12 October 2023

A twin mum whose son died when he was 21-months-old has turned her tragedy into something positive to help other bereaved individuals.

Harley Cunningham has transformed mental health at her workplace by implementing new projects to support those who have experienced a bereavement.

She said: "In May 2019 I had twin boys Edward and James. They were premature but I felt amazing, knowing I had twins. I was very sleep deprived but I felt like super mum."

James suffered from viral related wheeze as a baby from four-months-old. In February 2021, James had cough and cold symptoms and went to bed early. During the early hours of the morning, mum Harley went to check on the twins when she discovered James was very unwell.

She said: "Little did I know at the time but he had onset pneumonia. We thought it was a cold. It wasn't like the wheeze symptoms he had had in the past. I checked James at 4am and gave him some water. I went back in less than five minutes later and James had gone cold. I screamed and took him out the bed and my husband Pete did CPR."

Tragically, James was pronounced dead at hospital. Harley said: "It was the worst day I've ever had. We found out a month later on the coroner's report it was bronchopneumonia.

"Months after his death I felt so alone. I took four months off work and then I returned. I had lost my identity. I felt I had failed as a mother. Everything had changed. You have this life planned out and you never expect your child to die."

Two months after James's death, Harley contacted Twins Trust Bereavement Service.

Harley said: "Twins Trust was amazing. I had a befriender in the early days who spoke to me as and when I needed support. Sometimes I couldn't speak and I didn't want to speak. I remember crying on the sofa for an hour with my befriender and she listened to me. I became a befriender because I value the service so much. I meet all these mums who have had losses similar to mine in their lives. The strength of these mums is amazing, you don’t know how strong you are until something like this happens to you."

Following James's death, Harley made it her mission to help others in the workplace who've had a bereavement. She is also training to be a counsellor.

Edward and James

She said: "I went back to work and I was a shell of a person. I wasn't sleeping well or motivated and I was forgetful. I think workplaces are really good at supporting you in the early days but months go by and people forget. I got 10 days' bereavement leave from the day of bereavement and a phone number to an Employee Assistance Programme helpline.

"If you have the strength, tell your story. I remember posting James's story on the work intranet. By sharing your story, other people then share their story. People start opening up and talking about grief and their mental health."

Working with the HR department, she devised a survey about grief in the workplace. She was amazed when she received 600 responses. This resulted in her building employee and manager toolkits, talking about grief, the language you should use and a conversation checklist.

She created a 'Hug in a Box', packed with food vouchers, a book about grief, seed packets, a mindfulness colouring book and her own personal story. The box is sent out to staff at her workplace - Virgin Media O2 - who have experienced a bereavement.

A photo of the 'Hug in a box' pack

Alongside 'Hug in Box', Virgin Media also improved its bereavement policy by launching a further five compassionate days paid leave to allow employees to deal with emergencies at home or help them support their family. This is something Harley is lobbying other companies to do.

In January 2023, Harley, Pete and Edward welcomed baby John into their family.

Harley has received two awards for her work. She was named Best Returner at the Women in Tech Excellence Awards in 2022 after being nominated by Virgin Media O2. The award is presented to someone who has returned to work after a long-term period of leave and has done something incredible to change their organisation.

In June 2023, she was presented with the 'It Can Happen' Founders' Choice Award for outstanding service to mental health.

Harley with one of her awards

Speaking about the awards, she said: "I have mixed feelings about them. I felt sad I had to get the awards as James had died. But I was really happy that all the work I had done was helping other people in James's honour."