A consultant psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at the Royal London Hospital, his academic research and clinical work undergirded a lifetime of influential publications, theoretical development (not least within attachment theory), practice innovation, consultancy, collaboration, and a passion to disseminate his expertise to all – professionals, volunteers, communities – who work with bereaved people. His real-world impactful research embodied everything for which the University of Bath strives, and he advised the University’s Centre for Death & Society, so we were delighted he accepted a Bath honorary Doctorate of Laws.

Alongside his regular clinical and academic work, Colin acted as consultant after many disasters, including the slurry avalanche that buried Aberfan’s primary school (1966), the Bradford Football Club fire (1985), the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry sinking (1987), the Lockerbie plane explosion (1988), the Rwanda genocide (1995), 9/11, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It was Aberfan that taught him that bereavement care is ultimately what communities not professionals do, even if – as he himself so amply demonstrated – professionals can advise and support communities. Aberfan also taught him how much volunteers could do – hence he became an inspirational consultant to St Chistopher’s Hospice and to Cruse as they founded and developed their globally innovative volunteer-based bereavement services.

Retirement from his NHS and academic posts certainly did not mean retirement from his life’s work – he continued to write, lecture and consult into his early nineties. From 2012-2015, he regularly took the train from Hertfordshire to Bath to advise on a major Bath/Stirling ESRC-funded project on bereavement through substance use. Working with him at that time, my colleagues and I came to appreciate more and more his generosity, insight, open-mindedness, wit, and sheer decency.

Very few people’s lifetime research in the psychological and social sciences have made such a demonstrable impact on human wellbeing in countries both rich and poor. With grief and bereavement being somewhat marginal within psychiatry and psychology, he and his beloved wife Patricia were genuinely pleased by the academic recognition afforded him by the Bath doctorate. His graduation speech in the Assembly Rooms was memorable. It revealed not only his modesty, humour and charm, but also one other lifetime characteristic undimmed even at 85, namely an inability not to burst into resonant song whenever it might enhance an occasion; his rendition that day of You Are My Sunshine (at 6.40min) brought smiles and spontaneous applause from the hundreds of young graduates present. In word and song, Colin was teaching them how confronting death can enhance life.

Tony Walter
Emeritus Professor of Death Studies
Dept of Social & Policy Sciences, University of Bath
January 2024