“Grief is more than the price of love. It is love. We must learn not just to live with it, but to make it welcome.”
Catherine Mayer, bestselling author, award-winning journalist and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party and her mother, Anne Mayer Bird, an arts publicist, were widowed within 41 days of each other in 2020. They have written this remarkable memoir to share their experiences and offer some pragmatic and philosophical insights.
John Bird, Catherine’s stepfather and Anne’s husband, died in December 2019, a week before his 40th wedding anniversary at the age of 83. Catherine tells us “his love for my mother was prodigious and hers for him unquestionable”. Catherine visited a funeral director to organise her stepfather’s funeral. The shock of her returning a few weeks later to discuss arrangements for her own husband is incomprehensible.
Catherine was married to Andy Gill, the founding member of British punk band Gang of Four, who influenced an inexhaustible list of musicians with his iconic guitar playing and songwriting.
Towards the end of 2018, I had the privilege of interviewing Catherine and Andy about their marriage for the Sunday Times Magazine’s Relative Values feature. Sitting with them in their London home, the depth of their love was palpable. This was the sort of love that art, movies, music and literature all aspire to emulate but seldom can convey. Their love was romantic in a way that felt completely unique. Authentic. Honest. Complex and simple. There was nothing performative about it. If ever a romance was the real deal, this was it. When I heard that Andy, 64, had died unexpectedly of pneumonia, I was devastated for Catherine. I wondered how people find the strength to carry on after such an untimely loss.
The answer to this, and other questions many of us are too scared to ask about death, grief and mourning are to be found within the pages of this memoir. Reading this collaboration between the “twin widows” as they call themselves, Catherine and Anne offer a profound insight into the process of bereavement that is unlike anything I’ve read before.
Catherine explains in her introduction: “Every one of us will die; everyone one of us will have to deal with death. The central purpose of this book is to make the inevitable better and more bearable.”
From dealing with the “sadmin” associated with the death of a loved one, to navigating the impossible question, “and how are you?”, to riding the waves of grief that ebb and flow, shocking and shaking at unexpected moments, the mother and daughter confronted their loss and loneliness together in the midst of a national lockdown. Their aim is to help those who are grieving but also those who wish to know how to better support others in these circumstances.
Catherine also investigates the possibility that Andy may have contracted Covid-19 when he toured China in 2019 and turns her journalistic skills to examining the implications – if so – for the UK’s understanding of when the virus arrived there.
The book, however, is ultimately less about death and more a celebration of life written in a captivating, intelligent style that is sprinkled with black humour. Anne’s letters to her late husband are interwoven throughout; frank, open accounts of the world since he departed and her daily triumphs as she seeks to find a new way of living independently. “You have to relearn how to be before you can relearn how to live.”
After Andy was gone, Catherine began to see how their marriage had resembled “a tree and a railing merging into a single entity, the tree unfolding, the railing sustaining”. In helping her mother with practical tasks during the lockdown she “found the iron to stay upright”. They helped each other.
There is often a cultural silence concerning death and grief that ill serves us all. This memoir offers an antidote to that societal condition that is functional, empathetic and inspiring – the good friend desperately needed to guide us through the worst of times. As Catherine says: “This is a memoir of love and loss in the time of corona, of relearning to live in my mother’s living room.” If in doubt about how to help someone who is grieving, the gift of this book could be the first step. In the wake of so much devastating loss in 2020, it is both timely and utterly timeless.