The former footballer will be sharing his heart-breaking journey and asking why men struggle with their emotions in a new BBC film
Rio Ferdinand is sitting in the screening room of a London hotel, emotion etched upon his face. It’s been less than two years since Rebecca, his wife and mother to his three children, lost her battle with cancer and in BBC1 documentary, Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad, he’s opening up about his pain for the first time.
‘I don’t think I grieved properly when it happened,’ says the ex-England captain and Manchester United star, who now works as a TV pundit. ‘I threw myself into my work because when I was alone I had some negative thoughts.
‘I used to read stories about people who had killed themselves and think they were selfish, but now I can sympathise. If I didn’t have the support of my family, and my kids to inspire me, then it would have been far more difficult for me.’
Thankfully the former footballer and his children, sons Lorenz, 10, and Tate, 9 and daughter Tia, 5, have finally managed to find some peace and Rio believes the time is right time to share their journey.
After bravely allowing the BBC’s cameras into his home, this poignant documentary will follow Rio as he meets other widowers in a bid to understand how men deal with the pain of losing their partners in such traumatic circumstances.
‘Making this film has helped me so much,’ explains Rio. ‘It finally gave me the chance to sit down and flush everything out.’
Rio tells us more…
Why did you decide to make this film?
‘Because of my kids, if I’m honest. At the beginning I was distraught, I felt like my whole house was fallen down – I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I kept looking at my kids and thinking, how do I make it easier for them, how can I help them have a normal life going forward. I found it especially difficult to talk to my boys about it, but thankfully the film really helped with that.’
Did you try to speak to a counsellor?
‘I thought to myself “I ain’t talking to no counsellors!” But then going through the process of this documentary changed my mind a bit. I met lots of people from bereavement charities and got a better understanding of these things. I did the film for my kids and also to help other people, if they’re struggling with the loss of their partner. Hopefully if they see this it will make it a slightly less bumpy ride.’
What kind of challenges did you face in those first days?
‘The hardest part was the school run! We men are quite ignorant of how much women do. If a woman stays at home to look after the children we see that as not being a job. I tell you now, it’s a hard job! And I’ve got help! I always used to take the kids to school every day, but I woke up 10 minutes before we had to go. They were already bathed and fed, I just put them in the car and took them there. Then that all changes and I can tell you, they were very late for school for the first week or so.’
How difficult was it to get support in the days following Rebecca’s death?
‘When she passed I had to tell my children who were in the room next door. Then you leave and they give you leaflets, but you’re in a daze so you’re not really paying attention. I didn’t know where to look for help. I was concentrating on my kids. When you have a baby there are health visitors that come and visit you to make sure you’re okay, but there’s no support network like that when you have a loss. It would be great if this film could help change that.’
Was it harder to deal with the loss because you are in the public eye?
‘In some ways. You walk out of the front door and you know everyone knows and you think they’re talking about you. You walk into school and everyone wants to stop and say something. People think that if they don’t say something then it looks like they don’t care, but the one thing that actually worked was a handshake. That’s the best thing. Any more than that and people usually get it wrong!’
How difficult were those first few months?
‘At the beginning I drank a lot. I would come back down in the middle of the night when everyone was in bed and sit there drinking. That went on for the first few months. Then a few hours later I was doing the school run and I realised I needed to do something, otherwise I’d end up in a car crash.’
Do you think men have a problem opening up about their grief in these situations?
‘It’s alright to cry at a football match – it’s almost championed because that means you care. But when you suffer loss it’s sometimes seen as a weakness to show that emotion. The most important thing I learned was to show emotion in front of my kids. If I was feeling emotional then I wouldn’t hide it from them. To let them see and let them understand that it’s okay for them to show their emotion is important.’
What did you learn when you met with the other widowers?
‘After meeting the other husbands, I learned there’s no real timeline for anything. I was the only one still wearing my wedding ring and they told me they’d got to the point where they needed to take theirs off to move on. I wasn’t ready to do that, but it’s a personal thing. I also learned that if you’re fortunate to have conversations with your wife and tell her how much you love her before she passes, that’s so precious. Some people don’t get that chance as their wives are gone in an instant.’
How is your family doing now?
‘We’re doing alright. The kids are good and they’re doing all the activities god sends – I’m like a taxi driver. We have a few ups and downs here and there, but we’re good.’
Rio Ferdinand:Being Mum and Dad, Tuesday, March 28, 9pm, BBC1