A story of grief by a man and a boy
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 Holiday. She 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 Man. I 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.