We live in a time of grief. We always do of course, because suffering is a gruesome but inevitable aspect of the human condition. But this plague year has led to loss and anguish not known for generations in the west, and exposed and expanded much of the pain and loneliness that already existed. Most of us have some sort of experience of it, and as a cleric it’s hard to convey just how much biting, icy suffering is out there.
Covid, however, has led to people considering mortality in a way they’ve seldom done before, which makes the timing of Rev Richard Coles new book, The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss, extraordinarily appropriate. Yet timing, of course, can be a swine as well. The book is the result, a product, 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 that, “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 to my home in Toronto. Just weeks after that I woke to read that David was gone.
While there may be some mildly helpful techniques available, there is no genuine cure for grief
For man who has chronicled his own tempestuous journey so poignantly in two volumes of memoir, witnessed so many of his friends succumb to AIDS, had personal encounters with depression, and is such a skilled observer and commentator, it’s no surprise that Coles has recorded the events of his husband’s death and the first year of his own agony with such style and craft. The Madness of Grief is honest, beautiful, and compelling. But it’s not a guidebook, nor some clerical or first-hand 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 realise he’s not coming back. I was in the early stages, they said, and this was long-term, it was forever.”
That’s true of course, but it doesn’t negate the book’s importance. Precisely, I’d argue, 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 bloody 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.
“It was like tectonic plates were crashing all around me”, he says, while eating a chocolate digestive. (“Dark of course, why anybody would take milk chocolate when dark is available is beyond me.”)
David left quite a wake behind him, and I wanted to feel it still. I found I couldn’t read, couldn’t watch telly, and couldn’t concentrate on anything. Then I began to sit in the garden as the weather improved, on a beanbag, and one day I saw flowers blossoming, the garden coming to life, and all of that was the result of David’s work. It was as though he was there.
Coles was reluctant to write the book because David died of alcoholism-related causes, which weren’t then publicly known. “He was such a dapper man, so stylish, and of course that couldn’t be maintained with alcoholism, and I didn’t want that to be a legacy, for him to be known for that I suppose. But then the death certificate came back, and there it was. Cause of death. It was in writing, official.”
He leans back, thinking. “And you also realise that there’s no normal to go back into, and while there are rings of caring, this is it. This is it.” A pause.
I spent Christmas with Charles and Karen Spencer at Althorp House, who have been so kind to me. 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 “unwelcome” attention was often part of media being its tabloid self. There were also floods of sympathy, concern, and love. Barbaric nastiness as well, with the usual homophobes and fundamentalists coming out of the inquisitorial woodwork to write in condemnation or, God knows how, expressing joy in David’s death. Coles wrote about some of this on social media, leading — not due to his request — to a police inquiry. Words, kind as well as callous, do have consequences.
Faith in God is a constant thread which is written and woven, implicitly and gorgeously, into the text
The importance of language is something Coles knows so well, and he says it always surprises him that in a society that prides itself on being so open-minded and liberated, so prepared to discuss anything and everything, we use euphemisms like “passed away” when it comes to death. “It’s a fate we all share, but we’re uneasy to share it. Aristocrats and Irish Roman Catholics handle death the best, the English middle class not so well. The language intimidates us, as though using it will put us in danger, and makes death more real.”
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.
Then there is the aching banality of what he calls the “sadmin” — the need to convey to the state, the authorities, everybody what to them is a necessary statistic but to the bereaved is a reminder of the intolerable, another cut in the wound that never completely heals.
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 in this book, he explains the love of his life, the former nurse, the musician, the family man, the husband, the traveller, the priest. Mingled in all of this is the fact that Richard Coles is, as well as so much else, a priest, an ordained minister of the Christian Gospel, and faith in God is 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.
Richard’s new book is a genuinely memorable and important volume which will help countless others
Many years ago, when experiencing a crisis that I then 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 Coles’ 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 Coles 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. Thank you and bless you.
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