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An exercise in patience

Dr Kate Harding 3 x 2

Another month has gone by, and life is settling down a little. I am slightly less obsessed with money. I am a little more sanguine about the almost comical state of my pension. I have found a house to buy. I continue to work. I see my friends, I make dinner, I (usually) sleep. My kids appear not to be going off the rails just yet. We seem – incredibly – to be surviving the loss of their father.

Having said that, it goes without saying that death is on my mind a lot. I lost no time in making a new will on our return to the UK. I constantly worry about dying myself, and leaving my children behind. I am less fearful of death itself, on my own account, which is a plus, but I really would be cross if I had to die before the kids were fully grown. (And I might. And they know that. They have grown up in a medical family, in which gruesome topics have been discussed over dinner since their infancy).

This is one area I really do feel upset with Richard over – how could he deliberately remove himself from their lives, knowing that only one (fragile, vulnerable, mortal) parent would then remain, a poor and inadequate buffer between them and orphan-hood? How could he think that was doing them any sort of favour? But that way, if not madness, certainly many futile hours of pointless rumination lie, so I try not to pursue such lines of thought too often, nor too far. I know that he was a million miles from his usual rational, loving self when he took the decision to end his life, and that accepting this is the only way forward for those he left behind.

I am in contact with various people and organisations supporting doctors with mental health problems, conscious of the irony of being aware of the help available now that it is too late for my husband to benefit from any of it. I am meeting soon with others who have been bereaved by a loved one’s medical suicide – an initiative set up by Professor Clare Gerada.

It is striking how many people affected by mental illness within the medical profession are beginning to speak out

I have been enormously helped by emails and messages from all sorts of people who have experienced the suicide of someone close to them, and shocked by how much more common the experience is than I had hitherto realised. I am speaking at the Hay festival shortly on the topic, thankful for the fact that the venue is tiny and banking on the event being an interactive one. I have had many encounters that have been meaningful and enriching through my experience, and am grateful for this (if not for the experience itself).

What is striking is how much momentum, internationally, the campaign to raise awareness of the mental health of doctors is gaining, and how many people affected by mental illness within the medical profession are beginning to speak out.

For myself, no expert in this area, I can commit to two things – reducing my personal work-related stress, for my own sake and that of my children, and drawing attention, in a small way, to the issue of suicide amongst doctors. I can avoid conventional general practice, source of much of my work-related stress in the past, restrict my GP work to a small number of shifts in A&E per month, and concentrate on palliative medicine (though this speciality is hardly without its own challenges). And I can alter our lifestyle to reflect our family’s reduced income, while remembering that we are still far better off than most.

Meanwhile, back at home, life continues to be challenging. My daughter is expressing her grief through an impressive and prolonged bout of health anxiety, aided in this by her smartphone’s much-consulted symptom checker apps. It has, so far, escaped her notice that today is World MS Day, and I am keeping this knowledge from her. She is already convinced that she suffers from the condition, along with several others. There are only so many times I can attempt to reassure her at 2am, hampered by the fact that: 1) I am her mother; and 2) I am a ‘mere’ GP (she would prefer an internationally renowned expert in the related fields of neurology and health neurosis, thanks very much).

It is exhausting, but a great exercise in patience, or so I try to tell myself. And that can be said for all of this, and indeed for life in general. An exercise in patience, but also in fortitude, in determination, in steadiness. My situation is worse than some people’s, certainly, but a great deal better than others’, and every working day that I spend at the hospice, I am reminded of that anew.

Dr Kate Harding is a GP and hospice doctor in Herefordshire

The new bereavement group described is for people grieving the loss of a medical relative to suicide. Its first meeting will be next month, organised by Professor Clare Gerada, medical director of the NHS Practitioner Health Programme; she can be emailed on SOBS is a national organisation supporting people bereaved by suicide; the website can be found at