Emotional Dislocations

Mike is a family doctor (GP) from the UK. He's been working for Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Irbid, Jordan, helping to provide medical care to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians. Today he shares a very personal post about going home to say goodbye to his father...

It had been a busy day, as our Jordanian medical coordinator was in the project for a review of progress. I was chilling with a couple of my international staff colleagues in the house at 8pm when I got a Whatsapp from my sister saying that my 91-year-old father had suddenly deteriorated.

I checked, and got advice from a couple of my four siblings (all of them doctors) that his death was imminent and that I might not get home before he died.


Mike's dad in the garden

Photo: Mike Tomson.

Whilst I’d thought I’d said goodbye when I was back home in January, when I got this news I knew that I wanted to be back in UK with Dad and my family.

The first hour after I heard was, I think, all about my confusion, sadness and emotional indigestion.

Though I asked our acting programme coordinator about compassionate leave, I didn’t do anything. Then my colleague Nico pointed out that the flights to Europe all left Amman in the early hours of the morning, and that if we booked one now, it would be possible to get to my dad early the next day.

Despite the normal hassle of booking flights online, I was at the airport by 1 am. Having colleagues who also work as taxi drivers, and who dropped other things to drive me, helped here too!

By midday the following morning I was with my Dad.

I very successfully managed to disconnect from all my Irbid work (apart from needing to send some messages to HR, and being sent some messages about the medical coordinator’s visit).

It was however very peculiar to suddenly and unexpectedly mix my lives, and arrive at my parents’ home. I think my body arrived quite a while before my feelings could, and not only because of the effect of an overnight flight.

In the much-loved garden. Photo: Mike Tomson.

I had a day with Dad and a couple of siblings. Though he was clearly much worse than when I’d last seen him, we were able talk a bit and I pushed him in a wheelchair round his wonderful and much loved garden, sharing things. It was the last time he’d see it. 

Siblings came and went over the next few days as Dad got worse, and despite being doctors, we weren’t able to achieve a home care package that was suitable for his increasing needs.

The bonds between us were strengthened as we worked with Mum on what to do at each step of illness. I know that at the end of it all, we are much closer.

There was also, for me, a paradoxical awareness that though very much in the midst of looking after Dad and being with the family, I’d not been there in their lives for the last six months, and relatively soon I’d be back in Jordan to finish my role here as best I could. This created distance. The lack of continuity with the rest of the family’s life was confusing, as we travelled along the same road as Dad deteriorated despite our best attempts at home care, went to hospital and finally to a hospice.

My own home is about two and a half hours from my parents’, and it was emotionally confusing to be “home” with my parents, but for several days not to have seen my wife or my adult children. Travelling journeys without them has been part of the story of being with MSF, but these have mainly been physical journeys, and the emotional ones have been slow and shareable through their trip to Jordan and mine home.

This time I was where I wanted to be, looking after Dad when sometimes my siblings could not, but still dislocated from support from wife and kids.

Early on, I’d been told that MSF normally allowed five days compassionate leave as well as the time from death to funeral. As Dad deteriorated, but not to this timescale, I had worries about whether I was exceeding what was permitted. I kept the London and Amman offices up to date and was supported to be where I was. Later I got messages asking if I was really ready to go back to the field; ‘Did I need more time?’

Dad died. I was with him when he died. My siblings, Mum and I had a day together. The preparations for his funeral then had to be concentrated on.

I was able to have a few days in my own home and could start to rub off some of the rust that is the inevitable consequence of living separate lives in different continents off the relationship with my wife.  It was wonderful to be home and to have a brief period of intense connection and space to begin the processing of loss.

The funeral was what Dad would have wanted (we designed it at his request to support Mum’s needs); all of the family were happy with it. There were about 300 people there, a mixture of friends, family, colleagues, patients and neighbours, and amazing honour to the person he was

For all of my siblings, supporting my Mum after the enormous funeral was important, and two of my brothers arranged that she’d join them for a while to enable her transition.

I’ve chosen to return to the project, where I’m due to finish at the end of July. I’ve got quite a lot of my Dad in me I suspect; including a belief that doing the right thing morally and for others is crucial for feeling good about yourself, mixed with some determined “I’ve started so I’ll finish” as well as more medical ones such as that continually improving the quality of care is crucial to good medicine.

It’s hard to grieve and process Dad’s death at the moment. I’m wrapped up in the project, covering a colleague’s work as well as finishing up my own. I suspect some of my grieving will happen again, and differently, when I’m home at the end of July. In the meantime, I’m trying to give myself time to be with the bits of myself that are the result of my relationship with Dad.

If you are a subscriber of the British Medical Journal, you can read the obituary for Mike's father, Dr Peter Tomson, on the BMJ website here.