Briefly an 80’s pop star before becoming a vicar and beloved broadcaster, the Reverend Richard Coles was often teasingly referred to by his late partner, David, as ‘a borderline national trinket.’ It’s a rueful irony that this book has likely propelled him from trinket to treasure, for The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles is an eloquent, incredibly affecting, and often beautiful account of David’s death. Providing solace for similarly bereaved readers, this poignant memoir is also a testament to abiding love.
‘When your partner dies, they take with them your future.’
With hindsight, it’s clear that David has been quietly dying for some time. An alcoholic, his body is approaching shutdown, but the end, when it comes, threatens to subsume Coles with grief. As a vicar whose daily duties often require him to deal with people in the depths of despair, Coles is helplessly adrift in the face of his own anguish. Here, in a book spanning the period of David’s death and funeral, he shares stories of their life together and the lessons he has taken from bereavement.
Obstinate by nature, David took his time dying. Taken into hospital with little hope of coming out, his end days were spent mainly unconscious, surrounded by family. As a public figure, Coles is used to being under scrutiny. Here, he describes being approached in the hospital by a fan, referencing his stint on Strictly Come Dancing with the words ‘Oh look, it’s the Strictly Rev, do us a twirl, Rev!’ The fame that obliges him to dazedly grant selfies in the hospital corridor also makes it practical to announce David’s death via Twitter. Pressing the send button, he envisages a dead Viking on a burning ship, sailing into eternity.
Public interest is considerable, an ITV camera crew attends David’s funeral. On the surface, Coles retains admirable composure over what some would find unbearable. He receives hundreds of letters, most supportive, some not. The opening lines of one particular letter are nauseating.
‘Dear Mr Coles, I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to hear of the death of your partner. As long as you continue in your anti-Christ ways your pain will continue…Merry Christmas!’
Overlooking the homophobic nastiness, Coles is concerned about the mental health of the writer.
Hard as the public aspects of his bereavement must’ve been, it’s the private moments that Coles conveys most beautifully. He writes movingly of the way the dead linger at the edge of our lives. David’s blanket, draped on a stair post, momentarily deceives Coles’ eye into thinking it’s him. His cigarette smoke sporadically hovers, the ‘spectral fumes’ suggesting his continued presence. Coles’ own advice is gently proffered. Steel yourself for the admin of death, or ‘sadmin’ as he calls it. Be prepared too for guilt and anger. Hold proven friends close. Remember too that your grief is all yours and will not follow psychological patterning or another’s experience.
David was a charismatic and creative man, who made Richard Coles’ life ‘lovely, as no one else could, and never will.’
An illuminating and moving read.
If you liked this, see our review of Grief Works by Julia Samuel.
The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 192 pages.