The COVID-19 pandemic has led to people considering mortality in a way they’ve seldom done before, which makes the timing of Richard Coles’ new book, “The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss”, extraordinarily appropriate. Yet timing can be a swine, because the book is the result of the horribly early death of Richard’s partner David in December 2019.
I had lunch with Richard the month before, when he told me, “David is seriously ill.” I asked how serious. “He’s dying.” I did what people so often do when given terrible news — tried to be empathetic and loving, which often comes across as concerned anger. I mumbled that I loved him as we parted, and a few days later flew back home. Just weeks after that I woke to read that David was gone.
For those who don’t know Coles, he’s something of a national treasure in Britain. A Church of England priest, but also a weekly BBC radio host, and a regular on television. He was once a pop star too, with the Communards — Don’t Leave Me This Way was the biggest-selling single of 1986!
Now comes this honest, beautiful, compelling work. But it’s not a guidebook, not some clerical manual on how to deal with the numbing ache of bereavement. “I felt like a war correspondent, even though I’ve never been one, with bombs going off and windows smashing”, he says. “I simply tried to record all of that as accurately as I could. The book wasn’t cathartic, not at all, and many people advised me not to write it. I understand what they meant, because it’s not until the second year that you realize he’s not coming back. I was in the early stages, they said, and this was long-term, it was forever.”
But that doesn’t negate the book’s importance. Precisely because those left behind in these cases need accounts of that first year, need to be accompanied rather than advised. What they soon realise is that, while there may be some mildly helpful devices and techniques available, there are no genuine cures and solutions. It hurts, and it’ll continue to do so. Even for a priest, even for someone who has seen the horror before. Witnessing is one thing, participating quite another.
“I spent Christmas with Charles and Karen Spencer at Althorp House, who have been so kind to me” he says. “They also have a wall around the house, which helped because I was getting some unwelcome media attention at the time. On Christmas Day I went for a walk in their grounds, and there was Diana’s grave, the resting place of someone whose death had been so public, so known. That rather focused it all.”
The book is a story of loss, but also a captivating tale of a romance – it has to be, because without understanding the depth of love we can’t fathom the clawing darkness of losing it. That symbiosis, that paradox, is the foundation of an intimate partnership, and one part of it can’t be had without the other.
Richard and David had been a couple for twelve years and were in a civil partnership for nine. David had made the first move after one of Richard’s sermons, later sending him a text asking, “Don’t you get it?” Eventually, he did. And the book explains the love of his life, the former nurse, musician, family man, husband, traveller, priest. Mingled in all of this is faith in God, the constant theme and thread in what is written and woven, implicitly and gorgeously, into the text.
On death and loss and suffering he writes: “A bit rich coming from you, you may think, but Christianity does not offer you a palliative or an escape from this. On the contrary, it insists on the fact of death; without it, there’s no hope of a new life beyond that last horizon. For some that means Aunt Phyllis and the family spaniel bounding towards them across the springing meadows of eternity to greet them. For others, me included, it conjures no cast of best-loved characters, no misty shore, or flowery field, but something more like geometry.”
Many years ago, when experiencing a crisis that I thought might never end, I read A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. I’d still recommend it to anybody dealing with loss and its terror, but I’d give them Richard’s new book too. Not merely because he’s a friend, or someone I admire very much, but because I read his book through the night, unable to break the story. It’s a genuinely memorable and important volume which will help countless others. I only hope it can help Richard as well, because this walk never really ends.
“But we skipped the wedding, and went straight to the funeral, and our last walk together up the aisle, or rather my walk, and his trundle, was for a parting not a union.” Thank you, Richard. And bless you.