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The Revd Richard Coles on his journey through grief

by
09 April 2021

After the death of his partner, David, Richard Coles reflects on the slow waves of sadness and madness of grief

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A narrowboat on the River Nene

A narrowboat on the River Nene

SOMEONE sent me an article about the Kubler Ross theory of the stages of grief: a metric I have always found a bit doubtful, if only for the too obvious convenience of its offering something useful to say in the face of brute fate.

In my experience, grief — my own and other people’s — does what it wants to do: it is not obedient to psychological patterning, or theological argument, or the opinion of anyone, least of all you. It comes when it comes, and it goes when it goes, and it can snatch you out of relative composure with unpredictable and irresistible force. And it is all yours, and no one else’s.

I remember, in the 1980s, when a former lover died of AIDS, someone telling me at the funeral that it was OK to feel what I was feeling, and I thought, Where do you get off giving people permission to feel?

I suppose what lies underneath that is the unquenchable desire to defeat it, in one way or another, through denial, through miraculous reversal, through parallel universes, through spectral existence.

A bit rich coming from you, you may think, but Christianity does not offer you a palliative or an escape from this. On the contrary, it insists on the fact of death; without it, there’s no hope of a new life beyond that last horizon.

For some, that means Aunt Phyllis and the family spaniel bounding towards them across the springing meadows of eternity to greet them. For others, me included, it conjures no cast of best-loved characters, no misty shore or flowery field, but something more like geometry.

I have always liked Botticelli’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy, which begin busily in Inferno, thronged and detailed, hell being so much easier to imagine than its alternatives, then moves to purgatory, which is less busy, and more strange, and ends in heaven, with the pilgrim floating around concentric circles.

We cannot know God. We can look in that direction, if we are not blinded by its light, a strobe flashes to illuminate for a split second the darkness of this world, something from deep in memory fires up with a significance we did not see at the time, but, to paraphrase St Thomas Aquinas, we do not know what we are talking about; so whatever we say is a shadow of a shadow.

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that at the latter day I will, too, but it will be in a form that we can only imagine, and when we press that, the detail falls away until all we are left with is light, and line, and πr².

 

ALSO, Christians, like everyone else, need to grieve when they lose the ones they love. I have never been of the school that thinks our priesthood obliges us to offer business as usual, and bury our mothers and our husbands and our children dry-eyed and level-voiced in the sure and certain hope.

Some do, and good luck to them, but I could not, would not. I have no doubt in the mercy and generosity of God, nor in the promise of more to come, and wonderfully, but I needed other people to do the honours so that I could honour David with my grief.

Our narrowboat is moored on a bend in the River Nene, next to the village where I grew up. The Nene Valley is at its best in the stretch between Wellingborough and Oundle, and the plan was to have somewhere to get away to within 15 minutes of the vicarage.

David turned its renovation and makeover into a major project. He completely redid the interior and made it beautiful: another example of his irresistible and restless habit of making a Festival of Booths wherever he went. Next to the boat he built a boathouse named Cul na Shee, Scots Gaelic for Nook of Peace, the name of the house we rent every year in Kintyre.

Both the boat, when it was done, and the boathouse were presented to me for my delight, and they were beautiful, but they were also uninhabitable. This was partly because David’s relentless accumulation of dogs made it impractical to spend any time there; not even the most resilient bargee would keep five dachshunds on a 42-foot narrowboat.

It was also partly because I could not bear the smell of cigarette smoke, and David smoked with such extraordinary commitment I sometimes felt he did so to fumigate me; and because — the most important reason — it looked to me like his space, and the friends he made down there his friends.

I think he needed this, but that need was in tension with his desire to please me, and to create a space where we could be together as we were when we were in Scotland.

 

IT IS a hot summer’s day, six months since he died, and the river is at it loveliest when the swallows are on the wing, and the ducks and coots and moorhen and paddleboarders glide past. It is time to see what it feels like to be there.

Since David’s death, it has been looked after by a friend on the boat opposite, and another friend has lived in it during lockdown after she returned from Guatemala, an epic story of repatriation, with nowhere to go thanks to rules about who got to household — a new verb I have just invented — with whom.

It is good, at first, to step on board, into something that is so him, from the stained glass he commissioned for its windows, in the owl motifs that had become his sigil, to the Homes and Gardens fittings in the bathroom and the galley.

It is also smoke-free, no phantom fag smell to perturb me, and tidy.

I make a cup of tea, then play the accordion, “Ye banks and braes of bonnie Doon”: one of the tunes we used to play together, David on fiddle.

That is good, too; it feels positive, a reminder of an addition rather than subtraction; but then I lie on the sofa looking up into the sky, watching the swallows criss-cross in flight, and a puffy white cloud sails very slowly by.

Radio 3 is on and it plays the violin and piano piece Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, a simple and beautiful piece that we used to play, too. Sadness takes me, not the piercing loss that the early days of grief brings, but a slow, building wave.

I ache for him, and that is bad, but it also invites in regret and guilt — the handmaidens of a death like David’s — and I feel in that moment, full force, that I should have been kinder, loved him more strongly, made him happier; I could have done, but I did not, because I was too self-absorbed, and there is nothing I can do about it now.

 

This is an edited extract from The Madness of Grief: A memoir of love and loss by the Revd Richard Coles, published by W&N in hardback at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £14.99), eBook, and audio download.

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