Don’t leave me this way: the Reverend Richard Coles on the madness of grief

“The thing about grief,” says the Reverend Richard Coles, “is that we think there are ways of doing it, and there aren’t. You don’t do grief, it does you. You just have to let it work its way through you.”

In 2020, Richard had plenty of time to let grief work its way through him, as Britain went into its first lockdown just four months after the sudden loss of his beloved life partner, David. “I think it was actually kind of good for me,” he reflects. “There’s a sort of tectonic level to grief that is easily lost in distraction, but it will get you if you don’t pay it attention. If I hadn’t been in lockdown, I know I’d have just thrown everything into work and busy-ness, and that would have been a way of not dealing with it.”

Instead, he spent time in the garden that David, who was also a priest, had lovingly cultivated at their Northamptonshire vicarage, watching new plants and shrubs pushing up though the soil. “Every day,” Richard wrote in his journal, “it is like he has brought me a bunch of flowers.”

When Weekend catches up with the “80s lefty-gay pop star-turned-vicar” (his words) in March – 15 months after David’s death, aged just 42 – he says he is “a bit further along the road of putting myself together, I guess”. He’s still busy combining pastoral duties in his parish of Finedon with being a ‘media vicar’ – he’s the long-running host of Radio 4’s Saturday Live, and recently showed a natural talent for live comedy in Channel 4’s Stand Up and Deliver – and has just written a heartbreaking, wise and occasionally funny memoir, The Madness of Grief, about David’s death and its lingering aftershocks.

The book began as a series of diary entries – private dispatches from the frontline of grief. “I began to feel a little bit like a war correspondent,” he explains. “That I was standing on a street corner and bombs were going off all around me, and I just sort of wanted to write it down.”

Was it cathartic? “Too early to say, I think. If you lose something, you become very conscious of things slipping away from you. So you try to hold on to grief, because it preserves, at its heart, something of the person. When David’s brother and his mate came to take away David’s Morris Minor, I did feel that sense that a bit of him was starting to fade.” (Though that was nothing compared to the day when, aware that he wouldn’t be able to cope on his own, he had to say goodbye to three of the couple’s five cherished dachshunds.)

Richard and David met in church in 2007. They entered into a civil partnership in 2011, after which David became the Reverend David Coles, but were barred by the Church from marrying, and had to commit to celibacy. The plan was to marry after retirement but, as Richard writes with gallows humour in the book, “we skipped the wedding and went straight to the funeral”.

Being, to borrow David’s description, a “borderline national trinket” – he’s still the only vicar to have scored a number one single (Don’t Leave Me This Way, as one half of The Communards) and done Strictly – Richard’s was a very public grief; indeed, he found himself being forced to grin for selfies in the hospital Costa, even as David lay dying in the ICU. 

“That was difficult,” he admits. “And also because David died as a result of alcoholism. That wasn’t something that was widely known at the time of his death, and I didn’t want to have that conversation then. To spare my feelings, to spare his parents’ feelings… I don’t know. But then after a while I began to think: it’s a matter of record, it’s on his death certificate. And actually, the silence around addiction isn’t good.”

In the book, Richard is candid about the struggles of living with an alcoholic. “There’s a danger when someone dies – de mortuis nil nisi bonum [of the dead, say nothing but good] – that we kind of canonise them, and I didn’t want to canonise David,” he tells Weekend. “I wanted to remember him as the person he was – and he was a flawed person, like I am. He was an exceptional person, who had a very tough life, in some ways, which he very often managed to overcome, and he was just gorgeous and funny and flourished and bloomed in all sorts of exciting and surprising ways.

“But he also had his demons, and he was very difficult when his demons got their teeth into him. It was a bittersweet experience, but also life-enhancing. He was the love of my life, and I’m just really glad he came after me and got me.”

A widow I met in a shop told me, ‘People will never be as nice to you again as they are now, so milk it’.

The Reverend Richard Coles

In a slightly surreal interlude, a week after David’s death, Richard went to spend Christmas at the nearby Althorp Estate, as guests of the Earl and Countess Spencer. “Charles and Karen Spencer are good friends of ours,” he explains. “We met on the sort of county great and good circuit – it’s where vicars and aristocrats meet, I suppose. And when David died, and there was press interest and things got a bit hostile, they invited me to stay for Christmas – because they’ve got a wall and security. And also, it occurred to me, if anyone knows about a tragic early bereavement, it’s Charles Spencer…

“It’s a vicar’s thing,” he adds. “You find yourself in the morning talking to a prisoner serving a life term, and then dropping off in the evening in King William III’s bed.

“On Christmas Day, after I came back from church, I was walking around the park and I came across the island where Diana is buried, and it made me remember that big public bereavement, to which we all attached our own grief. I found that quite comforting, in a way.” (In a strange quirk of fate, Richard actually knew Diana a little, through their shared work for an HIV charity. “I liked and admired her. And I was at an age where her life and death seemed particularly vivid.”)

The hostility Richard refers to came in the form of hate mail he received after David’s death, mostly from fellow ‘Christians’ keen to tell him he would soon be joining David ‘roasting on a spit in Hell’. “It was a tiny percentage of my postbag,” he stresses. “And it didn’t really touch me. I’d lost David, so these just felt like ineffectual paper darts.”

Mostly, people were very kind. “The day after David died, I had a lovely conversation with a widow I bumped into in a shop. I said, ‘What do I need to know?’ and she said, ‘People will never be as nice to you again as they are now, so milk it.’”

Richard’s faith – which he credits with saving him after his post-pop star drug use spiralled out of control in the late 80s – didn’t bring as much comfort as some might expect: in the book, he writes about how “Christianity doesn’t offer an escape from death; rather, it insists on the face of death”. 

“I mean, we know this every Good Friday,” he reflects. “We realise this life beyond that we proclaim comes at a cost, and the cost is as great for us as it is for everybody else. There are comforting things that are said at funerals: ‘They have just gone into the next room.’ Well, you might have done, but it’s a room that’s separated from us by an unbridgeable chasm. So I didn’t expect religion to offer any easy palliative.”

And yet, he is at least confident of being reunited with David one day. “I don’t think this is all there is. I think that everything that was lovely and beautiful about David is not lost, and I know that I will rejoin him, just as we will eventually decompose together, side by side in the same grave.” In a Northamptonshire village churchyard, David and Richard’s headstones already stand side by side, with a verse from Psalm 65 running from one to the other. “Though the date of my occupancy is still a matter of speculation at the moment,” notes Richard, drily.

As a vicar, Richard has been at many deathbeds. “My job is to walk alongside other people who are going through this, but of course when it happens to you it’s completely different,” he says. “What I’ve learned is, when someone dies, everyone goes a bit mad, because this depth charge has gone off in everyone’s lives. I’d seen that from the outside, but experiencing it from the inside has been most instructive.” (Though, he adds, he is no stranger to personal grief either: as a young gay man in the 1980s, he lost many friends to HIV.)

As to the future, the 59-year-old has already hatched a post-retirement plan to move to the south coast with one of his oldest friends, Lorna. “It sounds exactly like Mapp and Lucia, and I’m sure it will be,” he chuckles. It’s also the closest, for now at least, he wants to come to finding another partner.

“I had this conversation with David’s mum,” he recalls, “where she said, ‘Listen, don’t write yourself off, go out there, meet someone, have a new life, it’s what David would have wanted.’ And I thought, actually, David would have begged to differ. He’d much rather I was sitting at home in a black shawl, stirring a pot of polenta.” 

The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99

FROM POP TO PULPIT

Northampton-born Richard was famously the inspiration for Tom Hollander’s character in BBC sitcom Rev. He is good friends with Gogglebox’s Reverend Kate Bottley. “I think she’s overtaken me as Britain’s favourite vicar, and deservedly so,” he says. “She’s much better at it than me.” 

“It was a weird thing that sort of snatched me up out of my usual life, whirled me around and then dropped me back in it again,” says Richard of his time in The Communards with Jimmy Somerville. “I was never really a pop fan. I’m more interested in opera.”

“The truth is, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this… I thought I’d be quite good at Strictly,” confesses Richard, who became the second celebrity to leave the 2017 series after a disastrous Flash Gordon-themed paso. “I thought there might be a secret Justin Timberlake waiting to be discovered. But there really wasn’t.”

FAITH, HOPE, LOVE: The Reverend Richard Coles, right, with his late partner David.

This article appeared in the issue of Waitrose Weekend published April 15, 2021 © Waitrose Weekend

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