Published in 2021, one would expect this book to be about COVID-19 – it is not. In fact, other than some mentions of lockdowns, there is barely a mention of the omnipresent and ongoing pandemic and so the story seems like it could be from a lifetime ago. However, the main elements take place in December 2019, a time that seems to many like a lifetime ago, but for Rev. Richard Coles it still feels like just yesterday, so clear and raw is his grief. I adored this book, so much so that I read it in one day. It was perhaps additionally poignant for taking place over Christmas, so much of the timing was relevant to when I read it.
Rev. Coles tells the raw and moving story of his love and loss of Rev. David Coles, his partner of over a decade. There are reminiscences and remonstrations, lighter moments and deep tragedy, and details that many would shy away from but for the fact that they are the facts – that is what death is like. He provides sufficient detail to understand the ugliness, the dark humour, the numbness, and the despair, interspersed with memories of good times and bad. He coins the word “sadmin” for all the tedious and necessary paperwork following a death – a word that perfectly captures the essential boredom and distraction of the bureaucracy and commerce and organization required in the immediate days and weeks.
A remarkable characteristic of this book is Coles’ ability to move smoothly through time and place and project his feelings and thoughts with honesty and compassion for himself and others. He describes his experience as a clergyman – helping others deal with death – and how his own experience both gives him additional perspective and reinforces that there can be no way to understand anyone else’s experience. There can be no way to understand it except to experience it, and even then each experience is unique in its pain and sadness and longing. He is accepting of his own needs and wants through the immediate period after David’s death, giving himself space and company as needed and allowing himself to rely on others to support him in ways that he perhaps might not in any other circumstance.
While Coles is a person of faith, this is not a religious book. Church and prayers and faith are omnipresent but not a dominant element. While there are some prayers and stories included, there is nothing preachy from Coles at any point. And although Coles is arguably a famous person in his own right in the UK, he makes next to nothing of that, even when referencing the other famous persons in his life. Christmas with The Spencers could easily have become showing off, but instead it is a quiet and personal time with true friends.
The story was fairly close to home for me. My dad’s second wife died under similar circumstances as David – organ failure and malnutrition due to chronic alcoholism. While I don’t know (and never will) the details of Pop’s experiences with her in the hospital, I can imagine them being as difficult and horrible as those described here, an experience that (because that’s the way he rolled) he endured alone and never shared. Unlike Rev. Coles, Pop used the experience as an excuse to ruin himself through excess of almost everything but especially drink, frustrated by his own resiliency through so much self-inflicted damage that his ending was even worse than hers.
Blessedly, Coles’ sharing of the experience to enlighten others provides a remarkable view into that most terrible of journey’s – the loss of a loved one. Hopefully the catharsis of documenting and sharing the experience has been as beneficial to himself as I’m sure his book is and will be for others.
Based on the details included, David sounds like a difficult person to love. But that’s the tricky thing about love, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense to anyone else – and it doesn’t have to; to the lovers, it is just right and true even when it is tragic and terrible. That grief is similarly a unique experience for each of us is perhaps not surprising, since grief is, at its heart, the mourning of love.
This is a difficult book to recommend to anyone, given its raw sadness. However, I think, similar to Being Mortal, it is a book better read, digested, and understood in advance of its being necessary. This is not a book for the recently bereaved or those with a very ill loved one, as it is perhaps too raw for them. But for everyone else, it can be a comfort to read and prepare ones self for an experience that we will all likely experience at least once, and perhaps more often than we’d like to acknowledge.