Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears

Laura Bough, English Lecturer at Hull College, shares her experience of losing her husband in 2020, and the challenge of continuing to work where they met and shared so many memories.

There are no words to describe the loss of a loved one. No words to emulate the mix of emotions coursing through your mind and body at an overwhelming pace. One day you are numbed by shock, another shocked by sudden gut-wrenching cries and, eventually, so overcome with exhaustion that you can barely stand.

The emptiness left behind turns a once happy home into a tomb of torture where every corner harbours a ghost constantly haunting you. Your sanctuary becomes a place you wish to leave – and the obvious choice of escape is work.

But what if work is filled with the same ghosts?

It is not uncommon for partners or married couples to work within the same organisation, especially within the FE sector. Often it is where they meet and fall in love. It is where I met and fell in love with my husband. 

I first met Ian in 2009 after moving into the office opposite his. It was during an Outward Bound trip to Ullswater where we just clicked. In 2014 we married and started a family. Four years later, Ian was taken to hospital with suspected appendicitis, only to be told it was something far more serious. Sadly, in December 2020, Ian died of Secondary Bowel Cancer.

As is usually the case, the best are always the first to fly. Ian was appointed Assistant Director of Curriculum in Computing, Science and Business in May 2018, a position he was interviewed for on the same day he had his first round of chemotherapy. The appointment spurred him on, providing focus and an unfathomable determination to be back at work before Christmas, which he was.

In 2019 the outlook appeared positive; his scan in August was clear and within a year of returning to work he had managed to improve the achievement of his area from 63% to 94%. However, in February 2020, the cancer was back and this time it was terminal.

Laura and husband Ian

As with many families across the country, indeed around the globe, we had to cope with the cancer alone during the pandemic. The terminal diagnosis was given four weeks prior to the first official lockdown. The paranoia of catching COVID-19, combined with Ian’s desperate desire to stay alive, meant we took the decision to shut the world out earlier than the rest of the country.

The college did not falter in providing support for both Ian and me throughout his illness, still remaining a gentle source of support after his death. I returned to work in August 2021 and, knowing it would not be easy, I requested to be based at a different campus to the main site where there were not as many memories. The college did their absolute upmost to accommodate me.

Nevertheless, I still taught over at the main campus twice a week, where Ian had mainly worked. Every time I ventured on site, my heart quickened and a nauseating feeling of dread enveloped me. These emotions came as no surprise, but I believed they would gradually ebb away as the weeks passed. I could not have been more wrong.

Some people avoid the bereaved. I avoided people because I was bereaved. When colleagues shared their stories about Ian they spoke from the heart, with genuine fondness and a real sense of privilege to have known and worked with him. These conversations would often happen as a result of a chance meeting in a corridor or on the stairwell. Lovely as it was to hear such reminiscing, I was usually left fighting back tears as I made my way into class.

Why don’t I leave if it is so painful? It would not appear unusual to do so. Many people in my position change jobs or move house to help them cope. I have chosen to do neither for fear of making a hasty decision based on unacquainted emotions. Also, I am not quite ready to lose yet another part of him, despite there being no respite. 

Distraction became my coping mechanism, throwing myself into projects, family and work. Doing anything to avoid thinking about the real issue: grieving. Returning to work provided routine, familiarity and support. The advantages, I believed, outweighed the negatives.

But as time moves on, so do people. Nearly two years on, there are colleagues, understandably, who do not realise it is still raw and still so painful. After the Easter break, I found myself becoming anxious, irritable and withdrawn. My enthusiasm for teaching dwindled and this was not lost on my students. I was unable to focus in the classroom and would often find myself crying between classes, but I refused to seek help. I did not want to appear weak. To anyone. Including myself.

By June half term, I crumbled. Work, once again, never faltered in their support, suggesting I take time off if I needed to, gently guiding me to the employability scheme which offers advice as well as an external counselling service. The feelings I had ignored for far too long short circuited, detonating an explosion of emotions. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. To paraphrase Mitch Albom in his book Tuesdays with Morrie, by throwing myself into these emotions, by allowing myself to dive in all the way, I experienced them fully and completely.

There are days I still buckle. Days where I desperately avoid the shadows. But there are also the days where I walk past his office, smiling inwardly at the cheeky kisses we used to sneak between his meetings – a bittersweet memory, but one I embrace.

I firmly believe in the affirmation, ‘Nowness is the purest form of sanity,’ and do my utmost to live in the present. There are always days I think of Ian while at work. Where I find myself fighting back impromptu tears as the ghost of college past whisks me back to a moment in time when everything was just right. These are the memories which haunt me, whispering their taunts of a life that was and reminding me of a life that will never be. Some days it can be all consuming.

Will I stay at the college? The need to move on will come eventually. But for the time being, as much as a part of me feels I am torturing myself staying there, it is a safe haven, providing much needed familiarity and support. There has been too much upheaval to add anymore. I am learning to walk alongside my grief, accepting it as a part of my life now and always.

Laura Bough