There are precious few programmes dealing with grief. Yes, it’s a staple of TV drama – characters receiving bad news in a hospital waiting room or answering the door to two police officers with their hats in their hands – but rarely do they explore what comes after the devastating shock of that loss.
The weeks, months and years that follow. Good Grief with the Rev Richard Coles (Channel 4) was an attempt to explore how we can live with loss. He became a widower in 2019 when his partner, David, died following a long battle with alcoholism.
David, a fellow clergyman, was only 43. Three years on, Coles still refers to David as “the love of my life” in the present tense. “Now my house is empty and I just don’t laugh as much and I miss it,” he says. Throughout the programme, he shared little truths about the everyday life of the bereaved, such as cooking for one: “One thing no-one prepared me for is that supermarkets can be a really lonely place.”
In this documentary, he sampled various experiences designed to help people navigate their way through grief. He tried laughter therapy, surf therapy, boxing, cuddling alpacas, attending dinner parties with bereaved strangers, and finally setting sail on a “grief cruise” around the Caribbean. Through meeting people in the same situation, Coles said, he was “learning widowcraft”.
If the idea of letting out your emotions in some of these situations fills you with horror, well, you’re not alone. “I’m English. I’m nearly 60. I’m a vicar. We don’t do that kind of stuff,” Coles said. But there were lessons here: he also learned the benefit of challenging himself, of doing new things, and of being in the moment.
There is no room to sink into despair when you’re trying to stay upright on a surfboard during a chilly day in Bristol. The nature of the show meant that all of these activities were dealt with briskly, just a few minutes devoted to each. The tone was pretty upbeat, and there were very few tears. Coles has years ahead of him – despite his self-deprecating mention of being arthritic, overweight and on the verge of retirement – and needs to find a positive way through. “I don’t just want to stay at home in a black shawl, clacking the beads,” he said.
This was a very personal programme but one with a message that will resonate with so many.