Book Review: The Madness of Grief

The Madness of Grief by Richard Coles

What is it all about?

This is a beautiful book written by the Reverend Richard Coles in the aftermath of his beloved husband David’s death just before Christmas 2019. It is billed as a “memoir of love and loss”, which I find is a bit of an understatement. This is not just a memoir, but a ripping open the most intimate secrets – I hesitate to use that word, but bear with me – living through the experience of losing a loved one and dealing with the world that has been forever changed.

Writing style, technicalities

The book tells the story of David’s last few days, and how Richard spent the time leading up to his death and the days between that and his funeral nearly two weeks later. It is interspersed with memories of their life together before his death, and with passages of the time at which it was being written. These three distinct time “zones” paint a picture of what life has been like for both Richard and David, growing up in different parts of the country, from different backgrounds, with different personalities and temperaments but who found each other and carved a life together for many years.

Richard has a wonderfully poetic style of writing, using many cultural references that give us an insight into his complex and multi-layered interest in life, food, art, music and theatre. He has a beautiful way of naming things that lend them a romance and depth that perhaps ought not to be there. My favourite example is how he describes hand cream as not simply lotion, but “an unguent”. Another favourite is his term for the clothes that he wears at home to be comfortable. I would refer to mine as “comfies”, but Richard’s name for them is “scamper pants”.

I feel that the book has been written as much to exorcise guilt as it is to talk about what it is like for a Church of England clergyman to lose the love of his life and how he rationalises his faith in the face of that incredible loss. Richard is quite open about saying he feels he ought to have done more to “save” David, or to support him when his illness began to take hold, or how he should have been at home more, or less complaining while he was alive… This is what I mean by exorcising guilt; it is a way for him to get a handle on their relationship and how David’s illness affected them both.

It is a sort of diary, a sort of journal, a sort of record, a sort of confessional, a sort of love letter and a sort of prayer.

My thoughts on the book:

I have been a fan and admirer of Richard Coles for many years now, and I have followed him on Twitter for as long as I have had an account. I knew about David’s death on the day that Richard announced it (he tells us about this in the book), and I was under the impression that he had liver cancer. I don’t know where I had got that from, but it must have been from what Richard had posted online that day. However, what I didn’t realise until I read a couple of previews and reviews of this book is that David suffered with alcoholism, and the GI bleed that was his final injury was as a result of heavy and sustained drinking for many years.

It is at approximately half way through the book that this is revealed, and the paragraphs that reveal this are probably the most powerful testimony I have ever heard about what it is like to live with an alcoholic partner. I have lost several family members to the associated affects of alcoholism, and I know what it is like to witness those you love in the grip of this brutal illness. However, reading Richard’s words about his own reaction to it have got to be the most intimate, raw and truthful picture about living with alcoholism that I have ever read. It moved me to tears and my heart goes out to both of them; Richard in his loss and David in the life that was taken from him by this illness.

As an ordinand who is soon to be ordained, God willing, into the Church of England myself, I was moved by Richard’s use of Scripture throughout his writing. He talks about prayers said for the dead and the dying, and his own reliance on things like the daily office to help him in his grief. He replicates verses and passages from the Psalms that have helped him, and he takes us through the funeral service and his reaction to the prayers and sentences from scripture that sustain him in his faith and in his grief. They took on a new meaning for me too, because I have used the same sentences and Psalms in funerals and home visits before funerals, but never before had I seen it from the priest’s own personal view through the lens of their own grief.

The book is relatively short – only about 250 pages – and it covers just over two weeks in time, but it packs an emotional punch that can’t possibly leave the reader unchanged by the end of it. I read it in just over a day, and if I hadn’t had to stop to sleep or to weep I would have read it in less time. It was an emotional read, and it has given me much food for thought.

Would I recommend it to my friends?

Yes, I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in helping those who are bereaved and grieving, and anyone who is interested in Richard’s story as a priest and media celebrity. It is poignant and emotional, intimate and revealing, and it would appeal to anyone who is interested in anybody else’s life story.

A final word on this

My prayers tonight are for all those who suffer from alcoholism – the people with the illness, their families and loved ones, the people who are left behind in the wake of an untimely death that it can bring. And of course, for Richard Coles and the family of the late David Coles. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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