BEFORE the latest lockdown, the Reverend Richard Coles says, there was the odd time when he would find himself away from home. He’d be staying in a hotel and it would occur to him that he should phone his partner David. “I’d need to tell him about the stupid thing I’ve done, or somebody I’ve seen,” Coles explains.

And then, of course, he’d remember that that wasn’t possible. That David wasn’t back at home. That David hadn’t been at home for some time. That David hadn’t been anywhere.

“I was talking to a friend of mine who was widowed a while back and she was saying she found the second year harder than the first year,” Coles tells me. He’s not sure himself. “Everything is so weird because of lockdown, so it’s hard to triangulate yourself against normal experience.”

It is Monday afternoon, mid-March. Some 358 miles away from where I’m sitting in central Scotland, Coles is at home in Northamptonshire. “Finedon vicarage, hello,” he says when he answers the phone.

I am calling him to talk about grief – his, mine, ours – and how we learn to live with it. His civil partner David Coles died in an ICU in Kettering General Hospital in December 2019. Two months earlier my wife Jean died in a hospice near Denny. I am a widower. He calls himself a widow. We are both still coming to terms with loss.

“I kind of know that David is no longer here now,” Coles says today. “I don’t keep looking over my shoulder. I don’t listen for his car in the drive. That stuff – the phantom limb pain stuff – has faded away. What I deal with now is a life without him. You know what I’m talking about. When he died, he took with him the future and so I’m having to put together a new future now. That’s been kind of interesting.”

I can’t say I’ve thought that far ahead, I tell him. But that idea of the future being taken away feels very familiar. And not only the future. When my wife Jeanie died it felt like the past had been stripped from me as well.

“The fade of memory, that thing?”

Yes, but also the shared history that has now gone because the other witness is no longer here. And the ongoing conversation with the central person in my life that has now become a monologue.

“One less person with whom you can have the knowing look,” he suggests, “and there aren’t many of them, are there?

We are speaking because Coles, who once upon a time was a pop star, as a member of The Communards, and who more recently has been a media-friendly vicar who has turned up on Strictly Come Dancing and presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live, has written a book about this time after David. It is called The Madness of Grief.

It is a slim yet potent book which also touches on the practicalities of life after death – what he calls the “sadmin” – his memories of the Aids epidemic of the 1980s, his friendship with Charles Spencer (he spent the Christmas after David’s death with the Spencers), the impact of Princess Di’s death and the hate mail he received when David’s death was announced. But mostly it is about what happens to someone when the person they love dies.

It begins with an account of the final days of David’s life. “I wrote it in the eye of the storm,” Coles says. “I wanted just to write down what was happening around me as it happened. And in that sense, it was quite easy. What was happening around me was so vivid. Looking back on it, I can see just how traumatic it was.

“It was like a bomb going off, really. It was trying to capture what it is like to be blown up.”

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Richard and David at the Mount of Olives, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, on their parish pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2012 © Kevin Jackson

Our experiences are similar but not the same. I knew that my wife was going to the hospice to die. For Coles, though, David’s death was a surprise. It had begun as another trip to the hospital. It had happened before. What was different this time was that David didn’t come back out.

As well as lived experience, Coles’s book is a tribute to the man he has lost. Both were clergymen in the Anglican church. Both were gay men. Both had reached an accommodation with the conflicts these realities threw up.

Those accommodations were not always easy, however. Sometimes they had a freight of damage attached.

The plain fact, as Coles reveals in his book, is that David was an alcoholic. And it was that addiction that killed him.

“I wanted to be truthful, and I wanted to pay tribute to him too,” Coles says now. “The circumstances of his death were extremely difficult. He was an alcoholic and that was the cause of his death and as anyone who has spent any time with an alcoholic knows, particularly if they are the other person in your life, that’s not a walk in the park.

“But he was also kaleidoscopically wonderful and funny and smart and great, and he made my life fantastic.

“And that was sometimes a difficult thing to try to balance; on the one hand wanting to pay tribute and on the other hand wanting to be truthful. I just did my best with that.”

He talks a little about David’s drinking. “He had always liked a drink, but, hey, gay man who’s also a vicar. it’s not unusual to find someone who likes to drink. And, also, he was 15 years younger than me so he would sometimes drink to excess. Not on a school night, if you see what I mean.”

David’s drinking was at its worst, he says, around 2013 and 2014 but he never stopped. “You know how it is with addiction,” Coles says.

“The other thing about alcoholism, or any other addiction, is it is a selfish meme, and it wishes to protect itself from any effort to quench it. So, David could not bear the reality of it and would do anything he could to avoid having to confront the reality of it. And if I tried to confront the reality of it with him, he would find that unbearable too. So, there was a conspiracy of silence around it sometimes which is absolutely deadly. It was just very difficult to find a way of saying the things that needed to be said sometimes.”

I think you are very hard on yourself in the book, I tell him. “That’s my job. It comes with the territory. I tried not to be. Everyone said, ‘Don’t beat yourself up,’ but, actually, if you do live with someone and you’re not able to stop them from the kind of damage David did with his drinking, you kind of rationally know ‘it’s not my fault’. But you do often ask yourself ‘What could I have done differently?’ And I know my relationship with David is one of my failings as well as his failings, and I wish I had failed in different ways, or failed better, as Beckett said.”

Read More: Jeanie is smoking a cigarette - written in love and grief

In a way The Madness of Grief, inevitably perhaps, reads as an attempt to write David back into the world. He is a huge presence in the book; funny, infuriating, vivid. It reads, I tell Coles, as if he might have been hard to live with.

“Unbelievably hard to live with,” he says, laughing. “But he was never lost to me in all that. He could be very difficult to be with, but he was always him and I would never have reversed out.”

But then life, or rather death, took away that option away.

As a vicar – and a gay man who sat at the deathbeds of many friends dying of Aids in the 1980s – Coles is, of course, more than familiar with death and its rituals. That didn’t make them any easier when they came so close to home.

“Clergy and undertakers,” he says, “we see a lot of each other. And we are there with someone on the worst day of his or her life. So, we know what that looks like. But we also have a sort of banter, a necessary banter, to get you through that stuff. And it’s all just switched off when suddenly you’re the mourner.

“The undertaker who took care of David’s funeral, I work with them all the time. We would normally talk and banter. But that was all, quite rightly, switched off for the purposes of David’s funeral. I was the mourner and being a mourner is not the same as standing next to the mourner.”

Grief, as the title of his book suggests, is a form of madness. I tell him that the poet John Burnside once told me he thought you should be able to plead grief as a defence in court. We are different people when grieving.

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Photograph: Paul Stuart

“If you’re a vicar you are quite used to people saying the wrong thing and you just try to be patient,” Coles says. “But I found that I had no reserves of patience at all when people said the wrong thing and I had to just make my excuses and leave.

“I had seen other people do that in bereavement lose their manners in a way that is quite startling and then you think, ‘Well, of course you lose your manners.’

The thing that surprised me most in the book, I tell him, is how quickly he began to get rid of David’s belongings. I can’t bring myself to do that with Jeanie’s yet.

“Well, one of the symptoms of David’s illness was that he hoarded. So, the parts of the vicarage that were his were absolutely jammed. And I find the sight of it unbearable because the hoarding was a symptom of his unhappiness.

“And I really wanted to get some order back, so some friends of mine came and helped.

“I was ruthless. And, of course, ever since, I spend probably a day a week looking for something that I got rid of.

“But there was something a bit mad about it, actually Teddy. I think there was this sense that one of my obligations to David was to try to make orderly stuff in his life that was disorderly. I wanted to tidy.”

It has been 18 months since my wife died and yet the last year of the pandemic feels like my grief has been stuck in me, I tell him. My life can’t change, can’t adapt, because no one’s can. Is that how he feels?

“It’s been tough because I’ve been stuck on my own in a house which I shared with David who is no longer here. Like everyone, I found lockdown three particularly hard because it was January, and the days were short, and the nights were long, and I really missed him and that was tough.

“And, also, I sense that if I’m going to live a life after David I would just like to have a few more options to work out how to begin doing that and there aren’t any at the moment because I am stuck at home like everybody else.”

In some ways, he says, the first lockdown was good for him. Without it he would have thrown himself into work “as a way of getting through,” he says.

“And I couldn’t do that. Instead, I sat in the back garden. We had a beautiful spring and I just sat in the back garden, sometimes for a whole day, with the dogs. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t write. I just sat and just allowed the tectonic stuff, that really profound stuff that’s not amenable, to just grind its way along. And I think that was probably good.”

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I wonder if the publication of the book is something he is trepidatious about? Or does he see it as a release?

“Both actually. I am conscious that I’m not very far into this. It’s very personal and there are other people who are part of this story who I have obligations to and want to honour. But I also think one of the things I really valued was talking to other widows because they told me stuff that was just real. I felt that a lot of the grief industry is a sort of semi-digested therapeutic model. And that’s fine and you need that kind of thing. But I wanted people to tell me what it was like. I wanted to know.”

I ask him for an example. “I think it’s to do with the reality of the pain. How long is this going to last? Does it get worse? Do you feel like this?

“I remember the day after David died, I was getting some hand cream for the nurses in ICU because that’s what nurses really like. And a lady stopped me. She’d seen the news that David had died, and she said, ‘I’m really sorry for your loss. How are you doing?’ And I began to cry.

“She said, ‘I know, I’m a widow.’ And I said, ‘What do I need to know’? And she said, 'No one will ever be as nice to you again as they are now, so get the most out of it.’”

2019. Not so very long ago and yet already so far away. “A year on I know those closest and dearest to me want me to be okay,” he says, “and I want to tell them I’m okay, and I can’t always do that actually because it’s not always like that. It is something we have to do ourselves and nobody can do it for us and sometimes we are out of step with the expectations of other people who, for the best of reasons, want us to be better than we are. But we’re not.”

We are trying, though, Richard.

“Exactly. Stand up and face forward. If you do that you’re doing okay, I think.”

The Madness of Grief by The Reverend Richard Coles is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, priced £16.99

On Princess DI’s death and his friendship with Charles Spencer

“I was in London when that happened. I knew Diana very slightly. Our paths had crossed a couple of times. She wasn’t a complete stranger to me. Well, she wasn’t a stranger to any of us.

“I can remember other people’s reaction and thinking, ‘Oh this has given voice to people to express their own grief in a big, public way and that was obviously really important to people. I watched the crowd cueing to sign books of condolence and I read them, and people would write pages and pages of their own grief and I thought that was very interesting; a great big public loss, public bereavement served a need in lots of people, I think.

“When I spent Christmas with the Spencers just after David died, I was spending some time where Diana is buried on the island in the lake in the park. And all of a sudden it occurred to me that this was the biggest public bereavement of my lifetime and here I was with my own personal version of it.”