Kate Harding: “I have lost my husband” could not be more accurate—it feels like a carelessness

I have been widowed. It seems surreal to be writing that sentence, and yet it is indisputably true. I was there; I know. My husband, a consultant anaesthetist and intensivist, took his own life on 23 October. He had been suffering from depression, and was three days away from his first appointment with a psychiatrist for a medication review. His illness was triggered last year by his first ever complaint, made in the UK to the General Medical Council, just as we packed the last of our possessions into a NZ-bound shipping container, and signed away our house to its new owners. Although the complaint was thrown out in due course, as his family, friends, and colleagues fully expected it to be, this took five months, and the strain that this put him under was immense. Once we finally made the move to Northland, he enjoyed his new life hugely, making the most of every opportunity to be in, on, or near the water. He did well on an SSRI, which kicked in after five weeks, and he made a positive impression on his new work colleagues, gaining a reputation as a straight talker with an exceptional confidence and ability as a doctor, something I always admired and envied in him.

His depression recurred four months ago, and this time, the medication didn’t work—and may have made things worse. I am still in a state of disbelief much of the time regarding what has happened as a result. To say that I feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame is an understatement. As both his wife and a doctor myself, I am simply appalled that I let him go this way. The phrase “I have lost my husband” could not be more accurate—it does feel like a carelessness, to me, like he slipped through my fingers while I looked the other way. I went on a dog walk with my daughter; I returned to find my husband dead. It was broad daylight, and my son was metres away in his bedroom. He had used—what else?—anaesthetic drugs IV. CPR was entirely futile, but naturally I went through the motions anyway.

I can report that a state of calm really does descend in such extreme circumstances, even in someone who fears emergency scenarios as much as I do. It seemed perfectly normal to be attempting to resuscitate my inanimate husband, at one point with my foot, as I talked to the 111 operator; to be applying shock paddles once the community defibrillator had arrived; to be discussing adrenaline with the paramedics when they came on the scene. To be putting a duvet over him and a pillow under his head, and to be kissing him goodbye. To be helping the children to do the same, before he was taken away by the ambulance. To be giving my statement to the police, shortly afterwards.

The first week after his death is now a blur. Sleep was only possible with hypnotics. I lost five kilos. I worried about the children constantly. People came and went, endlessly. The house was overrun. I could eat nothing, yet food appeared at hourly intervals, along with flowers. The kindness of our friends and neighbours was, and continues to be, extraordinary. I have been told repeatedly that there was nothing I could have done; I know that this is untrue, but it is easier to nod, and to agree.

Widowhood sucks. There isn’t much time to grieve, for starters—I have become a full-time administrator. If I am not at the lawyers’ office, I am at the bank, or at the funeral directors (paying for the world’s cheapest funeral—Rich would be proud of me, given my newly-impoverished state) or dealing with builders (the house we moved into recently does not have its code of compliance), or setting up schooling for the kids back in the UK, or meeting with estate agents. We are returning to Britain—to rain, and Brexit, and the crisis-ridden NHS. To general practice—reluctant GP no longer, in view of my need to make a living! To my husband’s shattered and bewildered family. To mine, who just want us close again. To our friends and former colleagues, all of whom are desperate to help us in any way that they can. To the lush beauty of the Herefordshire countryside, its oak trees and apple orchards; to the River Wye. I love both New Zealand and Britain, and can live in either; what I am pondering is how to remain in medicine: the fear of a complaint now looms even larger in my professional life than it did before, given the consequences of my husband’s, ironically one of the best doctors that I have ever known. How to remain in medicine, when I couldn’t even keep my own husband alive.

Richard, you were such a vivid presence, full of energy and verve. You were funny, impulsive, adventurous, kind. You loved your wife, your children, and your dogs. You were always dashing off to swim around an island, or to go sea-kayaking, or to fit in a power yoga class. I feel like you should be coming home around now, from an overseas conference, perhaps, one that has lasted rather longer than usual; I can’t begin to imagine how we are going to live without you, as it seems that we must. We have made a start, and I promise that we will do our best to keep going. I know about mortgage rates now, and how much that boat of yours cost. I can change a printer cartridge, and talk ply and cedar cladding with the builder. I have much else to learn, not least how to raise two teenagers on my own, but I will give it all my best shot. May you rest in peace, and know how much you are loved.

Kate Harding is a general practitioner and hospice doctor who grew up in Brussels. She has worked in many parts of the UK, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. She is returning with her family from Northland, NZ to Herefordshire to live and work in December, following the untimely death of her husband Richard.

 

Competing interests: None declared. 
  • Eirreg

    I read this on twitter and it made me cry for more than one reason. A truly heartfelt piece of writing by Kate on the pain of losing someone to depression. I hope that she and her children will lean on those close by and offering support. She will find her way, and perhaps become active in drawing attention to the lack of support in the NHS for those suffering from mental illness.

  • ddetina

    Having lost my daughter to suicide almost four years ago, I can very much identify with that feeling of having been careless. It’s the same feeling you have when you can’t find your keys or your iPhone or your stethoscope, but of course many orders of magnitude worse. Your brain wants to keep on looking for what it has lost while the heart already knows. – Dr. Don De Tina

  • Kate Harding

    Yes, exactly. I am so sorry for your terrible loss. In my case, I just cannot BELIEVE that I somehow overlooked the higher risk that anaesthetists are at, in the context of Richard’s rather impulsive and impatient, driven personality – fatal combination, as it turned out. I simply failed to imagine this scenario for our family, for my husband. I know that, had he had to find a gun, or risk a failed hanging, for instance (he had seen several of those on his intensive care unit) he wouldn’t have gone to those lengths; it is the ease with which he was able to access the drugs in the theatres in which he worked daily that made his suicide so much more likely. And I overlooked that, to my eternal regret.

  • Kate Harding

    Thank you so much. We are indeed leaning on the army of friends and family members who are a huge comfort.

  • Kate Harding

    Thank you so much. But I KNOW that I could have done more, and that his death was preventable. I guess that time will help to reduce the feelings of guilt in due course. I certainly hope so.

  • Kate Harding

    Thank you so much.

  • Daron Smith

    What an extraordinarily honest, open, and overwhelmingly heart wrenching piece. I opened it after reading some other blogs when should have been asleep, and can totally understand why it is the top-trending blog. Everyone should read it to get some insight into how the pressures that come from “day to day work” can impact the workers themselves (we are not immune to illness of course) and the devastating impact that this can have on both individuals and families.
    What can be said in response to such a sad, sad situation except that, Kate, may the amazing strength that you had to write and share your story be sustained to help you tie your family closer, and maintain you through your terrible loss.

  • Ben Phillis

    I don’t know how you could find the courage to write such an amazing piece. I’m very moved and I thank you so much for sharing this with the world, I hope it some way it gives you some comfort to know that your bravery in this most difficult time serves as an inspiration to many readers comfronted with similar situations.

  • Jane Stone-Fewings

    Such beautiful, honest words Kate. I can only send you and the kids love and peace x

  • Denyse Lynch

    Unlike a visible body part we cannot “see” a mental health problem, nor can we assess the depth, width height of it and the comprehensive, all encompassing pain, anguish it causes, except when the sufferer takes their own life. As sufferers it is a feeling we have trouble articulating, describing it because we have no frame of reference and, there is no pain scale on which to rate how severe the pain is or, for medical professionals to assess the severity, let alone prescribe treatment. Our loved ones who do not experience a mental health problem also have no frame of reference, education about it. And it seems neither do medical professionals. And yet when our loved one succeeds at ending their life, because the pain has reached unbearable tolerance, those of us without knowledge, education or experience blame ourselves.
    Whether New Zealand, England or, Canada where I reside and many other countries lack the resources and I suspect, perhaps political will to make available mental health education, support, treatment both for the sufferer and their loved ones. When my father was unsuccessful in his attempt to end his deep, profound pain was, when at last, he obtained the support and help he required, I required.
    Mental health well-being needs to be taught in school alongside hygiene, science, languages, math. We all need to be educated on the dimensions, factors that contribute to good or poor mental health in living our lives, and/or the inherited genes that can impact our mental health well – being.

    Dear Kate, we all do the best we can with what we have and know at any one time. I can’t say “you should not feel guilty”. I felt guilty too, that my dad suffered many years and only when he almost succeeded did he receive help. I do say, may you and your dear husband’s experiences serve as a catalyst for MAJOR changes, for attention to be placed on and significant changes to happen so our most important health dimension, mental health well-being can happen. Bless you and thank you for sharing your story. You inspire me to keep this as focus as I advocate for compassionate health improvements in my own country’s health system.