Kate Harding: Life after a loss—“Onwards . . . There is no other way”

Six months after her husband’s death, Kate Harding describes what it’s been like returning to the UK and to working as a GP

Six months have passed since my husband died. In that time, my children and I have returned to the UK; waited (not terribly patiently) for our worldly goods to make the trip back from New Zealand, along with our long suffering dog to fly around the globe yet again; and my re-registration with the GMC to take effect. Our own journey home was the usual ordeal for me, detesting air travel as I do. It was marked by my traditional in-flight insomnia, intent as I was on scanning the forlorn landscapes of countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq for trouble (unspecified) in my familiar airborne state of hyper-alertness, while others around me slept, ate, and watched movies—the fools, oblivious to the danger we were in.

Thanks to my unwavering concentration, the plane stayed aloft, and we made it back to Europe. To this day, the pilot remains unaware of the mental efforts of one of his passengers, aghast at his insane flight plan, but willing nonetheless to remain in a state of vigilance for hour upon hour in order to get us all home safely.

For many weeks, unable to rent anywhere before the arrival of our furniture, we borrowed a flat from a friend, and I slept on a single mattress in the loft, monk-like in my habits, my world diminished to a plain, unfurnished room and one suitcase. I would lie under the velux window at night contemplating the moon (on the rare occasions that the clouds parted long enough to permit this luxury), then scrabbling around for an eye mask to shut its light out and to try to sleep. Now and again, I would remind myself that, however bad things seemed, at least I wasn’t on a plane—always my go-to “phrase of reassurance.”

The days passed in the usual frenzy of administrative tasks, including the obligatory trip to the GMC’s gleaming and soulless offices in Manchester, where I arrived one morning in mid-January to have my identity confirmed, in order to get back to earning a crust. Because of the GMC’s association with Richard’s depression and subsequent death, this was an emotional journey (his decline was certainly multifactorial, and I would never go so far as to paint him as a “victim of the GMC;” but the letter of notification stating that he’d had a complaint made against him some 18 months before he died was undoubtedly a major—if not the major—life event leading up to his suicide). I was tearful even as I checked in at reception, but I made it through the brief interview required, before howling my way back outside into the driving Mancunian rain. Another box ticked; another day down.

Finally, my paperwork came through, and it was time to return to work. By this stage I was three months into widowhood, and, while it was tempting to curl into a ball on my little monk’s mattress and shut the world out, the absence of any life insurance payout meant that somebody had to earn some cash around here, and it was hardly going to be my son’s paper round that was going to keep us afloat.

I clawed back my beloved hospice job, and was reunited with my colleagues there, who hugged and patted me, shed tears for me, and generally settled me back into my work. I got back onto the GP locum circuit, and have even done some GP sessions within the local emergency department, which have proved more enjoyable than I had anticipated. (Just imagine—people around you! Chats to be had with nurses, paramedics, other doctors! The sense of working in a team, rather than isolated in a small room. And, best of all, the scary stuff gets whizzed straight past you to colleagues who—weirdly—relish that kind of thing!)

I have weathered consultations about depression, and have even managed to get through an encounter with a patient recently widowed by suicide.

Meanwhile, I have been worrying about my bereaved children (my main full time job, one that runs simultaneously with the others, like an open tab on the laptop screen of my mind). However, they seem to be doing well, reintegrating into their UK lives, working at the kinds of jobs that are available to teenagers, studying, and—mainly—on Snapchat and Instagram. We talk about Richie frequently in a light, in passing kind of way. For a while, I had us lighting a candle for him on Sunday evenings and sitting down together to remember him, but this little ritual always had the same outcome—me sobbing uncontrollably on the sofa, my soft hearted boy beside me holding my hand and crying himself, and my fiery daughter rolling her eyes and flouncing out, slamming the door behind her. Not really the vibe I was after. So we have stopped doing that, for now, while I come up with an alternative that is less heavy, less likely to anger my (easily angered) daughter, while still meeting my son’s and my own need to sit with our deeper emotions at least once in a while, undistracted by the constant demands of day to day living.

In short, I am making this bereavement bit up as I go along, something I feel well prepared for by 20 years in general practice. It is absolutely true to say that I am still baffled on a near daily basis by what my patients bring through the door to me; similarly, I am often stumped by the demands—physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual—placed on me by my current life situation. However, like most GPs, I have a certain versatility built into my makeup. A sense of what might be the right thing to do, even if it isn’t in the protocols or guidelines that dominate our working lives these days. And a strong determination to get us through this, somehow.

I miss New Zealand every single day. I miss our amazing friends there, I miss our beachside home, I miss the open spaces, the daily communion with sea and sky. I miss our old life. Most of all, I miss my husband. But this is our new life, and I have to embrace it. I don’t have to like every aspect of it—and I don’t—but the main ingredients of a fulfilling, contented life are still here—friends, family, community, outdoor beauty, indoor enrichments, my weekly Buddhist group, and our dog. Things have looked up for him, at least—he sleeps on my bed, a long held ambition of his.  And they will look up for us too, in due course. Onwards. There is no other way.

See also“I have lost my husband” could not be more accurate—it feels like a carelessness

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 returned 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.
Republished with permission of New Zealand Doctor, www.nzdoctor.co.nz