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Coping with the loss of your partner

Gary talks about losing his wife to suicide and finding much needed support (article)

June 10, 2017

Louise and I spent our entire adult lives looking for each other. We finally met in 2010, and were married the following year. I was 42 and Louise 36. Despite our relatively advanced ages neither of us had any significant experience of relationships and things had the radiant feel of young love. We each blossomed.

The long wait had been worth it. Louise was everything I had ever dared hope for and much more. An inspirational doctor working in general practice in a socially deprived area of South East London, she cared passionately about people and making their lives better, instinctively supporting the underdog and seeing beauty and goodness where others saw none. She was much loved by her colleagues for her intelligence, commitment, energy and enthusiasm, and hugely popular with her own patients, giving unreservedly to provide them with the best possible care, often at the expense of her own wellbeing. A talented painter who also cycled and ran and enjoyed bird watching gardening and choral singing, she was a much adored Aunt and increasingly politically active in an effort to maintain the values and services of the NHS to which she was so committed. Louise’s energy, enthusiasm and zest for life left most people trailing in her wake.

And yet on Friday 23rd January 2015, a date seared in my memory, I came home from work to find that Louise had taken her life by hanging at the age of just 40. Unseen other than by those closest to her, she had fought a long battle with extraordinary strength, determination and tenacity against intermittent but insidious depression arising from what had been diagnosed as bi polar disorder. (Louise sometimes characterised her condition differently but whatever the description, the impact and outcome was the same). She had no wish to die but, briefly, the woman who often snuggled up to me at night and declared that she was so happy, who took such joy in the simplest pleasures of life, had found the pain of continuing to live too much to bear. In the confused and dark muddle of her mind at the time it simply seemed to her to be the most practical and selfless solution.

Nothing can prepare you for the loss of your partner, at any age or by any means. The shock is profound, the devastation complete. You are mourning not one loss but many; the loss of your life partner, the loss of the joint living organism that was ‘Us’, the loss of a way of life, the loss of shared memory, the loss of everything that you thought you knew about your future, the loss of innocence, the loss of the person that you were. Suicide overlays a further noxious cocktail of guilt, anger, bewilderment and, often, a sense of betrayal (though I have at least been spared the latter. Louise was escaping from herself, not me). Even now I sometimes think that if I were to sit very still in a quiet room I would be able to feel my body quivering with the shock.

There is no shortcut through grief. We can’t go over it, round it or under it. And we certainly can’t turn round and go back from where we came. That place is gone. The only option is to own the journey, accept that we must walk through the desert. But that doesn’t mean that we need to be passive, completely helpless against the storms raging around us. We quickly come to develop coping mechanisms, to understand what dulls the pain, diverts us, provides a sense of purpose, perhaps even gives us energy and hope.

For me, other than the community of friendship and support of those in a similar situation which I have been lucky enough to find through the marvellous charity WAY Widowed and Young, it has been writing that has got me through; first in my diary, then on my blog of the journey through widowhood and surviving suicide, ‘Just Carry on Breathing’ and subsequently for a book of the same name, based partially around the blog.

At my lowest point I would invariably reach for my laptop and type through the tears until the eye of the storm had passed. Very occasionally I still do. The discipline it required was calming and there was a tremendous release to find the words which gave at least some expression to my distress, inadequate though language is to convey the overwhelming pain in the pit of the stomach and the bottom of the heart. Writing allowed me to process my response to the destruction of my world, make sense of suicide, adjust to the new realities of my life as a widower and to better understand my grief, as well as connecting me with so many others walking a similar path.

More than that, it also gave me a sense of purpose, to honour Louise’s life as constructively as I could, and in doing so to enable her to continue, indirectly, to reach out and help others just as she would have wished. Another means of doing this was the establishment of a charity in Louise’s memory. Taking her maiden name in which she practiced, The Louise Tebboth Foundation aims to raise funds to support initiatives which help doctors at risk of suicide. Tragically suicide rates within the medical profession are abnormally high, due not just to the pressures of the job but the unique challenges faced by a doctor with mental illness. It’s a cruel irony that so many who are able to guide their patients to safety are, like Louise, ultimately unable to do the same for themselves.

I struggle to absorb the fact that Louise has now been gone for more than half as long as we were together. It seems simultaneously like both an eternity and only seconds ago that she was here. Two and a half years on the raw grief has largely faded and life is sort of OK provided that I don’t compare it with what I had before. Its flat and lonely, the background hum of sadness is ever present, Louise never more than seconds from the forefront of my mind. I will never stop loving her or honouring her memory and our precious marriage. I will carry the scar of her death for ever. But I can laugh again and enjoy myself and hold firmly onto the hope, if not quite the certainty, that life can be good once more. I yearn to one day find love for a second time, inevitably different but just as special. Life is both short and precious and I’m hungry to reach out and live it again.