Nadja Ensink-Teich: ‘I wanted to show our daughter the world to honour my late husband’s life’ | Life and style

As she lay in an Indonesian hospital, attached to a drip and suffering from dengue haemorrhagic fever, Nadja Ensink-Teich experienced an extraordinary act of human kindness. “Two ladies suddenly appeared at the foot of my bed,” she remembers. “They said, ‘We’re going to take care of Fleur.’”

That happened in January, when Ensink-Teich and her three-year-old daughter were on an extended world trip. They were travelling alone because her husband had been killed, suddenly and brutally, when Fleur was just days old.

Dr Jeroen Ensink, 41, a public health academic, was stabbed outside the family home in north London, at the end of December 2015. He was attacked by a stranger in the grip of psychosis, as he popped out to post cards announcing the birth of his daughter 11 days before.

Taking Fleur to see the world was an attempt at a kind of recovery for Ensink-Teich, but as they trekked through the Sumatran jungle she contracted the mosquito-borne dengue virus.

Incredibly, the two local women who visited the hospital had heard about Ensink-Teich, through an Indonesian PhD student living in Europe whose supervisor was a friend of Jeroen’s. When they heard she was ill, they brought sweets and their own children for Fleur to play with. Relieved, Ensink-Teich surrendered to her pent-up emotion.

“I totally broke down,” she says. “I felt sorry for myself and I don’t think I had allowed myself to do that before. I was angry with the world, angry for what I had to go through, angry that I was in hospital, angry that I had to do everything on my own. At the same time, I was so grateful and emotional that total strangers had gone out of their way to help us. Then, I cried some more.”

Her anger had been buried since Jeroen’s death. Hollowed out by grief, Ensink-Teich, 40, had left her career as an events manager in London and moved back to the Netherlands. Over the next two-and-a-half years, during which her mother died, she shuttled back and forth between the Netherlands and England to see her husband’s killer convicted of manslaughter. She also attended an inquest into possible police failures, examining why earlier knife crime charges against the killer had been dropped just before the fatal stabbing. Survival, and the hope of justice, had kept her going – and it had been exhausting.

Nadja and Fleur on a boat tour in Komodo national park, Indonesia.

Nadja and Fleur on a boat tour in Komodo national park, Indonesia. Photograph: Photo courtesy Nadja Ensink-Teich

After the inquest, she went home. “That was it. Nothing happened. I had been preparing for the inquest for more than two years. Then the jury read out its verdict, but that’s a 10-minute affair,” she says. “After all the fight, the stamina, the determination, then suddenly – that’s it?”

She had known to expect a void, and so Ensink-Teich flew to Bangkok with Fleur, then two years old, to embark on a physical and spiritual odyssey. The plan was to go on a six-month adventure in south-east Asia. “I was so tired of thinking only about difficulties. I wanted to think [in terms of] opportunities, of possibilities. I wanted to embrace life again. I asked myself many times what I was doing, but also: what brings me joy?”

As she boarded the plane, she says she felt excited for the first time in years. Travelling had been a passion she shared with Jeroen. “Early on, I made a promise to myself that I would show Fleur the world. It was a way of honouring Jeroen’s life and making the best of ours,” she says.

Hopping on and off planes, buses, boats and tuk-tuks, mother and daughter travelled through Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and to several Indonesian islands. They struck up friendships with local people and fellow travelling families.

From the start, there was one great fear – serious illness. On a trek to see orangutans in the Sumatran jungle, Ensink-Teich began to feel ill. “We’d got back to the lodge. I walked to reception and told them I was ill, and asked if someone could look after Fleur. Then I collapsed.”

For seven days, she lay “like a zombie” in her hotel room, before spending four days in hospital.

Nadja Ensink-Teich with her husband, Dr Jeroen Ensink.

Nadja Ensink-Teich with her husband, Dr Jeroen Ensink. Photograph: Nadja Ensink/PA

If Jeroen’s killing had dented Ensink-Teich’s capacity for trust, during this crisis she had to put her faith in strangers; first, the hotel staff who rallied round, and then the two women who came to her aid at the hospital. The whole journey depended on trust. At bus station toilet stops, as she juggled luggage and a small child, strangers were entrusted to look after their bags. Willing families entertained Fleur while Ensink-Teich took time for yoga or surfing. “As soon as people know you are travelling on your own, they are really helpful,” she says.

But innocent assumptions hurt, too. “Is Daddy sleeping?” they were often asked at breakfast. “The first time, it was like a bullet. But I knew people were well-meaning.” Fleur would reply, matter-of-factly, “Daddy’s dead” or “Daddy’s in my heart”.

As they travelled, Ensink-Teich became increasingly aware of her daughter’s grief. Fleur was starting to articulate her sense of difference from other families. At a Bali kindergarten, which Fleur attended for three weeks, a member of staff took Ensink-Teich to one side. “Fleur has been telling everyone that I’m her best friend and she doesn’t have any other friends. She’s also been saying that she does have a daddy but she doesn’t know where he is. Two loaded statements and my heart is breaking,” Ensink-Teich wrote on Instagram. “Today, I question myself, my parenting style, my choice to take her travelling around the world and I question how I’d like our future to look.”

She is honest about the resentment she sometimes felt early on, as Fleur’s needs overrode her own – from building sandcastles instead of surfing and hours spent in play areas, to early bedtimes when others were going out. She checked herself by thinking back to the previous two years when, she felt, she had not been fully there emotionally for her daughter – “when it was about survival”.

There were the difficult anniversaries of the deaths of Jeroen and her mother, but there were celebrations, too: her 40th birthday in Thailand, Fleur’s third in Lombok; hours spent on deserted beaches or watching sunsets, and marvelling at the milestones they had passed. And there was her delight in Fleur’s development: “How she experiences the world, how she is surprised about small things, how she communicates with people of all ages and nationalities – it is fantastic.” Ensink-Teich says they got their enjoyment of life back.

In the Philippines, in March, she decided to return to their small home town on the Dutch-German border in time for summer. “How amazing to say that. Just knowing where ‘home’ is, is so incredibly valuable to me,” she wrote on Instagram. “The town is the same place, but it is a different place now, because I have changed. I have come back with a sense of purpose. I have come back feeling a fuller version of myself. I know how I want our life to look.”

The adventure, she says, may be over but it gave the two of them a chance to cement a powerful sense of identity: “We were constantly asked if it was just the two of us. In the beginning, I just said yes. But the further along our travels we got, I felt, no – it’s not just the two of us. It is the two of us. We are complete. We are enough. It’s one word, but it makes such a massive difference.”

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