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After the death of his wife, actor Richard E. Grant vowed to find joy every day

Richard E. Grant says he continues to have an "ongoing silent conversation" with his wife Joan Washington, who died in 2021. They are shown above attending an awards show in London in 2016.
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Richard E. Grant says he continues to have an "ongoing silent conversation" with his wife Joan Washington, who died in 2021. They are shown above attending an awards show in London in 2016.

Actor Richard E. Grant never thought he'd get married. Growing up in what was then called Swaziland, he saw the damage that "so-called love" had wrought upon his parents and he vowed to protect himself by avoiding marriage and children altogether. Then, while working as a server at a restaurant in London, Grant met Joan Washington, an acclaimed dialect coach.

The two were an unlikely pair: She was 10 years his senior and at the top of her profession, while he was struggling to make it as an actor.

"The drama was that the difference in our social and career status couldn't be more extreme," Grant says. But, he adds, "You do fall in love. ... You have no control over that. And you hope that love is then the safety net that stops you hitting the ground."

Grant rose to fame as an actor in 1987 after starring in the cult classic Withnail & I. Since then he's appeared in dozens of television shows and films, including The Iron Lady, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But he says it's his 35-year marriage to Washington — not his various acting roles — that have shaped his life.

Washingtondied from lung cancer in 2021, at the age of 74. In the last eight months of her life, she and Grant spent every day together, during which time she charged him and their daughter with finding a "pocketful of happiness in each day" after she was gone.

"At the time we were so overwhelmed by the tsunami of grief that hit us that it didn't really register," Grant says. "And then we realized that ... built into this simple phrase is again, license to feel joy or happiness rather than think, 'Oh my goodness, I should feel guilty because I'm having a good day today.' "

Grant looks back on his life with Washington in the new memoir, A Pocketful of Happiness.

Writing the book has "kept me able to talk about her and our life together," he says. "So it feels like it keeps her alive longer in some odd way."


Interview highlights

/ Simon & Schuster
/
Simon & Schuster

On deciding to publish his diaries, knowing Joan was very private

I had absolutely no intention of publishing this whatsoever. And I was on a Caribbean beach on New Year's Day, at the beginning of last year, and posted a videosaying that I felt like a turtle that had lost its shell and that the loss of my wife felt like my compass had been broken. And it had such an extraordinary social media response that it then elicited various publishers in London calling my literary agent and saying, "Would you publish a memoir?" And I was very emphatic about that. I said, "Absolutely not, unequivocally not." And my daughter very smartly said to me, "I think that it would help you process the grief that you're going through, which is so intense."

On honoring Joan's wishes to die

She was so determined that she was not going to [get better,] she said, "Promise me one thing, Swaz," which was her nickname for me, because of where I grew up, she said, "Do not let me die in a hospital or a hospice. I want to be with you in our house, holding each other's hands." Of course, you hope that you're going to be able to fulfill that. But the reality is you have no idea. But as it turned out, that is exactly what happened. And she was so exhausted by the disease. But as it progresses and accelerates ... she was in a state of such exhaustion that she said to us, my daughter and I, probably about eight or 10 days before she died, she said, "I'm asking your permission to let me go." And that is such a powerful thing, because on the one hand, it's such a contradiction, because you want the person to live as long as possible. But at the same time, if they are saying, "I am exhausted by this, I long to end this." It's a push-me, pull-you of wanting what they want, and also selfishly wanting what you want. But that's just the nature of it.

On balancing being a public person and being private

She said the very nature of her work is that it's invisible, that if you're noticing an actor's accent, then she hasn't succeeded in self-effacing her work out of the picture, as it were. So I think that it was the attraction of opposites, the fact that I have been so open about everything that she isn't. She came from a very secure family background, whereas mine wasn't. So my obsession with the toxicity of secrets in families didn't apply to hers in the same way. So she understood where I was coming from, but she said, "Oh, for goodness sake!"

On feeling supported by palliative care nurses

She didn't have anybody else to lash out at, if you like. So when she got very exhausted or very frustrated, I was the person who obviously bore the brunt of that. But exhaustion is the thing that really undoes you. ... In the final 10 days of her life, [a palliative care team] said, "Don't feel guilty about this, but we're going to have a palliative nurse ... come at 10:30 at night and go through the night with your wife until 6:00 in the morning, which will allow you and your daughter time to sleep and catch up because otherwise you'll be incapable, you'll be wrecked." And it was an absolute Godsend to have that. And I'm indebted to these palliative [caregivers] beyond measure.

On Joan's final moments

I was so grateful that it was so peaceful and calm and I felt so privileged that I was there holding her hand and talking to her right up until she was no more.

On the final afternoon ... the 2nd of September 2021 ... I was talking to her the whole time and she was drifting in and out of sleep and consciousness. ... And at 7:00 p.m. that evening, I noticed that her hand was cooling in mine. And I thought, what do I do? Do I let go and call [my daughter], who was sitting out in the garden with her friends, or I dare not let go? ... Her breathing got very, very shallow all of a sudden there was longer gaps between each [breath]. And then at 7:30 she inhaled and then I counted, and then it turned out to be her last breath. So I was so grateful that it was so peaceful and calm and I felt so privileged that I was there holding her hand and talking to her right up until she was no more.

On living with Joan's absence

You are overwhelmed by that isolation in the first months that follow, and then you get used to it. I think because we'd been together for almost four decades, I was so habituated to what her response to anything would be. ... When I'm finished talking to you today, she'd say, "Well, how old is Tonya? What was her accent? What was the quality of her voice?" She'd want to know all those details. And so I will not walk out of the studio and go, "Well, Joan, Tonya sounded like this and this and this." But it is an ongoing silent conversation I have with her. She may not be physically here or be able to answer, but I can fill in what I know ... her response would be, and that I found enormously comforting and helpful so that I don't feel that she's gone and lost forever, although, of course, physically she is.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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