Reverend Richard Coles: ‘The loss of my husband is immense’ | Death and dying

Often, these days, the vicar and broadcaster Richard Coles bicycles from his parish in Finedon to a church in a neighbouring Northamptonshire village, where he sits by the grave of his late husband David. The pair had been married for a decade when David died suddenly at the end of 2019. Like many couples, they had developed between them a rich system of mutual mockery – mockery that Coles sees no reason to abandon in his widowerhood. “It’s such a trope of sentimental films, isn’t it? That you sit by the lost one’s grave and talk to them. But actually one of the conversations I have with David in death is to take the piss out of him. I tease him for lying in ignominy, now, in such an insalubrious corner of the churchyard. He would have hated it. He did like his luxuries.”

Listeners to BBC Radio 4, where this 59-year-old reverend can be heard presenting Saturday Live every week, as well as readers of his two books of autobiography (soon to be joined by a third, The Madness of Grief, out next month) will recognise the above as a characteristic statement by Coles. More so than any public-facing religious figure I can think of, he is dry, funny and unstintingly personal in his pronouncements. Chatting today from his study in the vicarage, sitting at “a desk covered in crap” on a bright afternoon, he will be frank about his marriage, his bereavement, and his year of grief to date. He will also discuss his late husband’s addiction to alcohol, an addiction that eventually killed him.

The point of all this, says Coles, isn’t just to unburden himself (though there is an aspect of that). He also hopes to leave a kind of witness statement as an addict’s spouse; a blow-by-blow account of shock bereavement that might be of help to people going through equivalent experiences. Coles, who is ruddy and bespectacled and wears a clerical collar this afternoon, gestures out at the hallway beyond his study. There’s a grandfather clock there, with an intricate winding system that only his husband, David, knew how to operate. “So, with obvious symbolism, the clock stopped when he died.” Next, he tells a story about being in the ICU at Kettering General, where, while David lay dying, he was asked for selfies by fans of his broadcasting work. “I just did them, y’know, ‘Hi! Woo! Smiley smiley!’ I was absolutely all over the place.” These are some of the aspects of the madness of grief that Coles wants to capture for posterity, he says. What’s exceptional and what’s humdrum. The loneliness and the sadness but also the weird and the incongruous and the guiltily amusing.

He started jotting down impressions almost as soon as David died, he says, “writing out of the chaos, a little like a war correspondent – that’s how I felt, like I was standing on a street corner and there were bombs going off and I was writing down what was happening. It was a way of trying to endure it. Because something like this is almost unendurable. And you do what you have to do.”

His has been a life caught up in confessional discourse from the very start. As an ex-choirboy in Northampton, he came out to his family at the age of 16. Later, experiencing the Aids epidemic at first-hand in London in his mid-20s, he consoled a lot of suffering friends and sat beside many deathbeds. Around that time, as part of the pop band the Communards, Coles co-wrote a string of confessional ballads. In his 30s he was a Catholic monk for a time, switching to Anglicanism and becoming a vicar in his 40s. When social media came along Coles went all in, becoming a devoted and filter-less Tweeter and Facebooker.

In his radio work his broadcasting style tends towards the chatty and the personal. When various primetime TV appearances, including on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, turned Coles into a middle-rank celebrity in his 50s – he was what his husband, David, used to call “a borderline national trinket” – this came with all the usual, attendant erosions on his privacy. “No,” Coles says, in summation of all this, “I’m not one of the world’s natural sphinxes.”

David Oldham was one of the world’s natural sphinxes. A younger man from Manchester, he was working as an A&E nurse when he visited Coles, one day, to seek advice about joining the clergy. They had tea, spoke for hours, and afterwards David sent a text that made plain their unspoken romantic attraction. They began a celibate relationship and were married at a civil ceremony in 2010.

At this point, Coles recalls, he had to work out how to balance the pull of a busy public life with the needs of a husband more inclined to privacy. “I keep thinking how much David would have loved lockdown, had he lived, because I’d have been at home all the time. It would have been him and me and the dogs, an endless routine of cooking, cleaning, craft and music, which would have delighted him enormously. One of the problems David had was that the public life I led meant that people felt they had a sort of claim on me, and in ways that cut across his claim as my significant other. Literally, sometimes people would push him out of the way. He was very good about it. He made a joke about it. But I think it must have been very irritating for him.”

When Coles speaks about David he tips his head back to talk at the ceiling, so the plastic in his clerical collar keeps coming loose. David became a vicar – at least before his alcohol addiction brought that to an end – and, the other day, Coles says, he came across a drawer of David’s collars, the strips of white plastic twisted together into the shape of a bird’s nest. “I realised, suddenly, that in trying to fill my life with as much incident and interest as I could I had neglected important things of home and hearth. I wish I’d spent more time with David. I wish I’d prioritised doing nothing with David more. Not seeing that as a holiday from things, but as the centre of things.”

During their 12 years together the couple travelled a lot, favouring cruises. They accumulated dogs and wound up with five in total. Telly nights at home would involve a lot of heated bartering, as Coles recalls. “I liked football. He liked Ugly Betty. I was allowed Match of the Day but he wanted two Ugly Betties in return. I remember having a terrible row with him once because I wanted Train To Busan, which is a particularly gory South Korean zombie movie, and I had to give him Legally Blonde for the second week in a row in exchange.”

Over the years, the couple learned to accept or at least tolerate one another’s major vices: in Coles a need for public attention, and in David an increasingly prominent drinking problem. “The great pathos about David, as an alcoholic, was that he was grimly determined to keep his drinking secret. But drinking is a thing that’s very difficult to keep secret. And he failed, spectacularly.”

There were episodes of public drunkenness and obnoxious behaviour, once involving the police. David lost his vicar’s licence. As the spouse of an addict, Coles says, he was often dragged into hopeless concealments. “I would be obliged to participate in a lie that he would tell in order to hide his drinking from someone, in a way that was so obvious to everyone except him that I would feel very foolish and embarrassed. But I just had to do it.”

In the year before David died, as addiction made him sicker and sicker with liver disease and his sleep turned erratic, the couple stopped sharing a bed. On the morning of 13 December 2019, Coles found David immobile in their guest room, clutching a bucket of vomit and blood. In The Madness of Grief, he charts, forensically, what happened next: the 999 call, the admission to ICU, the summoning of David’s distraught family, the desperate prayer in a hospital chapel, the slow decline over days and the decision to turn off David’s oxygen, leaving Coles feeling “that I was colluding in the medical abandonment of a 43-year-old man only halfway through an extraordinary life”.

‘He would have loved lockdown’: with husband David Oldham.

In the book, he takes care to capture as well many of the quieter, less dramatic, sillier moments that defined the experience for him. David’s insistence, when the paramedics wheeled him away, that Coles remember to bring his sewing, not his knitting, to the hospital. Those squeamishness selfies he took with Strictly fans in A&E (“Do us a twirl, Rev!”) and, later, the cheerless McDonald’s breakfasts and Costa coffees consumed while waiting on the ward. He had an incongruous conversation about, of all things, the Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp with an administrator while he was registering David’s death.

Relating all this, Coles dredges up a memory of the bizarre and unprompted thought that skipped through his mind as he bent to kiss David’s body one last time. “The cliché says, oh, they’re going to be icy cold. But they’re not, they’re room temperature actually; they’re just cooler than you would expect them to be. And I remember kissing David and thinking, ‘Ooh. He’s chambré.’ Which, um, is some sort of word from a sommelier’s lexicon. I mean! What a peculiar thing to say about your just-departed partner. But I think it was the fact of Dead David. I could only glance at that fact. It was too much.”

In the vicarage, the phone rings. His parishioners want a chat. Coles lets it ring and ring and when they call again he mutters a swearword. One of his dogs barks. The afternoon sun is coming in lower and lower through his study window and it starts to reflect off the gold disc (a relic of his time in the Communards) that’s mounted on a far wall. Coles checks his watch – one of David’s. In his year as a widower he has been waking up earlier and earlier, he says. Currently he’s awake by 4am, “feeling virtuous and ahead of the opposition. Which is obviously a better start to the day than, uh, Alpen.” He does look tired though. Glazed.

Just last week, Coles says, he recorded the audiobook version of The Madness of Grief, “which was tougher than I imagined it would be. Returning to it all kind of made me realise that I’m still shellshocked.” Whenever he visits David’s grave, Coles says, he chats away out loud. “I get the strongest sense of David’s presence, precisely when you think I’d have the opposite sense, because I’m literally standing six feet over his deeply buried body. But I sit there and we discuss all the things we used to discuss. We argue.”

Have they discussed this coming book, in which so many of David’s secrets are laid bare?

Coles hunches up his shoulders, shivering.

“No. Because I think I need to conceal this book from him. He would just be so angry, I know he would! He’d be furious. Wait, no, that’s wrong, he wouldn’t be furious. It’s just that it would be unthinkable for him.”

I ask if there has been guilt in all this, publishing a book about David – even discussing him with me today – given that the man himself was so private. Coles inhales. “There’s so much guilt anyway,” he answers. “I think anyone who has shared their life with an addict, particularly someone who has died as a result of that addiction, you are beset by the various guilts that come with that. ‘Should I have done more?’ That thought pecks and pecks away at you.”

Coles sought permission from David’s family, he says, who agreed that an honest account might be soothing or helpful to others. But let’s not pretend, Coles says. “David would have hated this book. Hated it. I just decided, well, it can’t hurt him now – and it might help other addicts’ spouses who are going through similar things. When David was at his worst it was so gruelling, so difficult for me as his husband, I felt like I was falling through space sometimes. And what I discovered, once he died, was how much I wanted to express what it had been like for me.”

This has perhaps been the most remarkable symptom of grief, Coles admits: an occasional, unwanted sense of relief. “There’s a lovely song of Noël Coward’s, do you know it? About a widow whose hair has gone quite gold with grief who celebrates her widowhood by living in Capri and flirting with sailors. There is this feeling of liberation. Partly because life with David was sometimes really tough, and you don’t have to do the tough stuff any more. Partly because there are those smaller unexpected pleasures, like eating Indian takeaways, which he hated, or being able to watch football to my heart’s content.

“But none of these pleasures are on the same level as the loss,” Coles continues. “Which is immense. Which comes at you from behind you and below you and rises up and swallows you. You know, I got completely overwhelmed at the supermarket the other day – all because I saw a jar of pickled herrings. I would never go near a pickled herring. I couldn’t eat a pickled herring. But David loved them. And I saw them on the shelf in Waitrose. And I couldn’t…”

Coles gasps. He shrugs.

“I just had to take a minute. I felt his loss so grievously, then.”

Tentatively, friends have begun to suggest they could set him up on dates. Even David’s mother has told him, “Look, Richard, I hope you meet someone else. It’s what David would have wanted.” Coles waves away the idea. He will be 60 next year. “I’m touched by their interest, but it is so not on my agenda. The possibility of romance is so far from my imaginable life that I can’t even countenance it. I’m not saying I want to sit in the corner stirring polenta in a black shawl for ever. But David was the love of my life. And I just can’t imagine ever having two of those.”

Suddenly he grins, wickedly. It has occurred to Coles that, far from wanting him to meet somebody new, David would probably relish the idea of him devoting the remainder of his days to a grim and determined widowerhood. “He’d love me to sit like Miss Havisham, surrounded by my uneaten wedding breakfast,” Coles chuckles. “Yes, that would be quite all right by David, I think.”

The Madness of Grief, by Richard Coles, is published by Orion on 1 April. Buy it from theguardianbookshop for £14.78

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