Book Review - The Madness of Grief

WHEN his partner of 12 years was dying, the Reverend Richard Coles recalled with bitter irony the lyrics of the hit single he had enjoyed with the Communards: “Don’t Leave Me This Way”.

Richard, the presenter of Saturday Live on Radio 4 and a former contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, has written a courageous account of the death of his civil partner, David, also a reverend, and his aching sadness as he come to terms with his bereavement.

One night in December 2019, Richard arrived home to be met by a terrifying tableau: David “in his dressing gown and lying in front of the fire with the dogs, a pile of bloodstained tissues, like scattered carnations, encircling him”. Later, in A&E his beloved is “lying on his side on a trolley, vomiting blood copiously”.

David died, aged 43, of a gastrointestinal bleed caused by alcoholism. He had, by all accounts, been ill for some time. Richard realised the severity of David’s condition, but the shock of his death was still like a low punch to the stomach. In the earliest stages of grief, Richard describes feeling like a leper – “wrapped in my misfortune, sounding like a broken bell, and contagious with bad luck”.

He writes astutely about succumbing to the inevitable: “Death is the enemy… we try to establish rules of engagement for a fair fight, but there is no fair fight… no rules of engagement. You have no power.”

There are warning signs – David’s unfinished projects, the restless leg syndrome, the endless smoking, the hoarding and irrational bursts of anger – but Richard’s love and patience shine through this account and he does not spare himself in the telling. One particular anecdote illustrates David’s problematic relationship with alcohol. They are on holiday in Scotland and are given whiskies to taste. When Richard wakes the next morning, he discovers David “unconscious in the sitting room, kneeling on the floor in a peculiar attitude of obeisance, surrounded by now empty bottles of Springbank and Glen Scotia”.

Richard finds humour amid the sorrow. He is self-depreciating – remembering the occasions he shouted at David who, in turn, would dispel his rage by reminding him sarcastically that he was supposed to be “Britain’s best-loved vicar”. There are also moments of hopeless anger that Richard cannot forgive himself. He writes: “One of the hardest wishes since his death is that I had not lost my temper with him but had been tender and loving, for he loved nothing more; and when I was not tender and loving it hurt him so much.”

Richard recalls first meeting David in Norwich. When David visited him and asked to meet him again, Richard floundered and suggested an appointment in a month or two. David responded with a text: “Don’t you get it?” and they never looked back. David affectionately referred to Richard as “a borderline national trinket”.

After David’s death, Richard describes how fans and neighbours came to his rescue. In a coffee shop, he is surrounded by widows who share their experiences. Afterwards they send him off with a cheery farewell: “There you are, me duck, we’ve genned you up a bit.”

Later, Richard meets a Romanian parishioner who offers his condolences, observing that his father had died of a stroke aged 39. When Richard asked how he had coped he replies: “We have a saying in Romanian. ‘Death is death, but food is food.’ I took this to mean the necessities of living came before any other consideration and so I went home and started making a cauliflower cheese.”

Some of the saddest moments come at the end of the book, when Richard has to rehome three of their five(!) dachshunds with family and friends. Interwoven throughout are examples of the consolations of Richard’s faith and occasional flashes of rationality amid the madness. For example “there is a hygienic purpose to weeping in the first days of grief, a discharge of sorrows that would otherwise disable you”.

Richard’s loving tribute to David reveals the many contradictions of a “a working-class boy from Manchester, and an Oxford-educated clergyman”. It’s a poignant and illuminating memoir about love, loss and the struggles of dealing with someone in the grip of a terrible addiction.

The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss by the Reverend Richard Coles, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £16.99

Originally published by Camden New Journal