Richard E. Grant on his wife’s illness: there are friends I’ll never speak to again

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Earlier this week we covered Richard E. Grant’s new memoir A Pocketful of Happiness. Adapted from his diaries, the book celebrates his 38 year relationship with wife Joan Washington, including a devastating chronicle of their final year of marriage when she was ill with cancer, which she passed away from in September 2021. I give credit to Richard for being endearingly eccentric and heartbreakingly honest, and I thank all of you who commented on the story–the love and support you showed for Richard and each other was a balm to the soul. Richard is so genuine, I like to think he brings out the best in us. But he’s no fool, either. In another interview he’s given for the US release of the book, Richard tells USA Today more touching moments from his relationship, but also gets candid about the friends who showed up for them, and those who didn’t. A few highlights:

He was so devoted: He describes their relationship as a 38-year-long conversation, one that he continues even now that she’s gone through shared letters and diary entries that seek to honor her dying edict: that Grant tries to find a pocketful of happiness in every single day. The more you get to know Washington as seen through Grant’s eyes, the more excruciating her terminal illness becomes. He shares it all, including the oft-hidden ugly details of terminal decline. But what emerges is a portrait of marital devotion as he prepares his ailing wife’s meals, portions out her pills, helps her bathe and paints her nails.

The friendship pyramid: “I always thought of friendship being like a pyramid,” Grant says. “You’ve got your five beloved or your besties around the apex. And then you get further down, and you’ve got people that are more on the acquaintance level. And what’s extraordinary about terminal illness and then death and post-death is that during that time, people that maybe were further down that pyramid that you didn’t really think would come into close-up focus suddenly come through in a way that has been so hospitable, revelatory, loving. That has been astonishing.”

On the friends who disappeared during her illness: Also astonishing were the people who didn’t reach out. Grant writes of friends who’d been close enough to vacation with who kept their distance, some refusing to even acknowledge his wife’s illness. “Ninety-nine percent of the people that we know loved, held and supported us beyond all measure,” Grant says. “But the 1% who didn’t, I’ll never speak to again.”

The prince makes a house call: King Charles (who was then prince) was one of the friends who stepped up, paying Grant and Washington a house call as she neared the end. Grant writes of the future monarch showing up in a cream linen suit, carrying roses and a bag of mangoes, his wife’s favorite fruit. During the half-hour visit, he took Joan’s hand and said, ‘It’s been an absolute honor to have known you, Joan.’
“To which she quipped, ‘I’m still here!’ which made us all laugh,” Grant writes.

[From USA Today]

“But what emerges is a portrait of marital devotion as he prepares his ailing wife’s meals, portions out her pills, helps her bathe and paints her nails.” This just did me in, specifically because he continued to paint her nails. He made sure all of the basic needs were taken care of, and that’s a lot to be in charge of for yourself and someone who is ill. But he also did something completely frivolous for her own enjoyment. My father had a stroke this winter–it was mild, but mild was enough. Like Richard, my mother is taking care of, well, everything for him. Throughout his life he’s always preferred to be clean shaven. He can’t do that for himself now, but every time I visit I see an electric razor and bottle of cologne sitting on a table near him.

I bet there was a lot of anger there at some point, but I find Richard’s commentary on the friends who fell short to be matter-of-fact, and I mean that as a compliment. He’s just so clear about it now in a way that seems healthy. They showed who they really are and he let them go. While at the same time he heaps praise on the friends who actually came through. Elsewhere in the interview he mentions that Gabriel Byrne came to visit Joan and her hospital bed ended up being delivered at the same time. Gabriel stayed to help build it.

As for Charles, that was a hell of an anecdote. I’ll say this, it was a very lovely thing he did bringing flowers and her favorite fruit. Even if someone on his staff did the actual homework of finding out she liked mangoes, it still shows a thoughtfulness that reflects well on his character. It’s curious, then, to note when and for whom he makes this effort. But bravo to Joan for getting in the best last word to Chuck.

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61 Responses to “Richard E. Grant on his wife’s illness: there are friends I’ll never speak to again”

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  1. girl_ninja says:

    I’ve heard about men who find out that their wife has cancer and they leave them.

    Mr. Grant really understood the vow “in sickness and in health.

    • Moxylady says:

      They actually teach that in nursing school. And help prepare the nurses for the loss of the at home caregiver and how to support someone who is deathly ill and has also been abandoned and help them create a care network etc without the husband.

      Like an owner taking an elderly or sick dog and leaving them at the pound because they are too much or simply because they aren’t as much fun anymore. It makes me furious.

      That said – caregiver burner out is a real thing. But many men don’t even last till the discussions regarding caregiver burnout. Most women however … we dig in, make that foxhole a flipping home and we do what needs doing.
      Women are so strong. It sucks sometimes.

      • Lucy says:

        Yes, the statistics are something like 3% of women leave a partner who’s been diagnosed with something serious, vs 30% of men.

      • Sue E Generis says:

        @Lucy I’m surprised at the % of men actually. I thought it would be higher.

      • Erin says:

        Yes on the caregiver burnout, it’s real and there is virtually no discussion or relief from it in this country. I have a child that has significant needs and will for the rest of their life, I’ve had caregiver burnout for 12 years now but there isn’t anything to do about it but get a few hours of quiet here and there. The respite nursing pool in my area is also not an option (I’ve heard way too many horror stories) because my child is way too high needs and non verbal so I only trust family which doesn’t live nearby to watch them. So I just live with the burnout and sometimes I feel like I’m suffocating and loose it but then I have to go back to the grind because I have no choice.

        I also want to comment about the friends part of this because I’ve also had the same thing happen. People I thought were close friends ended up just disappearing from my life after my child was born and then those acquaintances that I talked to only occasionally will be more caring and helpful than family members and step up whenever, it’s crazy.

    • waitwhat says:

      Yes, it’s very disheartening. My cousin, who was married nearly 30 years, cared lovingly for his wife who ultimately succumbed to breast cancer. He’s one of the good guys and I remind myself about him when I read those reports about the not-so-good ones.

      • Lara (The Other) says:

        Luckily there are good ones.
        My parents were in the middle of divorce preparations after beeing separated for almost 10 years when my mother was diagnosed wit ALS.
        He concelled the divorce and postphoned his planned second wedsding to organise all the paperwork needed for caring for my mother (here in germany you get financial support but it is a lot of paperwork with the insurances) paid the additional cost, financed me, that I could take a brake from working and care for my mother and visited every weekend for the last six month while working and building a new house with my now stepmom 800 km away. My stepmom took over all the building organisation at that time.
        The night my mother died my father, my brother and I were at her side until she stopped breathing and I am eternally grateful, that while my partent marriage failed after 20 years the family unit never broke up.

    • Elizabeth Phillips says:

      I don’t know what I was doing at the time, but I had no idea his wife had passed! I’m so sorry for him. It sounds like he’s a good guy.

    • TikiChica says:

      The wife of a friend of mine collapsed in the kitchen one day and never got up again (locked in syndrome). They had two young children, the youngest was just under one year old.
      At the start, they thought she might be able to recover, but after a few months it became clear that she wouldn’t.
      Some 8 months or so after her falling ill, he had a new girlfriend. Over the years, he would tell me how unfair his wife was being, by refusing him a divorce and not wanting the children to mention the new girlfriend in front of her. That life had been extremely hard for him (what about her?!). She eventually passed away, and he went on to marry the girlfriend.

    • Carol Mengel says:

      As a Stage 4 cancer patient (twice) I know that it is sadly true that there are so called friends who you don’t hear from, who don’t acknowledge your illness, etc. It unfortunately takes something like cancer to find the true friends in your life.

  2. This man took all his vows quite seriously and that is such a lovely thing to see. You always hope the ones you love and friends would be there for you through it all but there are some who don’t/can’t deal with terminal illness and that is very sad.

    • B says:

      That dude is a unicorn.

      • Brea says:

        My mom died of brain cancer some 16 almost 17 years ago. My dad never left her side except for when he had to work to keep the insurance active for her treatment. He never re-married nor has he ever had a girlfriend and to this day he refers to my mom as his wife.

  3. Kirsten says:

    He seems like a lovely human; what a heartbreaking loss to have to go through. I’m not usually too big into memoirs, but this I might pick up now.

    This also now gets added to the list of good things I’ve heard about Gabriel Byrne.

    The story about Charles is touching as well, especially since there’d be no expectation that this would ever be made public. Makes you wonder more about who might be creating the real sizable problem(s) in the palace.

  4. Moxylady says:

    This is a portrait of real love and a true marriage. I want to read his book.

    Beyond that – the Charles story sort of pushed me back on my heels. That was such a kind and thoughtful thing to do. I don’t necessarily believe that it was his idea or even his knowledge of her that lead him to bring what he did – but considering what he has shown us to be true about himself, taking time out of his day for someone else without cameras around and without somehow blaming Meghan for this poor woman’s illness seems dang near saintly.

    The bar is so so so so low with the BRF.

    • Visa Diva says:

      It was a nice story and it’d be nice if Charles showed the same empathy and kindness to his family

  5. Chaine says:

    It’s odd to contrast this story about Charles with how Harry depicts him informing Harry of Diana’s death in Spare in such a perfunctory, distant way.

    • Moxylady says:

      Omg I hadn’t thought of that.

      And the way he kept Harry out as his beloved grandmother was dying. Put up road block after road block. Didn’t get told for forever. Had to leave meghan behind. Had to find his own transportation. Didn’t stay after his mothers death to greet or console his youngest son whom he knew had horrific traumatic memories of loss at that very same place. Just went off to dinner with the heir. And Anne met Harry and was there for him. And that was just the flipping day off.

      I can’t reconcile this man – Harry’s father – with the man being described here. Who is this person.

      • Moxylady says:

        Actually what am I saying. This makes perfect sense.

        Harry was the scapegoat. These people were not. These people hadn’t done anything to provoke his ire and
        would probably give him supply. In a narcissist mind, that’s really the main difference.

    • ClaireB says:

      I agree with Moxylady. Charles seems like someone who performs friendship pretty well because he thinks of himself as a thoughtful person. But, at home, his family get his true self, which is selfish and self-pitying.

  6. Pinkosaurus says:

    I’m sure we are all in agreement that KC3 is a TERRIBLE father but this is a lovely anecdote. I suspect there are absolutely no such stories about William or Kate who expect everyone to feel gifted and grateful to be in their presence and give them gifts.

    • Brassy Rebel says:

      It seems that Charles places more value on his friendships than his relationship with his own son, much less daughter in law. He knows this story will make the rounds and make him look good to other friends and acquaintances. That’s how narcissists operate.

  7. Totorochan says:

    Lovely story.

    Not everyone shows up when you’re ill but on the other hand some people are incredibly and persistently supportive. I don’t really blame the people who don’t show up because we never know what other people have going on in their own lives. Sometimes people don’t have the resources to reach out to someone else. And people who haven’t had a lot of experience of illness often feel awkward and don’t know how to approach it. But it’s very amazing and humbling when people really step up and are there for you. I have had reason to be very very grateful.

    • Lizzie Bathory says:

      I was just thinking about this the other day. Many people struggle to acknowledge illness or death, so they just avoid people when times get hard because…what do you say? I don’t blame them for their discomfort, but I wish people understood that being present, talking to the dying person, talking about them with their loved ones after they pass, etc all mean so much.

  8. Twin Falls says:

    Thank you for covering this again. I’m thankful he’s sharing their story with us because as sad and heartbreaking his loss is, there’s so much love. I’ll be buying the entire book.

  9. Mary Pester says:

    OK this is a very personnel one for me, and I can only say, “he’s so right”. My military friends that I hadn’t seen for years, got into contact the minute they knew that there is nothing more the doctors can do. I’m receiving regular calls, emails, visits and cards from all of them, yet some people who I thought and believed would be there, seem to have dropped off the face of the earth! But that’s their choice, I refuse to let it upset me. Every day is a blessing and the people I love and love me are so dear. I also give myself a good talking to at times, and remind myself that, I have had a brilliant career, a wonderful second marriage (35 years this month please god), children and grandchildren and some poor little souls never get that! As for Charlie, I wish he could have extended even a fraction of that compassion to his son and daughter in law! Take each new dawn as a new opportunity my celebchy friends, and hold close those you love. The others are just tumbleweed passing through and don’t deserve a minute of your precious time
    Remember, we don’t only live once, we LIVE every day, it’s the end that only comes once

  10. Ravensdaughter says:

    Well, there is true, abiding, unconditional love and here’s an example of it.

    I think that’s rare, but maybe that’s only from my experience of being ill (severe postpartum depression and anxiety) and having my (now ex-) spouse get on my case about not pulling my load with our two small children (who have grown up to be decent young men, thank God).

    It’s about compassion and being fully present in times good and bad. Grant obviously understood that in the last days of his wife’s existence. What a lovely man.

    If you haven’t read his book from the 90’s: “With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant”, it’s gossipy and fun. Maybe read that after his current memoir.

  11. Baily Bowers says:

    You learn who people truly are when loved ones are ill. Folks that don’t show up in times of sorrow are not true friends. That’s all there is to it.

    • pip says:

      When I was diagnosed with cancer my narcissist mother vanished from sight which was interesting. I’d predicted that she’d make it all about her but her ghosting me was an eye-opener to say the least! It’s never ever been mentioned again – she has literally never asked about my health or cancer’s impact on me. It was her final chance to step up & be any sort of parent & she failed dismally.

      • May says:

        @Pip, I hear you. When I was diagnosed with cancer only one of my siblings (and neither of my parents) was supportive of me during my treatment and recovery. Not even phone calls to say “hey, how are you doing?”. It was then I realized just how bottled up they are (if we don’t mention it, it doesn’t exist). On the other hand, friends and even mere acquaintances really stepped up. They are my family now.

  12. Shells_Bells says:

    This resonates with me so much. I lost my husband unexpectedly in 2021 and there are many people that I considered friends, some that were at our home multiple times a month, that haven’t even sent a text message to check in. In contrast, there are others that I hadn’t seen in years that were amazing about reaching out.

    • May says:

      I am so glad that you have the support you needed.🤗. This and other stories on this thread show that you should not hesitate to reach out to someone in need, even if you haven’t been in contact lately or are an acquaintance. They may just need your help.

  13. lucy2 says:

    His comments seem very pointed to one or a few individuals. I hope they read that and feel bad. It’s definitely true, when a bad thing happens, some people you thought would be there for you just bail. And others really step up. Hang onto those, and do the same for them.

  14. Bumblebee says:

    Oh, it’s so very hard to have someone you love die slowly. I’ve decided I want to go fast. And I’m happy that they had a good, healthy relationship. Not everyone has that. Which is how some family members end up in assisted living, getting great care, but the visits are short.

    • Barrett says:

      . Amy Bloom writes ab a place called Dignitas it in her book ab In Love. Her husband went to Sweden to take a pill at Dignitas (an organization that can assist the ill for a fee.) You must submit application and be deemed of sound mind. Her husband had early stage dementia and he wanted his choice. This is an important discussion, many have varying opinions. But it is good to understand end of life options.

  15. Amanda says:

    My father was diagnosed with dementia 5 years ago and since then many of my parents close friends have just disappeared- these are people who they spent holidays with, travelled with, hosted at their home, had friendships of 30 years. And except for a few, they haven’t come visited my parents, invited them out or even called. It makes me and my sister so angry.

  16. Lala11_7 says:

    Going through my harrowing illness the last two years…there are FAMILY members & long-time friends that I will NEVA talk to again & I’m at peace with that…ESPECIALLY being the one to ALWAYS push through my comfort zone to be a VIABLE source of comfort…my FAVORITE Twitter memory is a few years ago Richard “liked” one of my tweets about him❤️ I’ve been loving him since 1987’s “Withnail & I”…still remember seeing it opening weekend at the ‘Chicago Fine Arts Theater’ …it’s so LOVELY to see how he’s evolved over the years❤️

  17. Jaded says:

    A dear friend of ours lost his wife to breast cancer a few years ago. She was a lovely person and touched many peoples lives. They both agreed that she would have an assisted death at the end, as the cancer was incurable. She held on through months of radiation, chemo and pain until it became unendurable and said “it’s time”. He held her while the doctor administered the end-of-life drugs and watched her pass. He’s the same kind of lovely, amazing, caring and devoted man as Richard E Grant. They’re out there.

  18. NK says:

    I really, really recommend listening to the audiobook of his memoir. He is such an emotive narrator, does great voice impressions, and drives home all the emotions, happy and sad. I laughed, I cried, it was beautiful.
    There is also a HILARIOUS story about an incident when they were invited to a a weekend at Chuck and Camz.

  19. Siri says:

    As much as I understand his disappointment that some people he regarded good friends did not step up- his idea of friendship as a pyramide speaks of some rather unrealistic idea about relationships. And people. If you put people into various ‘categories’ of friendship, chances are you get disappointed. Because those are YOUR categories- not theirs. I always felt a sort of elitist vibe about him and his wife. Very possible they ‘rated’ friendships from there. Also, people change over time, and some people might have their very own troubles at the same time, making it too difficult or hard to focus on someone else’s disease, or talk about it. Some people cannot handle disease at all, and are too afraid to be confronted with it. So many possibilities why someone just isn’t present for this. But these thoughts do not enter his mind, and I think they pretty much lived this way- completely focussed on themselves. Devoted to each other, but very self-centered as well. The story about Gabriel Byrne I find enchanting, and I’m not surprised. He is Irish;-)

  20. Sue says:

    He toured Australia with a one man “show” about this book. After the show he did a book signing and my husband and I dutifully waited in line.

    The couple before us turned out to be one of his wife’s oncologists and her partner. He was a little flustered but happy to see her there. When it was our turn, he told us all about it (She had moved back to Australia from the UK.).

    He was warm, lovely and conversational in a very genuine way. It is definitely one of the highlights of my life.

  21. Calamityschild says:

    This story is so reminiscent of my own parents, it makes me cry. I’m crying out of happiness though. My parents got married in 1971 and they were hippies and very idealistic, and always looking for education. And: “truth. Somewhere along my junior high years, They quit communicating with each other and it led to tension and they thought that they might try a separation. I sat down and told everything, the usual spiel about. We love the children very much, but we just cannot stand each other right now. My dad moved out into an apartment across town , my mom stayed in the house. They were civil with each other. And then my mother got diagnosed with stage three out of four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was devastating. However, after that, my father came back the two of them went to a wonderful family therapy, counselor, and , my father took care of my mother in much the same way. When she had lost all her hair and she was so skinny that you could literally count each rib, she broke down and was crying in the mirror, and my father came over and put his arms around her And said, I know I would cry if I was married to that ugly bastard in the mirror too. She started laughing, and that was the end. My father cooked her meals took out her medicine, took care of us. My mother’s family, who never liked my father, because he was a hippie, and they were very entrenched in the republican party. So they Slandered him. However, the people that truly knew them spoke up and said no this is how it was. I will be forever grateful for the example of love that my parents showed me. This is a truly truly wonderful example. Like the previous comment or said, this is the very definition of in sickness and in health.

  22. jferber says:

    Nothing but praise and love for Richard E. Grant. I’m in his position now (unfortunately) and two things are true: 1) It is a roller coaster ride that no one ever wants to be on and 2) you will be surprised both positively and negatively by people who either disappear or show up during this sad journey–people who you’d swear would be there are not and people whom you never expected to show up and support you, do. And third, I guess, is the feeling of isolation as a caregiver, that you feel you are the only one in this position and feeling these feelings. It’s good to joint 1 or more support groups for this (as I have done).

    • justwhy says:

      Blessings to your family member and blessings to you on your caretaking journey, dear jferber!

  23. justwhy says:

    I completely empathize with his thinking on this matter.

    When it was my family member in decline, it was, surprisingly enough, my extended family who disappointed me. Some, I never heard from on the matter–not once. But given that life is so very short, I have made peace with those people and chalked up their absence to their personal failings and limitations. I haven’t cut them off entirely, though our relationship has forever been seriously altered and limited. In a few cases, those people’s own hour of need has since arisen, and I have tried to do the outreach for them that they did not do for me so as to be a potential example to them of how they can be better people in the future. I don’t know if it will work, of course, but it feels right for my soul to try at least once. 🙂

  24. jferber says:

    justwhy, Thank you for your support. You are very kind.

  25. Suzybeontime says:

    People get scared about death and don’t like to have to look at it. I used to be scared but as I age, I’m not so scared anymore. It’s hard to have to come to grips with it, people are funny that way.