Colin Murray Parkes obituary

The much-quoted phrase “Grief is the price we pay for love” reached a global audience in 2001 when Queen Elizabeth II used it in her message of condolence to those affected by the 9/11 attacks in the US.

But it was the psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes, who has died aged 95, who first came up with the words that have given solace to so many. In his 1972 book Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life, he wrote: “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love.”

When Parkes first proposed a research project on bereavement while working as a psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital in south London in the 1960s, a professor responded: “What you have described isn’t a project, it’s a life’s work.” And so it proved.

Having noted that grief rarely featured in the indexes of the best-known psychiatry textbooks, he went on to write and co-author hundreds of research papers, and further books including Facing Death (1981); Death and Bereavement Across Cultures (1997); and Love and Loss: The Roots of Grief and Its Complications (2006). A selection of his works was published in 2015 as The Price of Love.

He was regularly called upon to provide assistance in the aftermath of large-scale disasters and admitted to finding this harrowing. Recalling his visit to Aberfan, the Welsh village near Merthyr Tydfil where a colliery waste tip collapsed on 21 October 1966, killing 116 children and 28 adults, he said: “The first time I drove away from the village I felt utterly helpless. Everyone I talked to had been desperate. I had to stop the car three times because I couldn’t carry on. I just needed to stop and cry.”

In April 1995 he was in Rwanda at the invitation of Unicef, who asked for his help in setting up a recovery programme following the previous year’s genocide there. He attended the reburial of 10,000 bodies that had been dug up from mass graves and felt haunted by his experiences in the country for the rest of his life.

After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, in which 2,977 people died, Cruse – the bereavement charity of which Parkes was life president – was asked to send a team to New York to support the families of British victims. The biggest problem, he recalled, was making real to those families the unimaginable horror that their loved one was never going to come back. “Bereaved people can make it real, but it does take a long time. They have to go over it again and again, and think their way through it,” he said in an interview in the Independent shortly afterwards.

He also worked with those affected by the 1973 air crash near Basel, Switzerland, in which 108 died, mainly women from Axbridge, Somerset; the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985, in which 56 lost their lives; the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in which 193 died after the ferry capsized near Zeebrugge, Belgium, in 1987; and the bomb explosion in a flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 that killed 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 residents. Parkes also travelled to India to assess the psychological needs of people bereaved by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

He said: “One of the most awful things about bereavement is that the world goes on as if nothing had happened. For bereaved people the world is never going to be the same again.”

Parkes in 2011. Photograph: Kim Watson

Born in London, Colin was the son of Gwen (nee Roberts), and Eric Parkes, a solicitor. After attending Epsom college, in Surrey, he went to Westminster hospital medical school (now part of Imperial College London), qualifying as a doctor in 1951.

He worked for two years as a junior house physician at Westminster, then at Kettering general hospital in the Midlands. After two years’ national service with the RAF medical corps, he joined the Institute of Psychiatry, based at the Maudsley.

Following the publication of his research into bereavement in 1962, he joined the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. There he worked with the psychologist John Bowlby for 13 years, disseminating the model of grief as consisting of four stages: numbness; pining; disorganisation and despair; and recovery.

Parkes was also instrumental in the introduction of bereavement services in hospices from the 1960s. He worked closely with Cicely Saunders – “the single-minded mother of palliative care with whom I shared angst at the scandalous ways our fellow doctors were treating patients faced with death and their families” – on the planning and launch of St Christopher’s hospice, Sydenham, in south London, in 1967.

Both were convinced that good care must involve families as well as patients. Parkes set up a bereavement service of trained volunteers who went into families’ homes and organised support groups, including some for staff, in the hospice. He remained involved with St Christopher’s until 2014, active as a consultant psychiatrist until 2007. He also performed this role at St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney, east London (1993-2007).

“He was a towering intellectual and hugely influential, but never took himself too seriously,” said the former chief executive of St Christopher’s Barbara Monroe. “He always remained a great clinician – very good at talking to patients and staff. And listening.”

In 1975 Parkes left the Tavistock to take up a senior lecturer role in psychiatry at Royal London hospital medical school, retiring from that post in 1993. His association with Cruse began in 1964, as a member of the council. He became chairman in 1972, and was made life president in 1992. Four years later he was appointed OBE.

Parkes edited the journal Bereavement from its launch in 1982 until 2019. Given the Times/Sternberg award – which celebrates the achievements of those over 70 – in 2012, when he was 84, he urged people to spend the last part of their lives in worthwhile work. “I was basically forced to retire at 65 and I got lots of cards with old men fishing on the front. But life is too short for retirement and the time has given me the opportunity to do things I would not otherwise have done,” he said.

In 1957 he married Patricia Ainsworth. She and their daughters, Liz, Jenny and Caz, survive him.

Colin Murray Parkes, psychiatrist and author, born 28 March 1928; died 13 January 2024