Today I visited Mrs M, who is in her late 80s. She wanted to talk about a problem with a rash and get some advice about her medication. Once I’d talked to her about her concerns, my GP antennae started twitching and telling me that there was Something Else Going On. A few gentle questions later it became very clear that not only was she lonely, but also very depressed. The immaculately dressed lady in front of me was struggling to get out of bed in the morning and had only dressed today because I was coming over. She was sleeping poorly, not eating, crying every day, and feeling “ready for the knacker’s yard”. Since her husband died a few years previously she had never really recovered, and the grief had been overtaken by depression. We talked about depression and what it meant; we talked about treatment and the options we had (what the Royal College of GPs calls “exploring the patient’s ideas, concerns and expectations”). And then we talked about her husband, “because you never really get over losing your husband. Not after fifty years”.
It took me back to an ongoing fear I have about widowhood. Society has never really come to terms with the widowed. A friend whose husband died young from cancer talks about how, young or old, widows make us feel very scared and uncomfortable. There is no way to solve the problem. You can’t make it better. Is there anything that doesn’t sound trite when you’re consoling someone who has lost their life partner, the person they’ve spent every day with and every night sleeping next to ever since they fell in love? We see a lot of widows in general practice, so many people who’ve been left stranded, that it almost becomes usual. Of course, like every patient, scratch the surface and discover the story and it’s frequently a very everyday tale of love and loss. Everyday but no less poignant for that.
I left her house and called my husband just to tell him that I loved him. Wouldn’t you have?