Broadcaster Colin Brazier on men and grief

Broadcaster Colin Brazier on men and grief

Broadcaster Colin Brazier talks to us about his journey through grief following the death of his wife Jo.

An interview with broadcaster Colin Brazier on men and grief

For our podcast on Men and Grief (ep 27), host James Abbott (JA) was delighted to welcome broadcaster Julie Etchingham (JE) into the studio. An old friend of the show, Julie has featured on the podcast before (ep 22), discussing reporting on death and dying during the pandemic. This time she joined us for a conversation with her good friend and broadcasting buddy, Colin Brazier (CB).

Listen to episode 27 of our podcast on men and grief here.

(JA) Today we’re going to be tackling a really interesting topic not often spoken about; men and grief, quite broad, quite a lot to talk about.

(JE) I’m really, really happy to say that alongside me is one of my best broadcasting buddies, Colin Brazier. We worked together a long time ago at Sky News and we used to co-anchor a programme in the afternoons back in the day. So it’s really lovely to have Colin with me today to talk about the issue of male grief.

It’s a sad position to be in, but three of my friends have lost their wives to breast cancer, all of whom had children at various ages and stages in life that they had to help navigate through their own appalling loss. All have had to find new ways of living as a family, helping their children through clearly the most challenging times of their lives. So I’m quite intrigued having these friendships, to mine a bit about whether men grieve differently to women. There’s no comparison in the depth obviously, but are the routes that they navigate, the responses they get from friends, different? Do they get treated differently as a result? What lessons might Colin be able to give us?

And just as a thumbnail sketch, Colin Brazier is an incredible senior foreign correspondent, a news anchor for over three decades, recently left Sky News to work for GB News, and he lost his darling wife Jo in 2018 to breast cancer. She’d been diagnosed six years earlier and they have six children, Edith, Agnes, Gwendolyn, Catherine, Constance and John Joe, I’ve got them in the wrong old order. And I must say Colin, apart from it just always being just so lovely to see you, Jo’s funeral was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been to. And it matters, before we sort of start to talk properly, that that moment mattered profoundly, didn’t it? And I remember all of your beautiful kids in that front row at the church, it was an important marking stage wasn’t it?

(CB) It really, really was, and it was important to get it right actually. And we got it right on the day. And I think about it often, the funeral actually. I thought about it recently when I dropped Agnes off at Newcastle university, and how we miss ceremony when it’s not there. And, you know, time was when people…the father gave away his daughter as she was married. And now I felt like I was giving away my daughter to this institution and actually not just to university, but actually when they leave at 18, that’s kind of it, the relationship is severed irrevocably to some degree, that sort of daily contact goes, you see them when they come back on holidays and they may move abroad or start work or whatever, it’s a different kind of relationship. And I felt then that actually so many hadn’t kept up at all with the pace of modern developments and particularly this idea that 50% of kids go to university and we are handing them over, no ceremony, it felt wrong.

I wrote about this for The Spectator at the time, and I got a little bit of flack. It was quite soon after Jo died. I think the article was literally three or four weeks after she died. I wrote about the importance of formality in ceremony, but particularly around formality and funerals getting the state they deserve; death getting the state it deserves. Now I got a lot of flack from people and it was debated on the Jeremy Vine programme and in some papers. And you’d get the other side of the argument – which was people want helium balloons – if we’re going to celebrate somebody’s life and death, that’s fine. And we were suddenly into this world of sort of, I felt, moral relativism and I’ve got one really quite conservative view about this, from which I can not be dissuaded, but I think, you know, there are logical merits to it. And just to wind this up very briefly, when, for instance, I was arguing for people wearing black at funerals, there’ll be some people who say, ‘come on, that’s old fashioned nonsense, you don’t need to do that sort of thing’, but actually it does give you a license to behave in a certain way, you know, go to a good, a good Irish Catholic funeral wake, and people have a drink at the end of it and it gives you this license to be lachrymose, but it also gives you a license perhaps to be a little bit drunk and rowdy at the end of a wake. But people understand that; there’s a black suit, there’s a black tie. We get it, give them some space.

(JE) Yes, and I admired you for that actually, I have to say. And I think, you know, it’s worth stating, if it’s not screamingly obvious, that we’re both Catholic. I’m a cradle Catholic; I was brought up in that tradition, you were a later convert.

(CB) There’s a wonderful book at the moment by Tim Stanley, another Catholic convert and historian. He talks a lot about the importance of tradition and obviously funeral rights are a massive part of that tradition, the punctuation marks of our lives, our life stories. And actually just to bring this back slightly, sorry to jump around a little, but one of the books that really helped me, putting aside Tim Stanley’s book, was a book by Dr Kathryn Mannix, With the End in Mind.

I recommended it to a couple of friends and, and that idea that she has – and it’s not an original idea – but to hear her express it so eloquently and so rooted in her own experience, of the dark comedy of death, but also that sense of limbo, and the key thing, that parallel with birth, and the parallels between hospice care and midwifery. And it all felt so true. And having had six children with my dear wife, Jo, and you know, in that limbo time when you’re waiting for a baby to be born, and that limbo time when you’re waiting for your spouse to die in hospice, there were parallels and she, she put it so well.

(JE) Yeah, it’s really interesting. And I know you’ve spoken about this before Colin, but actually to touch on that hospice experience, to touch on the fact that very sadly Jo’s diagnosis to her death was six years. That’s a long spell of ups and downs of suffering, but I suppose it allows family life, and big family life in your case, to start to re-gear and re-adjust, did it help?

(CB) It absolutely did. And I found myself thinking the other day was I mourning for six years? And, I don’t think so. I think I was probably on the spectrum of denial/acceptance. I was probably a little bit to the denial side. I think we took a policy decision early on, that clearly some things would have to change. She’d been a journalist, she took a Maths A Level because she was worried that her brain was sending to blancmange. And, she would help the kids with their maths and, and maybe she’d become a maths teacher. And obviously things like that clearly couldn’t happen.

In other respects we decided to carry on pretty much as if it wasn’t happening. We thought about moving to the Scottish Borders at one stage. We were looking at houses and it was within a year or two of her death. I mean, because our policy was, we carry on, not as if this isn’t happening, but we carry on as if actually the wonder drugs start doing wonderful things.

(JE) And you’re engaging with life by just continuing. And I suppose for the kids, that’s just a no brainer isn’t it?

(CB) You know how I feel about this, I hate the whole kind of battling against cancer, I hate the language, and I’m sure Kathryn Mannix has got a lot to say on this, the problem with a lot of the language is it presupposes that it’s a battle to lose, and somehow you haven’t tried hard enough and therefore you’ve lost the battle. No, we could do without the hyperbole, but you can do also with a philosophy, which says, yes, we will carry on until, until we physically can’t.

(JE) Two key questions. I know that Jo was very open, blunt with you, and very caring and gentle with the kids about preparing all of you for her death. How did that make a difference to your grief and how did it make a difference to the kids’ grief?

(CB) I’ll start with the kids. She died in July, 2018. I got a call from the oncologist in February, and that was the call, she’s dying, you need to prepare, she could have weeks, months. So she lasted 4-5 months. And that was the point we sat the kids down and said, this is now happening. The eldest came back from university and we had this dreadful moment when you see the look on their face change from delighted-to-see-you to something’s-not-right-I-think-I-can-guess-what-it-is. And we sat her in the car and explained, and then the kids came back from school, and I sort of led that conversation actually. So that was was difficult, obviously.

For me, she did the kindest thing that a dying spouse can do – typically Jo – she said you really will go mad if you’re on your own, so you need to remarry, you need to find somebody else. And actually, it was a cruel thing to say, but she said very precisely ‘you haven’t got the resources to cope on your own’, to which there was a bit of me bridling, saying ‘you shouldn’t have married me because you clearly hold me in very low regard. But it was true actually. She knew me better than I knew myself. I didn’t have the resources, I don’t have the resources actually to cope on my own, certainly not with six children. And she gave me the green light.

(JE) That’s incredible. What a gift to do that.

(CB) I agree.

(JE) Because that’s a liberation isn’t it?

(CB) No, it totally is. And let’s get into this now, pre-empting your question, but I’m now with somebody and that made a difference, that sense of authorisation, it didn’t accelerate the process I don’t think particularly, but amid the many long dark nights of the soul, I didn’t have long dark nights of the soul thinking is this morally correct.

(JE) We’ll maybe talk a bit more about that in a moment, but there may be somebody listening to this that has just entered this very dark spell of their lives, where that immediate, raw grief, which can almost take the chair from beneath you can’t it? It’s hard, it’s hard to fathom really, isn’t it?

(CB) It is, it is. It’s the veil of tears and you’re in it, I was in it for months from February and I felt quite insensate really, I just felt very disconnected from things. I had lots of practical questions to address, but all the clichés are true, it is day by day, one day at a time. There was also a bit of me that was the journalist perhaps, in a circling pattern above watching from on high at this thing unfold anthropologically in front of me and observing strange, strange things. I remember driving back on literally the day she died with a couple of the kids, home from the hospice to sort out some things. And I had this tremendous urge to find on Spotify Kenny Rogers’ The Coward of the County, what was all that about? It was this song from childhood. So the timelessness of that period, but also the absolute vital importance of the support, and the letters in particular, the letters.

So I had a ritual, and it did become a ritual because she wasn’t buried for three and a half weeks after her death. So I had weeks to process this thing before we then had the punctuation mark of the funeral. It was a really hot summer, and I would go into the pony paddock opposite with today’s sheaf of letters and cards and, and just wail and wail and read and read and wail some more. And that was the really intense period. That interregnum between death and the funeral. And I can’t overstate the importance of that funeral ceremony. By the end of the funeral – it was interesting because Jo was a great singer – and we had the Requiem Mass at my local parish church, but she wanted to be buried in the village churchyard, which is C of E. And because that choir was one of the choirs she sang for, the Reverend Vanessa said fine, but wanted to orchestrate the graveside ceremony herself. I remember getting there and being quite underwhelmed by the C of E, let it all hang out, this shouldn’t become denominational should it? But I remember feeling absolutely purged at the grave side. I just felt absolutely spent. And you don’t realize that then that has performed a useful psychological function, but it really had. Don’t skip the funeral kids.

(JE) No, it’s funny. Isn’t it? I was talking to some friends after a funeral recently, and it’s interesting people quite often say, and I’m sure you’ve had it said to you as well, oh you’ve got a faith, it must help at moments like this. And I’ve always pulled that sort of face that you’ve just pulled at me, where I just go, well, actually no, it’s sometimes the point at which you feel as if you’re howling into the void sometimes at it, but what the ritual and the ceremony does is give you a handrail in the dark.

(CB) That’s beautifully put.

(JE) And I think that at its very least it’s that, and actually at its very best, it’s that as well. I felt that very profoundly at Jo’s funeral. I should say as well, they’d been played a recording of Jo singing a Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square at the end, when her coffin was taken from the church, it was extraordinary because you feel very close to someone in that, in those first days and weeks when you’ve lost somebody, they have a proximity to you that’s sometimes hard to express actually, isn’t it? It’s really odd.

(CB) When you’re sleeping in your marital bed, you’re looking at their clothes, every time you hear a car on the gravel outside, you think it’s her car. I mean, it’s very odd. I felt as the months rolled into years at times, the sort of the Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, that I am essentially quite a shallow person and that the essence of my being is pretty light, but there’s no cheating the subconscious I’ve discovered. And this comes back to this sort of journalist hovering above the process slightly. I was really struck by the dreams in the weeks and months that followed. And there were a couple in particular, one in particular, which I can conjure up very vividly still, and it’s sort in a sepia-like black and white. She and I were walking, and it was almost like a vision of heaven really. We were walking along a beach and it was night time, but you could still see things in this sort of night vision sepia thing. And off the beach up away from the sea were caves and people. And it felt incredibly familiar. It felt incredibly powerful. I’ve no idea what the lesson was that was being imparted, if there was one, but it felt like a message of sorts.

(JE) They’re very vivid, the experiences in those early days aren’t they?

(CB )That was some months after.

(JE) As long as that. Whose shoulder did you cry on? You had to get the kids through this. Who did you turn to and how did people respond to you as a man being in grief?

(CB) Cliché is too cruel, but there’s this school of thought that says men are given not a free pass on this, but to your point about men grieving/women grieving, that somehow women are expected to keep the show on the road, but somehow that the father gets a little more latitude. I wrote a book for the think tank Civitas about 12 years ago, and part of it was speculating on why having a few kids rather than an only child or no children, the benefits that accrue to that. And I saw it played out amongst my own children, that there was this critical mass. They were able to occupy themselves. But also, as I said in the book at the time, I mean the rates for instance, and there’s not much in it, but there is a demonstrable increase in things like suicide rates amongst parents who lose their only child. You’ve got other children that you have to keep going for, this is obvious isn’t it? It’s common sense stuff, but I had to get up and make them breakfast in the morning. Some of the drudgery, the horrible domestic drudgery, there was help. There were a couple of cleaners at one stage. It was taken care of. My sister came down.

(JE) How did your male friends respond to you and support you?

(CB) My son’s godfather, had lost his wife soon afterwards to breast cancer. And his late wife was Jo’s oldest school friend. So there’s quite a lot there, but probably the person who took it upon himself to institutionalise the thing, and it was very blokey, he’d call me every couple of days and just say how are you, and a friend of mine called Euan, who’s lived in Prague for 25 years went to Ampleforth. And I don’t know whether that was a sort of sense of religious, almost a requirement. We weren’t very good at it, the blokes that’s the truth. This may be my defective memory, but I don’t recall a single profound conversation particularly, with a male friend, possibly with the exception actually of a mutual friend of ours, John Holiday, who’d nearly died of cancer and maybe that had opened some doors of perception for him, but no, I wasn’t having daily conversations two or three hours on the phone.

(JE) I suspect that’s one of the big points of distinction isn’t it really? My dear friends, who’ve been bereaved, my female friends, who’ve been bereaved, there’s a sort of circle of women, that gathers and they sort of gear in and gear out and they’re there, it’s very obvious, you can physically see it around the grieving woman. It’s very profound and I suspect it’s a very different thing often for men, not always.

(CB) The crushing thing is the not having somebody to, as any parent knows, the sort of quotidian challenges of parenting, you’re constantly triaging and making a series of decisions, really boring stuff about whose sports kit goes in the washing machine first, or how do you get them to that play date and back in time for badminton or whatever it is. Or sometimes it’s more profound than that. This daughter seems to be struggling a little bit, doesn’t she? And then you turn and there’s nobody there to say, yes, this is what we need to do about it. And even things like, I just turned 50 and there were probably things that, I mentioned moving to Scottish borders, there were things that we had in mind that probably involved not working in journalism, for instance, and then suddenly, no, whatever plans you individually had, this is all about keeping this show on the road. But not been able to talk… and she and I were so… we talked nonstop and suddenly there was this yawning vacuum. The silence was terrible, in the house, in my bedroom.

(JE) Yeah. At the end of the day when the kids are in bed, it’s that moment of total solitude isn’t it really. James is listening very intently alongside this, and I was going to ask Colin really just to touch on the fact – we could talk for hours really – there’s so much. Spool on these couple of years, three years, via a pandemic and your kids growing up, some going off to university. From what I’ve seen with other friends, grief can jump out of a cupboard.

(CB) But it’s not a mental illness.

(JE) It’s a process, but it’s not linear. Having just witnessed friends at close hand, I’ve just realized that sometimes it can come back and…

(CB) I’m going to disagree with you. My experience was I can plot the graph and it’s slowly degraded. And I’ve tried almost little aide memoires, so every Friday I try and say a Hail Mary at 9:10 and the moment she died, and just to re insert myself into that most profound moment of my life when this person you know intimately is literally taking their final breath. And I was there with all the kids on her bed as she breathed her last and that helps actually, it helps because if one of the kids is struggling, or work’s not going so well, or you’re struggling to pay the mortgage, none of these things matter when you’ve been there.

(JE) It’s this little anchor point.

(CB) Yeah, absolutely. Totally.

(JA) It’s profoundly moving for me, I must say. And I have five children, so I’m relating a lot to this in my uselessness, I have to say, that’s the thing that struck me. I’m thinking if that happened to me, how would I cope? I think I am deficient. I can certainly sit here and say, you know, even getting the kids from A to B, even the simple things, I think I’d struggle. I think I’d have real, great difficulty with that and coping with your own grief alongside that strikes me as incredibly difficult, but I’m extremely moved by what you’ve had to say. How are the children now do you think?

(CB) I think they probably struggled with it more than me. Not least because I’ve met somebody else, I need to sort of spend 30 seconds at least talking about this. So, there were no close male friends, but I knew a woman who was a friend from before Jo’s death. I knew her late husband. He died two months before Jo died. He was a friend of mine and Jo was a friend of Olivia’s and we were much thrown together at the start. We walked a lot and over the months it became something else. She’s got three teenage daughters. So we were in a similar place. And I think that, I mean, this is, this is really sensitive stuff, that goes without saying, doesn’t it?

And I think there were two points of real sensitivity, and I’m not here to sugar coat things. So kids want you to preserve – for all you tell them that mummy said it was fine for me to meet somebody else – they’re not really fine with it. They’re not really, really fine with it. Maybe after 10 or 20 years, but I’ll be dead by then. Uh, well, you know, I think there’s that constant tension there. And I think really to some degree it’s insoluble actually. And they’ve said to me, at least one of them has said to me, you know, Dad, you can remarry, you can find another wife, we can’t find another mummy. And it’s as profound as that. But I think in this whole process, I’ve found myself to be after that great purge, and I come back to The Unbearable Lightness of Being I’m afraid. I just, I don’t feel… No… What I do feel is that it is possible to fetishize grief. I think sometimes we need to crack on, you know, I remember reading an interview with, I think it was Charles Saatchi – somebody will correct me if I’m wrong – who’d lost his wife, and every day he walked to the bottom of his garden, there was a brook, and there was a big stone boulder marking possibly where his wife’s ashes were buried and he would read her a poem every morning. And I remember thinking, you know, move on surely, surely.

(JE) And I suppose it’s deeply personal.

(CB) It’s so deeply personal, but it’s also a conversation that needs to be had. I mean, so for instance, you know, you might say, when is the right time to meet somebody else? I mean, people listening to this, that’s the key question.

(JE) And I think it is, we have to be really brutally honest, it’s a key question to put to the men in grief thing.

(CB) I’m trying to sort of knit this together a little bit, but you know, we talked about the importance of tradition, in our case, Catholic tradition. So I found useful and helpful a framework that said that there’s this Catholic tradition that you wear your wedding ring for a year. And at the end of the year, you take it off. And I took it off and I put it in a safe and thought, I’ll give that to John when he’s going to marry somebody. And that, that felt right. But, you know, respectability has its uses. It’s very unfashionable to say that isn’t it? But you know, we don’t want the state or other agencies to legislate on the deeply personal family stuff, we don’t want the state to say, he will wait five years and then you can remarry. But you don’t want people to feel that they are an island unto themselves either. And I’m not suggesting that I would have benefited from somebody walking down the high street and people tutting at me because they’ve heard that I’m now in a relationship and it’s only nine months after your late wife left. But I think, you know, you have to be conscious of that need to be respectable because we create respectability by our collective sense of what’s right and proper.

(JE) Really interesting. I suppose we should probably draw what conclusions we can of this because as we would all acknowledge everybody has their own personal way of dealing with grief when it comes. If there is someone listening that is just in that raw stage, what words of comfort, what words of guidance would you give them Colin?

(CB) Well, the veil of tears comes to an end. It does. And have something to hold on to. I mean, I don’t love that word visualise, but do do try and visualise something. And for me it was, we were moving into autumn, it felt like the walls were closing in around me, and I’d wake up in the morning and it would crush you as your eyes open. and your brain engaging, oh god, you know, I never couldn’t quite get out of bed, but there were days where you felt like not getting out of bed. And I remember as it went into the winter, just holding onto that vision of watching a cricket match and seeing the greensward and it being a summer’s day and the clink of, you know, cutlery on china and just something congenial and happy and relaxed. And, um, I remember the moment going to see a cricket match the following summer and just thinking we, you know, the other side, this is the other side.

(JE) Yeah. There is a season. And I’m sure she’s smiling with enormous, endless pride, Colin, especially those beautiful kids who serve you all so brilliantly, and being a great reflection of the two of you, with all of their ups and downs and energies and the paths that they’re carving through life. It’s extraordinary.

(CB) I know you only trying to wrap up, but I’d just say something else, don’t don’t fight anything. If it doesn’t feel natural, it’s probably not to be done. So I remember for months and months and months, I would talk to her all the time. I’m in the car, I talked to her, and then one day I realised I hadn’t talked to her for a few days. And then I realised I hadn’t talked for a few weeks and you know, there’s a healing chemical in your brain or whatever. This is not a mental illness. It’s a process. It’s natural. We’ve got half a billion years of evolution behind us working this out.

(JE) Colin, thank you. Lovely to see you.

(CB) You too.

Listen to episode 27 of our podcast on men and grief here.

The Art of Dying Well