A story of grief by a man and a boy

fictitious widows

My wife didn’t really care too much for film or TV. The only shows she ever really got into were The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Coronation Street and Desperate Housewives. And the only films I remember her properly paying attention to were The Man with Two Brains, Sex and the City and The HolidayShe just wasn’t interested unless what she was watching made her laugh like a hyena or wail like a banshee. I’m sure there are those who will read this, review the aforementioned list and wonder how most managed either, but on the rare occasions that she got involved, she got really involved. She could easily muster a sob if the Rovers Return’s bar staff ran out of ice rendering Rita’s vodka and tonic lukewarm.

We watched The Holiday quite a few times together. For some reason she absolutely loved it. I don’t even think she thought it was cheesy or schmaltzy, she just loved it. This generally made it quite difficult for me to watch because her loving a film or TV show generally meant there would be tears. But not just cuddle-up-and-have-a-little-cry-into-my-shirt tears; more like why-is-this-happening-life’s-so-unfair tears. I used to try to comfort her and show that I understood, but invariably I’d break and then I’d end up pissing myself laughing. I was branded ‘a hard-nosed bastard’ and apparently something was wrong with me because I didn’t ever seem to cry.

But I did cry to The Holiday. The bit when you realise Graham (played by Jude Law) is a widower and is raising his two children alone played too close to my own fears for comfort. I’d said too many times that it was the one thing that I was most scared of in life for it not to get to me every time. So when the film came on TV last Christmas, as I less than half-heartedly decorated a tree not yet a month after my wife was killed, I expected waterworks. It was one of those moments when anyone else in the room, had they been familiar with the film, would have leapt from the sofa to change the channel or awkwardly attempt to hide the screen from view by urgently hanging festive decorations above it. I imagine many a widowed person experiences the adult equivalent of parental behaviour when sex makes an appearance on television in the company of a sulky teenager: Someone’s about to die on the tele, Frank, throw the set out of the window before Barbara-The-Widow notices.

Last Christmas, however, I didn’t shed a tear. Graham was just a character played by an actor. None of it was real. I asked myself, Why would I cry over this shit when it’s actually happened to me now?

So last night, more than nine months since I decorated that tree, I conducted a little experiment. I sat through a TV drama and a film, which both featured bereaved partners: Downton Abbey and A Single ManI just wanted to know if I actually am a hard-nosed bastard.

Downton Abbey’s current storyline features Lady Mary as a grieving widow having lost her husband, Matthew, to a car collision whilst she was in labour. It’s now six months on. A Single Man is a film by Tom Ford, which stars Colin Firth as George Falconer, an English professor who lost Jim, his partner of 16 years in another car accident, eight months earlier. We find our widowed character in Yorkshire in 1922 and the character, I suppose cruelly, awarded no other title than ‘a single man’ in LA forty years later. 

It appears my wife was right because I watched both with absolutely no emotion. Nothing happened in the tears department whatsoever. Instead I found myself thinking about the underlying grief message in each. Now I know that people love Downton Abbey and that I may as well hang my blog’s closed for business sign as criticise the period drama, but I’m going to anyway.

In last night’s episode Lady Mary’s husband had only been dead for six months. The ground was only just firm enough to erect his headstone. And yet the undercurrent of the show was very much pull up your aristocratic silk stockings and move on, ma’am. I couldn’t help but suspect that no script writer in their right mind could really expect such a freshly widowed new mother to reach whatever ‘closure’ was called before Oprah came on the scene in such a short period of time. But then I suppose a truer depiction of pain wouldn’t work for the viewers. I believe that ITV was heavily criticised for killing off Lady Mary’s husband on Christmas Day last year, and so I guess it’s time to redeem that sin and get everyone in the country estate to cheer the fuck up and move on. Doubtless next week our recently widowed mum will bag herself a new gentlemen at a jazz night for singletons and will find herself wondering why the hell she’s been moping around in mourning dress for quite so long. Incidentally, she ditched her black attire an hour and 25 minutes into the episode, which was, perhaps unsurprisingly, called Moving Forward. 

Next up was A Single Man. It’s a very stylish, well-acted film and it’s quite deliberately thin of content, which allows the viewer to concentrate more on the characters. Just one thing really stuck out. George, the lead character, has a friend (who used to be a friend with benefits) called Charley. She and he slept together a few times before she got married and before he fell in love with a man. A New Year’s Eve drunken discussion sees her blurt out something about his relationship not having been real and asking the question about whether it was just a substitute for something else.

I went to bed wondering how many people felt the way I did about what I’d watched last night: unmoved but able to appreciate the messages that might have been missed by most.

One portrayed widowhood as inconvenient to others (both the show’s characters and the viewers). The message I took away was: If you wear your grief for too long they’re all going to switch off. 

The other highlighted a kind of imaginary hierarchy of grief, which apparently promotes some to top dog status while marginalising others to the ranks of ‘they’ll-get-over-it’. The message I got from this was: How can you possibly feel so bad when you weren’t even married and didn’t even have kids?  

I guess it was just a bit of fictitious Sunday night drama to most. But then I couldn’t help but think that so many people, who are living through the real life version of the dramas shown on our screens last night, have to deal with these two veiled sentiments every single day.

'Cheer up, ma'am, he's been dead six months'

‘Cheer up, ma’am, he’s been dead six months’

8 comments on “fictitious widows

  1. Gina Sharp
    September 23, 2013

    I completely agree with you on both these – the one film that got anywhere close to portraying how I felt was Truly Madly Deeply. The crying scene in that convinced me that whoever wrote the script had lost a wife or husband/ partner who they loved. Anything else seems banal in comparison. I can never watch that film without the banshee wail. X

  2. Rhodissimo
    September 23, 2013

    I wholeheartedly agree on both sentiments. I lost my beloved partner and soulmate in a car accident three weeks ago, and have been staying with my parents since (I’m 30, he was 32). They, naturally, turned on Downton last night (which I had never watched before), we sat awkwardly through the scenes with Lady Mary, and I cringed through the final scene in which she ‘made her entrance’ so triumphantly, signifying, to me, turning the page onto a fresh new chapter of her life. How simple it all looked.
    I have yet to find out I suppose, I’m only three weeks in, but your use of the word ‘inconvenience’ really struck me – it’s that sadly isolating factor I have already experienced from even the very best of friends, where you search for a place you can both relate and now you simply can’t. I feel sometimes that I have to shrug off my despair for others’ benefit, to ‘relieve’ them, and to make everyone around me feel a semblance of normal again.
    I have not seen A Single Man, but likewise, I was not married to my wonderful love, nor did we have children, though I suspect neither were too far away. That fact does not remove any of the weight of the situation.
    I try to write earnestly without seeming bitter, and I am not; I am truly grateful for the acres of support I have had from friends and family all over the world – nor do I expect people to tiptoe around me or act differently, but a little empathy can go a long way. I suspect it has something to do with the pace at which we live our lives; now mine has ground to a halt, I can recognise the speed at which others are trying to continue theirs and coax me out of my sorrow back onto a similar path again. I am appreciative of that, but I’d rather not. Not because I want to wallow, but because, through everything, this forced suspension has made me begin to notice the simple, small joys in things that I’d previously missed. I am a changed person now, and, I suspect, though it doesn’t feel anything like it right now, for the better.
    I am truly sorry for your loss. Your words are inspiring. With love x

  3. Bill Wright
    September 23, 2013

    Since having a family, my social life has naturally eased off and I have enthusiastically embraced the benefits of Sky+. I am unashamedly a Telly Addict. Also since becoming a Father, my previously dry eyes have gradually become more prone to surprising episodes of what I always presumed to be a mainly female predilection for boo-hoo-ing at the Telly. I remember at 16 looking at a girlfriend, with borderline disgust, as she inconsolably sobbed her heart out to Ghost, thinking ‘I can’t see this relationship lasting too much longer’.

    Yet 20 years later, I’d find myself swallowing hard when watching films which explored parental / child relationships. Last year I watched Moneyball, a film about Baseball, not a subject I would have expected to evoke the sniffles. Yet I was a mess of tears at the end of the film when the main character, a Baseball coach, rejected the job opportunity of a lifetime, hundreds of miles away, so that he could remain close to his divorced wife’s family and their daughter. Ditto The Descendants, a film about a Husband and a Father trying to live with the sudden death of his wife and trying to reconnect to his two daughters. I couldn’t say if the latter was an accurate portal of grief as I watched it prior to my grief, but when I watched these films it didn’t bother me that I got weepy; I’d accepted that I had become a different, more emotional person to the judgemental 16 year old I once was.

    However, as pointed out with Downtown, some shows just don’t get it. My wife and I recently watched the once excellent, but now mediocre, Dexter. A character is tracked down by an 18 year old daughter that he never knew existed. He asks her what her motivation for finding him was and she explained that her Mother had recently died. He replied ‘That’s too bad…’ to which she responded with ‘Yeah, it kinda sucks’ and a shrug of the shoulders. My wife and watched open mouthed, aghast. Who was this moronic scriptwriter!? But I suppose a comprehensive understanding of the devastation of grief can only come with experience. I’d still sack that scriptwriter though!

    The subject of death on TV has never felt more popular on the TV at the moment and I’m caught between avoiding it because it will be too real or avoiding it because it will not real enough, no pleasing some people! The quick and sudden death of my two year old daughter Anni in January, seems to have coincided with the rise of a new genre of British TV known as f_____g miserably depressing s_t TV. After a few weeks of barely watching TV, my wife and I gingerly dipped our feet back into it, if anything just to try and give ourselves a little escapism and respite from the exhausting, suffocating painful grief that consumed our every waking moment.

    I studiously avoided Broadchurch as I knew the central theme was the death of a child and have also since swerved The Mill which I’d read was a misery-fest and I didn’t want to take a chance on it. The first new show we decided to watch was The Fall, which had been lauded as the best BBC drama for years, so it must be good right? It felt like a massive slap in the face when after 15 minutes the main protagonist was revealed to be a bereavement counsellor by day, specialising in talking to bereaved parents….and a mass murderer by night. For a few minutes I thought I’d have to bin the show, but my wife and I were soon impassively watching, as the main drive of the show was not really about the pain that the mass murderer’s clients were going through, more about the horrifically violent murders his victims were suffering. Weirdly we became avid watchers; it was not a problem blanking out the odd scene where he comforted parents, when doing his day job. It didn’t feel real.

    Another show we have recently really enjoyed is again a strange choice for bereaved parents. It was a French drama called The Returned. Now, we knew that this was about a sleepy town where inexplicably, the previously dead, were turning up in the droves, apparently alive and well. What we hadn’t been prepared for was that the main family in the show had twins, one died and four years later their dead daughter returns from the dead. In the real world, our Anni has left behind her twin brother, Ed. Again, I thought, ‘whoa, too close to home’, but as the precept of the film was so unrealistic, we were able to disengage and enjoy it for its Twin Peaks-esque mood and Lost-like silliness.

    With these recent TV, experiences bolstering our belief that TV shows featuring or focusing on grief, could not touch us, we decided to watch C4’s highly regarded recent drama, Southcliffe about a town devastated by a local loner going postal and murdering scores of innocents. Big mistake. There was a scene where a bereaved father visited his daughter’s body. The way he crumpled after walking in with a vague conviction to be upright, the words he spoke to her, the way he touched her hair. It was as if the writer had been watching me back in January.

    The subject of death in dramas will always be there, but I think for now, I will actively avoid the shows that do it well! Eight months on from Anni’s death, I still do more than my fair share of crying, so I don’t feel like I need to invite more woe into my life. But if someone finds it difficult cry and feels that it would be a cathartic release to do so, then I would recommend Eddie Marsan’s scene in episode three of Southcliffe. That scene well and truly kicked the crap out of me.

  4. Christy
    September 23, 2013

    Thank you! I feel exactly the same about this; however, I continue to be astonished by those who quite freely toss their loss aside and move on rather rapidly. At the end of October 2012 a man from my church suddenly died. He and his wife, also a Pastor, had been married 22 years with two grown daughters and grandchildren. Less than two months later she was engaged and a month later married! Everyone shows great signs of approval at her getting on with her life, while I have been met with quiet words of disapproval for “hanging on,” diverted eyes and a general push to “find a man.” Idiots.

  5. Nina
    September 23, 2013

    I watched ‘A Single Man’ and I cried. I’m not a widow but I am a divorcee which has some parallels I guess except a failed marriage usually ends at a point of abject misery and a bereaved marriage is more likely to have been positive. The reason it makes me cry is how sorry I feel for George that he was excluded from all opportunities to grieve his partner publicly. It seems so unfair. As is the real life situation. Love your blog, lots of food for thought. I hope you are finding it therapeutic.

  6. Amelia Redding
    September 23, 2013

    I thought Downton was rubbish (I switched off) but possibly more representative of the times it’s reflecting that an aim to accurately portray grief. The script is generally weak and credits the audience with little ability to think for themselves e.g. the too often repeated refrain that ‘times are changing’… in case we’d missed it.

    However, there was one line that stood out as a truth about people dying and the pain that is left, particularly for spouses: ‘the price of great love is great pain when one of you dies’. Variation on a cliché but therefore so true. And of course, I would never have given up the great love Jon and I had, despite this great pain.

    And as an aside… I thought the first few episodes of Southcliffe on channel 4 was a brilliant portrayal of grief. Although I’m not sure you would recognise it as a brilliant portrayal unless you were in the midst of grief. Many people I know just thought it was slow and bleak!

  7. Avril Lamb
    September 24, 2013

    Totally agree with your posting. The question/challenge has to be – is it possible to truly capture an essence of real grief, even just an essence, for mass market entertainment. It MUST be. To date those raw glimpses seem only to have been caught most ‘truly, madly deeply’ in written word, poems most specifically.

    I think it could only be done by a film/tv director who has a) been there big time, and b) is not held hostage by producers concerned about box office sales and the need to romanticise pain.

  8. Andy
    September 26, 2013

    Downton Abbey far too heavy for me right now, It only takes xfactor to set me off at the moment!

    On the theme of grief in tv and films……….Within a few weeks of losing Claire I ended up watching “we bought a zoo” which is a film based on a true story about a widowed father with young children. Perhaps If we all clubbed together……

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