Focus: Two widows and a funeral: the veiled truth about the etiquette of grief

When a man dies, how should his first wife behave? How should his second wife treat her? Virginia Ironside on the challenges faced by the women mourning Robin Cook
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Indy Politics

It was at the funeral of Robin Cook's mother that Gaynor, his second wife, is said to have come up to Margaret, his first, and said, "Well, it's good to meet you!". The two wives didn't become bosom buddies after that - Margaret thought that would be taking the whole thing a bit too far - but at least they were on speaking terms. Thus, after Robin Cook's sudden death eight days ago, it was possible for Margaret to attend his funeral, albeit at a discreet distance from Gaynor.

It would be a hard and cruel second wife, after all, who didn't ask the first wife to the funeral of the man they both married. As the one who finally nabbed him, she shouldn't be worried about the dreary old first wife who was left weeping at home when her husband left her.

The relationship between first and second wife obviously differs from marriage to marriage, and some become so pally that they're forever on the phone to each other, sharing their thoughts about the poor husband's myriad faults. But, broadly speaking, a first wife usually regards herself as the man's "real" wife. She was the woman he married first, and the second wife, to her, is just some mad aberration that he got himself into when he was going through a mid-life crisis.

However, the second wife feels that she is the man's "real" wife. She feels that the woman he married first was a bit of childish madness, who turned into a ludicrous old stodge that he outgrew.

This mutual feeling of superiority can make for a good relationship. Each woman is smug in her own unspoken knowledge she has something special of the bloke that the other, poor fool, can never understand, and this can make them more tolerant of each other.

But it doesn't always work out like this. A first wife can feel terribly insecure when her husband goes off with someone else, and hate the woman who broke up a happy marriage. (It's easier to hate the second woman than the husband, who still has to be negotiated with when there are children.) And a second wife can feel equally insecure if she feels that her husband is at some level still deeply involved with his first.

If there's friction, then a funeral can be a vicious weapon for the second wife finally to get her own back on the first wife. A death often results in the bereaved experiencing mind-blowing grief, but also mind-blowing rage - and who better to vent it all on than the first (or second) wife? Of course she can't come to the funeral. How dare she think she has any rights over him at all, even when dead!

Gaynor behaved, one gathers, in a very civilised way, by allowing Margaret to attend. The fact that Gaynor didn't have children might make a difference, too, because all that's left of Robin lives on in the two boys by Margaret, and Gaynor obviously doesn't want to lose their friendship. The role they both played in the funeral - each giving a reading - was surely significant in this respect.

Margaret also needed to do her bit. She had to avoid lingering at the party afterwards, greeting old friends who would be put in an impossible situation, particularly if, as was probably the case, they felt they had known Margaret better and longer than Gaynor, who had come on to the scene only comparatively recently.

Which of the two women will suffer the more? Will it be Gaynor who, as the younger woman, had only seven years married to Cook and was hoping to spend the rest of her life with him? She mourns not only the man, but a future that has been snatched from her. It will be hard for ever to find another man of his stature.

Or will it be Margaret? Perhaps she started mourning Robin Cook's departure when they divorced. Perhaps his death will, in an odd way, help her close completely a chapter of her life that must have stayed pretty raw whenever she read his speeches or saw his picture in the paper.

Pat Squires from Devon is someone who has found herself in a similar position to Margaret Cook. She was married for 33 years - compared with Margaret and Robin's 28 years - before divorcing. He remarried, and so did she, and then her ex-husband was diagnosed with cancer.

"When he died I had surprising feelings," Mrs Squires explains. "He died in a hospice, and I felt very sad that his life ended in that way. My life had moved on by then, but I did grieve a little. I didn't know where the funeral was. I think my family assumed I didn't want to know, and I don't think I would have gone. I had a little cry at church by myself. I'd always been angry that I had to divorce him but in the end you forget all that. I started to remember all the lovely times, the silly things we used to do. At the end when we were together he led me a dog's life, and we were both very bitter. But, in my heart, I've forgiven him because life is too short to hold grudges."

Sadly, although Margaret and Gaynor are, after all, no longer rivals - the object of their rivalry having now gone - they can't cry on each other's shoulders. All they can do is try to behave in a civilised manner towards each other and respect the fact that each is grieving, albeit in totally different way.

Virginia Ironside's books include 'You'll Get Over It: Rage of Bereavement'

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