Seeing the grieving… in a man

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Joan Didion wrote in A Year of Magical Thinking. In a heartfelt BBC documentary earlier this week, Rio Ferdinand showed us his place of deep grief following the death of his wife Rebecca in 2015.  The subject was always going to be moving but this was more than that –  a man and a father laying bare his emotions would have been headlines enough but to see a Premier League, Champions League, England footballer caring, confessing, crying was astonishing.

And so he might, his story is heartbreaking. Rebecca, was diagnosed with breast cancer twice, the second time in March 2015. She died 10 weeks later at the age of  34, leaving behind Rio and their three young children; Lorenz, 10, Tate, 8, and Tia, 5. With eighty-one England caps, 12 seasons and a cupboard full of trophies with Manchester United, Ferdinand is handsome, fêted, rich and well-connected . . . and yet money and glamour and success didn’t change a thing. As he admits,  “You can’t pay to lessen the hurt.”


Ferdinand, a London estate-boy done good, a golden boy of football who has enjoyed many of the frivolities the sport brings (his chat-up line to Rebecca, “here write me your number” revealed a man used to getting girls, for sure).   He admits he has always considered showing emotion a weakness, personally and professionally. But his wife’s dying and death bought him up short.  He drank heavily at first, and continued to deny the sorrow.  But then he had to get on with being mum and dad to his children; helping with homework, making lunch, plaiting his daughter’s hair.  Two years on he realized that whilst he was managing the practical he was not coping so well with but the emotional. Worried his kids were not talking about their grief he used the vehicle of documentary to seek help, along the way he found himself opening up, becoming a better Rio.  Rebecca would undoubtedly be proud.


Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 2.45.33 PM.png
La Venadita (Little Deer) by Frida Kahlo, 1946


Grief makes us feel alone.  But there’s company out there if you seek it. Rio finds people with understanding; counsellors, charity workers and widower groups. Others find art and culture consoling company – one bewildered expressive mind reaching to another. And so the waves grief;  the rage and outrage, the pain and sadness, the anguish and sense of loss that continue through time – have all provoked artistic works; grave tragedy producing grave beauty.

On film –  When Hollywood turns it’s attention away from it’s money-swilling franchises it does do grief remarkably well, perhaps because heartfelt stories enable actors to give their performing best.  From Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Blue – a mother forced to cope with the loss of her husband and daughter in a car accident , Robert Redford’s Ordinary People – a family struggling with the death of one of their sons, Demi Moore’s Ghost – love story, thriller, comedy, to this year’s Oscar nominees; Jackie, a portrait of John F Kennedy’s widow (Natalie Portman) in the wake of her husband’s assassination and Manchester by the Sea – reclusive uncle (Casey Affleck) tackles becoming parent to his dead brother’s teenage son.  The big screen serves up grief with grit.



On documentary –  There are few mainstream documentaries about grief (the dying much more so). But Ferdinand’s BBC film and One More Time with Feeling, the making of Nick Cave’s first album since his 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from a clifftop near the family home in July 2015, may well prompt more to come.



On writing – It’s in books that you’ll find more first-hand experience about personal and private loss. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote CS Lewis in A Grief Observed in 1966. His book, still considered one of the most insightful, forbore other ‘classics’ yet these are all by women; Joan Didion, A Year of Magical Thinking; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying; Joyce Carroll Oates, A Widow’s StoryThe Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir.

And poetry too;

“It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;”

“Donal Og” (“Young Donal”) by Lady Augusta Gregory


Slowly more men are coming forward about their grieving feelings; Julian Barnes in Levels of Life (2013) and male comics, Russell Kane, Sean Hughes, David Baddiel (My Family, not the sitcom is now touring).

On audio – Griefcast by Cariad Lloyd is a new podcast series exploring  ‘the weirdness’ of death and grief, usually with other comedians.



On art – Whilst today’s artists continue to explore death, dying and grief in a myriad of ways; 


“Natura Morta” by Maria Ionova-Gribina; “Left Behind” by Jennifer Loeber (2016); “Invisible Presence: Bling Memories” by Ebony G. Patterson 2014 (Jamaica); “The Morgue (killed by four Great Danes)” by Andres Serrano (1992).

Rio Ferdinand’s film has shown us all how opening up about grief can be enabling and empowering, well done to everyone involved.


Featured Image: Richard Ansett, The Times


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