Obituary for Colin Murray Parkes
The well-known saying “Sorrow is the cost of love” gained worldwide attention in 2001 when Queen Elizabeth II included it in her message of sympathy to those impacted by the 9/11 tragedies in the United States.
However, it was psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes, who passed away at the age of 95, who originally coined the phrase that has brought comfort to countless individuals. In his book Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, published in 1972, he stated: “The ache of loss is just as integral to life as the happiness of love; it may even be the cost we pay for love.”
In the 1960s, while employed as a psychiatrist at Maudsley hospital in south London, Parkes suggested a study on grief. A professor commented, “Your proposal is not a mere project, but rather a lifelong endeavor.” This statement ultimately proved to be true.
After recognizing the lack of attention given to grief in popular psychiatry textbooks, the author proceeded to publish numerous research papers and co-author books such as Facing Death (1981), Death and Bereavement Across Cultures (1997), and Love and Loss: The Roots of Grief and Its Complications (2006). A compilation of his writings was released in 2015 under the title The Price of Love.
He often received requests for help following major disasters and found this to be very distressing. He remembered his trip to Aberfan, a village in Wales near Merthyr Tydfil where a coal waste pile collapsed on October 21, 1966, resulting in the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. He expressed, “When I left the village for the first time, I felt completely powerless. Everyone I spoke to was in a state of desperation. I had to stop my car three times because I couldn’t continue driving. I just needed to stop and cry.”
In April of 1995, he traveled to Rwanda at the request of Unicef to assist in creating a plan for rebuilding after the genocide that occurred the year prior. He participated in the reinterment of 10,000 bodies that had been exhumed from mass graves and was deeply affected by his time in the country for the remainder of his life.
Following the devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, which resulted in the loss of 2,977 lives, the bereavement charity, Cruse, of which Parkes served as life president, was called upon to send a team to New York City to provide support for the families of British victims. Parkes recalled that the biggest challenge was helping these families come to terms with the unfathomable tragedy that their loved ones would never return. In an interview with the Independent shortly after, he explained that bereaved individuals must repeatedly revisit and process their grief in order for it to truly sink in.
He assisted those impacted by the 1973 plane crash near Basel, Switzerland, which resulted in the deaths of 108 people, mostly women from Axbridge, Somerset. He also aided in the aftermath of the 1985 Bradford City stadium fire, which claimed the lives of 56 individuals; the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987, where 193 perished after a ferry capsized near Zeebrugge, Belgium; and the bombing of a flight over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, resulting in the deaths of 243 passengers, 16 crew members, and 11 residents. Additionally, Parkes traveled to India to evaluate the psychological needs of those who lost loved ones in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
He expressed that one of the most difficult aspects of grief is that life continues on as if nothing has changed. For those who have experienced loss, the world will never be the same.
Colin was born in London to parents Gwen (nee Roberts) and Eric Parkes, a solicitor. He attended Epsom College in Surrey before studying at Westminster Hospital Medical School (now part of Imperial College London), where he earned his medical degree in 1951.
He spent two years as a junior house physician at Westminster, followed by a position at Kettering general hospital in the Midlands. Following two years of national service with the RAF medical corps, he became a member of the Institute of Psychiatry located at the Maudsley.
After releasing his study on loss in 1962, he became a member of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. During his 13 years there, he collaborated with psychologist John Bowlby to spread the idea that grief can be divided into four phases: numbness, longing, chaos and despair, and recovery.
Parkes played a crucial role in implementing bereavement services in hospices starting in the 1960s. He collaborated with Cicely Saunders, known as the “determined mother” of palliative care, in addressing their shared concerns regarding the inadequate treatment of patients and their loved ones by fellow doctors when facing death. Together, they planned and established St Christopher’s hospice in Sydenham, located in south London, in 1967.
They both believed that proper care should involve both patients and their families. Parkes established a bereavement program with trained volunteers who visited families’ homes and arranged support groups, including some for hospice staff. He continued to be involved with St Christopher’s until 2014, serving as a consultant psychiatrist until 2007. He also held the same role at St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney, east London from 1993-2007.
The former CEO of St Christopher’s, Barbara Monroe, described him as a highly influential and brilliant thinker who never let his success go to his head. Despite his stature, he remained a down-to-earth clinician, adept at communicating with both patients and colleagues, and always willing to listen.
In 1975, Parkes departed from Tavistock and assumed a position as a senior lecturer in psychiatry at Royal London Hospital Medical School. He retired from this role in 1993. His involvement with Cruse began in 1964 when he joined the council. He later became chairman in 1972 and was named life president in 1992. In 1996, he was honored with an OBE.
From 1982 until 2019, Parkes served as the editor of the journal Bereavement. In 2012, at the age of 84, he was honored with the Times/Sternberg award, which recognizes the accomplishments of individuals over the age of 70. Upon receiving the award, Parkes encouraged others to use the later years of their lives for meaningful work. He shared, “I was essentially forced to retire at 65 and I received many cards with images of old men fishing on the front. However, life is too short for retirement and this time has given me the chance to pursue endeavors I may not have otherwise.”
In 1957, he wed Patricia Ainsworth. She and their three daughters, Liz, Jenny, and Caz, outlived him.