I was fairly sceptical when I first contacted The Harbour. We had just been told that my husband Hugh had only months to live: what use was talking about it going to be? But in my sorrow and fear I was prepared to grab at any help that was offered.
My assessment session showed me very clearly how much I needed The Harbour. “What sort of man was my husband?” asked the counsellor. “What stage had we reached in our shared lives?” Suddenly I realised how much the medical approach had dehumanised us. Most professionals at this stage saw him simply as a cancer of the oesophagus, and me as a machine for keeping him fed, clean and medicated. It felt amazing to be reminded that he and I were both full human beings, dealing with complex and agonising emotions around the simple medical facts of his diagnosis and prognosis.
Over the following months, my counsellor quietly walked beside me through the horrors of my husband’s palliative treatment and deterioration. The Harbour was the one place where it was permissible just to be me in my fear and grief. I remember one session where I spent fifteen minutes doing nothing but silently weep. It was such a relief to be with someone who could simply sit with me in silence while I cried, who felt no need to offer meaningless “comfort”.
I grew up in a severely dysfunctional family. Much of the anger, fear and despair that our happy, loving marriage had enabled me to leave behind came crashing back as I faced the prospect of losing my husband, and dealt with the many strains of caring for him. My counsellor was simply there with me through it all, understanding and unshockable. His shrewd insights helped me to deal with the past as well as the awful present.
The day Hugh died I had an existing appointment at The Harbour. I left the hospice, sorted out a funeral director, and then it seemed only natural to go to The Harbour. I do remember my counsellor’s sharp intake of breath when I told him that Hugh had died just hours before, but he barely faltered. This was my slot, he said, and of course it was fine for me to come.
“I valued being seen and heard, respectfully, honestly and kindly. Feeling free to say absolutely anything”
This support continued through the following months, as I dealt with the dreary, painful processes of grieving, of dealing with the often strange reactions of people around me (a very normal experience for bereaved people, I now know), and finally of cobbling together some sort of new life. My weekly visits to The Harbour felt like the one reliable element of my life: fifty minutes in which I could face my sorrow and all the related emotions in the company of a skilled, kind, respectful, experienced professional. I just don’t know how I would have got through those months without it.
I am not the only person The Harbour supported. “You’ve been our rock,” said my daughter to me recently, but I was only able to provide that support because I was being supported in my turn. And, of course, Hugh benefited enormously: support from The Harbour gave me the strength to care for him – beautifully, as he deserved – and he had the comfort of knowing that after his death that support would still be there for me.
To me it seems obvious that most people affected by life-threatening illness desperately need emotional support. It is almost impossible to access it through the NHS: you have to get “sick” yourself, to obtain it. At The Harbour I found a simple acceptance that I was facing huge, painful challenges, and needed some professional help. I feel passionately that such help should be available throughout the country.