Well Read – The Madness of Grief: A memoir of Love and Loss

The Reverend Richard Coles

(Orion Publishing Co, 192pp)

Helen Brown 

“Grief,” says the Reverend Richard Coles, “can go off like a bomb.” Especially in the wake of an untimely or unexpected death. When his 42-year-old life partner, David, died in December 2019, Coles was left feeling like he *was* the bomb. Only, as he writes in The Madness of Grief, he was exploding “in such super-slow motion you would not notice at first… disintegrating micrometer by micrometer.”

This wise and unstuffy book offers a frank, witty and open-hearted companionship to anybody struggling with bereavement. It’s slim and accessible, without being prescriptive. He tells me he couldn’t imagine anything worse than writing the kind of grief manual that advises “on day one, boil an egg…”

Talking gently, with a dozing dachshund on his lap, from his Northamptonshire vicarage, Coles doesn’t sound like a man in the throes of detonation. He’s a softer, slower version of the “celebrity vicar” who enjoys “showing off ” on Radio 4’s Saturday Live, TV’s QI and Strictly Come Dancing. But he’s also enjoyably crisp and likeably sweary. Coles began his career as a pop star after all, racking up bittersweet dance floor hits as one half of The Communards from 1985- 1988. He then spent over a decade working as a broadcaster and journalist before taking a degree in theology and being ordained in 2005.

Although some see a conflict between Coles’ twin-roles as a clergyman and performer/memoirist, he tells me that, “Vicars have always been obliged to turn our private lives public. At one time to be fine, upstanding citizens, modelling the virtues that we profess. But I think also it’s about a certain measure of truthfulness too. I don’t think we’re much good to people if we offer them a version of ourselves which is not rooted in reality.”

Coles confessed everything about his journey “from pop to pulpit” in his first memoir, Fathomless Riches (2014). Born in Kettering in 1962, the son of a successful shoe manufacturer, he says he was a boy “so sensitive… I made Marcel Proust look like Ian Botham.” He came out to his mother aged sixteen, by playing Tom Robinson’s record “Glad to Be Gay” very loudly four times in a row. But he suffered a mental crisis shortly afterwards, attempted suicide and was diagnosed with depression.

His pop career and its aftermath hurtled by in an emotion-numbing blur of sex and drugs. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” crooned his band-mate, Jimmy Somerville, as many of their young, talented friends died of AIDS. To end one of many rows with Somerville, Coles lied and said he had tested HIV positive himself. It was a pretence he maintained for a short period before coming clean and begging forgiveness.

Today he describes those early encounters with grief as a “traumatic experience” that brought him closer to God. At that time he read CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, in which the author of the Narnia books reconciled the loss of his wife with a deepening Christian faith, writing: “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

Today Coles echoes that sentiment. “I know about grief from the outside. Part of my daily work is being alongside people who are grieving. But I have learnt that it’s completely different when it’s you.” And, when Coles fell in love with David – a nurse turned  clergyman who first approached him for spiritual advice – he didn’t expect he would be the bereaved partner. “I thought: ‘Great, I’ve got a life partner who’s 15 years younger than me and medically trained, that’s my old age sorted.’” The pair had plans for a retirement in Scotland, enlivened by their five dachshunds, Richard’s writing and David’s knitting. Coles exhales. “It was not to be, unfortunately.”

In the press, the death of David Coles was described as the consequence of “an underlying health condition that caused internal bleeding.” In his book, Coles reveals the illness was alcohol addiction. “He was an alcoholic,” he writes, “although I do not like to describe a person in all his complexity in so simplistic a way.”

Coles says that at first he “did not give too much thought” to David’s drinking because “hard drinking is not unusual among gay men, or medics or High Church clergy, and David was all three.” But David had been raised in a strict Christian sect which caused him to struggle with his sexuality. He had a breakdown shortly after he and Coles became civil partners. Drink, writes Coles, made David “at first difficult and then obnoxious. Our social life became embarrassing, then impossible. He lost his job. He lost his licence from the bishop, which curtailed his ministry to the regret of many who had begun to enjoy it, and he nearly lost me because I could not at first stop being angry with him for inflicting this damage on himself and on me, and on our happiness.”

Today he says: “It took me a while to figure out that the last thing David needed from me was to feel worse about himself. He already felt terrible about himself, which is why he drank. And it just took me a while to realise that he could not control what was happening to him. It was controlling him. Once I kind of got that, I just found I could just love him more. And I wish I’d done it sooner because I really hurt by not being loving and sympathetic and understanding sometimes. But it did drive me fucking mental.”

As a man who values truth about all, Coles was often frustrated by David’s denial of what was happening. “I could sit with David and the hepatologist,” he says, “who would look at an X-ray of his liver and the cirrhosis and say, “Oh dear.” And I would mention it to David afterwards and he would just deny it had happened. He would wipe it from his memory and his consciousness because nothing would come between him and drink.”

Coles’ frank fury at what happened to David (and their union) is one of the most powerful – and human – aspects of his book. He makes no pretence at the saintly-but-detached compassion I remember in the words of the vicar I approached when struggling with an alcoholic in my own family.

And, in his grief, he tells me that he felt no pressure to maintain “the illusion of omnipotence, or competence of un-flappable-ness” for the benefit of his congregation. “The longer I try to live a life of faith the stronger becomes the conviction that there’s no point in faking it. I’m not going to do that because I think that’s not what we’re called to be, which is to be authentic. At the heart of Christianity is Christ dying on a cross and feeling that God has forsaken him and everything has turned to darkness. That has to be owned, you know?”

Coles doesn’t believe in the kind of afterlife in which “Aunt Phyllis and the family spaniel [come] bounding towards us across the springing meadows of eternity to greet us.” He thinks David is gone, and what he imagines beyond death is something “more like geometry… with the pilgrim floating around concentric circles.”

The saddest, darkest moment in our conversation comes when Coles talks about jettisoning many of David’s possessions. He wears David’s watch and a shawl David was half way through knitting when he died. “But I got rid of his boyhood rabbit, Ralphy. And I so wish I hadn’t. I just think of Ralphy in some landfill somewhere, neglected and abandoned and I don’t know why…”

He believes the “madness” of grief comes from the pressure to carry on as normal: driving the car, feeding the dogs. “We laugh, don’t we,” he says, “about the Victorians’ elaborate paraphernalia, the mourning ear trumpet and then a year’s full mourning, six months’ half mourning? I now think they were on to something, because I think it’s very good if society agrees a set of rules about how you behave towards people who have been bereaved and who are grief-stricken. In a culture that prizes itself on its confidence, on its ability to face hard truths, we absolutely quail and descend into euphemism and distraction if we’re confronted with death. We export it to the edge of our daily existence, we medicalise it, we put it away and we can’t even say the word now. Even on the news now people talk about someone having “passed away” which, to me, sounds like something you do in a lavatory.”

This is where Coles thinks religion offers a comforting structure. He found solace in the rituals and tells me one I didn’t know: that clergy are buried “the other way around” from their flock, so that they can rise and face their congregations in the heaven. He takes comfort in knowing that David is buried the wrong way around. But he admits he’s also anxious that, “in the sharpest reversal of roles in our relationship I chose David’s grave clothes. He chose all my life clothes. And I know I got it hopelessly wrong. So when the general resurrection comes and, like the dead of Cookham Churchyard and Stanley Spencer, we rise from our graves, the first thing he’s going to see is he’s confronting all of the people he knows wearing the wrong clothes; which is going to mean I get a massive bollocking, I think.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

Arts & Culture

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Jan Manning
    April 7, 2021 6:06 pm

    Thank you Helen for this sympathetic description of Richard Coles book . I am a fan of his and so respect his authenticity. The description of grief being like a bomb going off is so apt and helpful as it was like that for me when my my twenty four year old daughter died. It took me many years to really gather myself together. I too would like social acceptance of a time to mourn.

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