Thinking Out Loud

Love, Grief and Being Mum and Dad

Reviewes by David Freedman

Rio Ferdinand was at the top of his game. He was a world class football player, a star of Manchester United and the English national team. He seemed to have it all: fame, glory, a wonderful wife Rebecca and three lovely children. Then his world came crashing down. In the autumn of 2013, Rebecca was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, the most aggressive form of the disease. After ten months of treatment, Rebecca was declared well. “Everything was going to be all right.” Then, in 2015, the cancer returned and spread throughout her body. Ten weeks later, at age 34, Rebecca was dead.

During their years together, Rebecca had made life ever so easy for Rio. She had done absolutely everything around the house so that he could dedicate his time and headspace to becoming a better football player. When Rebecca was struck by cancer and wanted to talk about it, such conversation was beyond Rio. As a top-level sportsman, he had trained his mind to think only of winning. Negative thoughts were strictly forbidden.

In his football life, Rio Ferdinand could never show weakness, nor allow himself to feel guilt. It was too dangerous and potentially debilitating. After Rebecca’s death he was drowning in guilt. He needed help but was skeptical about therapy. The tools that had served him so well as a footballer were the last thing his children needed after tragedy struck. Life at home was chaos. He went from being one of the best in the world at his life’s work to being a total amateur at home. Hardest of all was getting the kids to open up and talk about their mum. They closed down and shut him out. Rio realized that his children were doing with their feelings exactly what they had seen their father do all their lives.

The turning point came thanks to Rio’s agent, Jamie, who observed up close the terrible state that Rio was in. Jamie suggested that Rio make a documentary about learning how to grieve. Rio’s profile could be used to reach other men who were in a similar situation. This is where the most enriching part of the book begins: Rio’s seemingly out of character, amazing response to this new challenge.

The reader deserves to discover first-hand how making a film for the BBC became a form of therapy. For those unable to gain immediate access to the book itself, the highly acclaimed hour-long BBC documentary is available in its entirety online. The book and documentary cover similar ground, although the book obviously in greater detail. The advantage of the documentary is the heart-wrenching depiction of this previously emotionally closed man choking back tears as he shares his remarkably honest story with the entire British nation.

The response by TV critics and the 6.5 million viewers watching from their living rooms was overwhelmingly positive. Rio had tapped into a powerful truth. Men do not have role models to show them how to mourn. As one of the men in Rio’s all-male support group observed, “How are you supposed to grieve like a man when you do not even know what it is to grieve?” In the book, Rio shows the way and ends two of the later chapters with lessons he has learned. In a subsequent interview Rio could now comfortably see Rebecca looking down and telling him, “Well done, it’s all been worthwhile.”