.” After a few false starts, Jenny’s vision is starting to take shape. The land has been purchased and she is on the road to creating a wellbeing centre, where those who need it can access a wide range of therapies – clinical and non-clinical – to support their mental health and wellbeing. “The land is 19 acres, so you can be with nature. We can run all our workshops there, have a gym, a catering kitchen, where people can learn about nutrition, and offer different types of alternative therapies as well as conventional.”
Every Monday morning, the team at The Lucy Rayner Foundation come together for a weekly meeting to discuss and prepare for the work they’re doing that week. But first, before any business happens, they check in with each other. Is everyone okay? Does anyone need any support? How can we help each other? In the whole scale of what they do and achieve every day, it seems like such a small thing. But it’s not. It’s the foundation upon which the charity is built – looking out for one another. Noticing. Caring. Being there.
“Ask the question: ‘are you okay?’ Sometimes you might ask three or four times,” says Jenny. “‘I know I’ve asked you before, but something’s not right’. Or even, ‘I’ve been there. I know what it feels like. And I recognise that in you.’ They may tell you to go away. But they could say ‘yeah, I’m not in a good place’.”
And it is in this moment, the coffee that follows, the knowledge that someone cares… it is here that lives can be saved.