Rev Richard Coles: My guide to grief
Since his husband died in 2019, the Rev Richard Coles has tried everything from yoga to skydiving to help him cope with the loss. Now he reveals what he learnt from his experiences.
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
We like to mock our Victorian forebears for shrinking from the brute facts of life, but this is to do them a disservice.
We may think that in bereavement their black-bordered calling-cards and mourning ear trumpets were absurdly overwrought, but when widowerhood came to me in 2019, at the age of 57, I discovered that they were skilled at something we’ve lost: how to grieve.
Mortality was such a common experience for them. My grandmother, the youngest of 13, buried two of her siblings and her father before adulthood, and the black-plumed horse was a frequent visitor to many a door. We pride ourselves on having no need of the sentimental illusions of our ancestors but, ironically, we are most coy when it comes to death. We cannot even say the word. In conversation, on the news, people are said to have “passed away” which sounds like something to do with the lavatory.
We die, like every other generation, only we do it in hospitals, maybe a hospice if we’re lucky, where it is medicalised, kept beyond the margins of our everyday experience. All the more bizarre considering it is one of the few experiences we will all share, the terminus to which we are all travelling. If you are lucky enough to share your life with someone you love and who loves you, the chances are roughly 50:50 that you will also be widowed. But people cross the road to avoid us, and the culture returns very little when we look to it for models: black-shawled nonnas stirring polenta, Queen Victoria in bombazine, the Scottish Widows lady rocking her mourning veil.
There is no shortage of material out there about grief if you look for it, some of it very good indeed, but it’s like top-shelf material, rather than on general display. So many of us, when widowhood arrives, are unprepared, and we need to find our own way. Mine was hesitant, unsteady, and sometimes hard.
More like this
As a parish priest I spent many hours with the dying and the bereaved. I know what happens when death comes, from the bureaucracy of registration and dealing with the bank, to the peculiar creativity of devising the funeral and the wake. What I was not prepared for was the difference between looking at bereavement from the outside and experiencing it from the inside.
Outside you see the familiar dynamics and the patterns, inside it is madness, or what I suppose madness must be like.
After my husband David died aged 43 from alcoholism, I went to the Co-op on the way back from the hospital to buy bread and milk because we’d been in ICU for five days. When I got home, I discovered I’d bought three kinds of parmesan. I took the dogs for a walk and forgot to bring them home (thankfully, somebody else did).
To help me find a route through I wrote about it, and this became a book, The Madness of Grief. That led to an invitation to make a Channel 4 documentary for others trying to find their way, too – what is it like, what support is available, is there such a thing as good grief?
The making of the documentary took us from my home in Finedon, Northamptonshire, to the mangroves of Roatan in Honduras. On the way I laughed, I punched, I floated, I surfed, I cried; and it began and ended with yoga.
Yes, I started with laughter yoga, a technique based, I think, on the idea that you can fake it till you make it. You stand in a circle and force yourself to laugh. This activates parts of your body that produce feelings of wellbeing and, before long, you really do feel happier. I met lots of people who love it, but it didn’t really work for me, perhaps because as a vicar I spent years trying to jolly people along. Now I’m retired, I don’t have to any more. A friend of mine, a monk, told me that the best thing about giving up parish ministry for the monastery was not having to smile any more.
In Miami we embarked on a “bereavement cruise” – 60 widows (I was the only man, aside from a couple of tutors) on one of the biggest cruise ships in the world. We took part in groups, we lit lanterns in memory of our beloved, I conducted a burial at sea, and we had fun in the evenings, with karaoke and cocktails.
We went to Mexico to see what happens on the Day of the Dead, when families gather at the graves of their departed loved ones and have a riotous feast. And we went to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras, where the indigenous people mark the anniversary of a death with a terrific display of drumming and dancing. “Oh,” I asked, “you’re rejoicing?” “No!” replied our interpreter, “we’re sad!” You can be sad, of course, without being solemn.
And it turns out you can heal through violence – at least, the controlled violence of boxing. I went to a gym and had a session with a trainer and two women boxing their way through bereavement. It really works, especially as for many, anger can run alongside grief. I went skydiving in a giant, fan-assisted tube at Milton Keynes with a former para, who was grieving not only the loss of comrades but his own mobility, after he was caught in the blast from an IED. I went surfing, too, on a freezing wet day in Bristol, and brought to that all the balance and energy I brought to the paso doble on Strictly.
I found I much preferred the more physical elements of everything I tried. I wasn’t so keen on the talking and reflection, again because I think I got so much of that in my day job.
What made me cry – and I had remained professional and dry-eyed throughout the experience, almost to the end – was music.
On a widows’ yoga retreat on the Isle of Bute, a musician turned our attempts to understand what was happening to us into songs.
“David would have loved this...” I said, through tears. It is no bad thing to weep. The writer Adam Mars-Jones, during the AIDS crisis, described tears as a “fantastic concentrate” of grief. Better out than in.
The best therapy, I have found, is time. I have had two and half years now in a world without David, two and a half years to get used to it, two and a half years to put together a plan for the life ahead of me. I still get disabling moments of loss, but less frequently.
Funnily enough, I have started to dream about him. I think this may be because I know now, with 30 months of experience, that he really is gone, and lives now in dreams, memory, and hope for what lies beyond the here and now. Solidarity, widows and widowers, wherever you are.
Good Grief with Reverend Richard Coles airs tonight (Monday 8th August) at 10pm on Channel 4. Looking for more to watch? Check out our TV Guide.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.