Rio: ‘I thought it was weak to show emotions’

In mourning: Rio looks at the names of his three children, now aged ten, eight, and five.

Two years ago the former England captain lost his wife to breast cancer. Tonight, a documentary explores his difficult journey with grief. Is he right to go public with something so private?

Rio Ferdinand was late. He thought he had the “school run” down; he had driven his kids in the mornings many times. But when he tried it for the first time after his wife Rebecca died in 2015, he discovered all the work that she used to do the night before: making their lunch, laying out their uniforms, finding their books. “I’ve got to become a mum and dad now,” he realised.

This eventually inspired the name for a new documentary which explores his relationship with grief. Rio: Being Mum and Dad will be shown at 9pm tonight on BBC One.

In it, he describes himself as “closed off” emotionally, and explains his difficulties with opening up. He admits that he went to a “dark place” after Rebecca died: he turned to alcohol, and saw asking for help as a “weakness”. Coming from football’s macho “dressing room culture” only made this worse.

Ferdinand is far from the only father to struggle after losing his spouse. The programme points out that men are half as likely as women to go to counselling, and Ferdinand initially resists it too. But he eventually finds comfort by seeking out and talking to other men in his position.

Critics have praised him for making such an intimate, honest film about something so personal, and he says he hopes it will help others to cope with bereavement.

In most cultures, mourning is a public event. Traditions vary, but they often involve communities coming together, special clothes like veils, and rituals like the Jewish period of shiva.

But today, few of these traditions are left in Western cultures. Grief has become a largely private matter, something which happens behind closed doors, or perhaps in a therapist’s office. Many bereaved people are left feeling isolated and alone.

A death in the family

People should be more open about grief, insist some. Many of us will lose someone close to us at some point in our lives, and we should not be afraid of talking about how that feels. Ferdinand is brave to shine a light on his darkest moments in such a public way. Perhaps the West should take a cue from other cultures, where public mourning rituals offer support to grieving loved ones, and allow them to express their feelings openly — and eventually to move on.

Although his intentions are good, some are still uncomfortable with Ferdinand’s decision to let cameras into this difficult part of his life, especially when it comes to his children. For many, grief ought to remain a private experience. It is intensely personal, and different for everyone who goes through it. That was the point of covering the face with a veil, after all: it helped people to process their loss in their own way, shielded from the judgement of others.

You Decide

  1. Would you agree to film a documentary about the worst thing that ever happened to you?
  2. Should grief be a public or private matter?

Activities

  1. Create a poster which gives advice to grieving people.
  2. Research the mourning traditions of a different culture, and produce a presentation which explains them to your class.

Some People Say...

“Grief is itself a medicine.”

William Cowper

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Rio Ferdinand’s wife first got cancer in 2013, and was diagnosed again in March 2015. She died in May that year aged 34. According to the BBC, around 75 men under the age of 50 are widowed in Britain every day.
What do we not know?
The “right” way to deal with grief. People react in different ways to the loss of a loved one, and it takes some longer than others to feel “normal” again. It is also not known why men find it harder than women to seek help.
What do people believe?
That it is best to talk about feelings of grief in some way, whether to a family member, friend or a counsellor. Many think that this is particularly hard for men because they are expected to be strong, especially if they have young children to care for.

Word Watch

Rio Ferdinand
The ex-Manchester United player was 36 when his wife died in May 2015. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer just ten weeks before. The couple were married in 2009 and had three children.
Veils
For example, black veils were worn by Victorian women in the 19th century as a way to both hide their emotions and signal their grief to others.
Shiva
A seven-day mourning period after a burial, when those closest to the deceased will stay at home and be visited by members of the family and community.
Western cultures
There are several theories as to why these traditions disappeared. Some blame the growth of a more secular society, and others argue that the huge numbers of lives lost in the first world war meant that communities could not keep up with traditional mourning. Psychoanalysis also shifted the emphasis of grief from the community to the individual.
Isolated
Although it is not a scientific survey, 43% of around 8,000 people told Slate that they “felt alone with their grief” most or all of the time. These results are explored more under Become An Expert.

Subjects