Dame Esther Rantzen says she's 'still in denial' about husband's death

Dame Esther Rantzen says she’s ‘still in denial’ about late husband Desmond Wilcox death 20 years on as she meets bereaved families for new documentary

  • EXCLUSIVE: Dame Esther Rantzen has said she’s still in denial about her late husband’s death
  • Broadcaster, 80, married Desmond Wilcox in 1977 and he died in 2000 aged 69
  • Tonight, she will present a documentary on grief and meets bereaved families
  • She meets a mother whose two-year-old son drowned as well as a woman who lost her husband to Covid-19

Dame Esther Rantzen has said she’s still in denial about her late husband’s death and she believes the Department of Health should set up a grief line to help the bereaved.

Speaking exclusively to FEMAIL, the legendary broadcaster, 80, added she takes the belief that she’ll ‘never die’ ahead of a tear-jerking new documentary, where she revealed she refuses to talk to anyone about her own death.

In the show set to air tonight on Channel 5, the presenter faces her two-decade long fears of confronting her husband Desmond Wilcox’s death face on, which includes watching a tape of his memorial and going through his belongings which have been left in a barn in her Hampshire home for twenty years.

She also speaks to her children about the loss of their father, as well as six other bereaved people on how to deal with loss, in a year where 100,000 Brits have lost their lives to Covid-19. 

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Dame Esther Rantzen has said she’s still in denial about her late husband’s death and she believes the Department of Health should set up a grief line to help the bereaved, ahead of a new documentary.

Those she meets include 61-year-old woman who was unable to say goodbye to her husband as they were both in hospital with Covid when he died, a mother whose two-year-old son drowned, and a 26-year-old man who was only 11 when his older brother, 26, was murdered. 

‘I’m a TV presenter, grandmother, and  widow.  My work is challenging and fun,  widowhood is challenging, and no fun at all,’ she explained. 

‘About 18 months ago, Ben Frow, the director of programming at Channel 5 approached me asking me to make a documentary on grief,’ she added to FEMAIL. 

‘I told him it’s a very important topic. I will go around the country meeting people. Who can tell me from their own experience, what they found the most valuable in dealing with grief, grief and loss and bereavement.’

‘But then Covid struck, and suddenly, I couldn’t go anywhere. 

‘The producers said to me, well, you’ll have to do the interviews online. But I suggest that the connecting will be the site that you are in denial. And I said, I deny that. 

Esther married Desmond Wilcox, a fellow journalist, in 1977. The couple had three children together, Miriam, Rebecca, and Josh, before Desmond died from heart disease in September 2000 aged 69. The family are pictured in 1990

‘He said, you’re sitting in your barn full of wonderful mementos of your husband’s life and work, and you’ve listed that lock the door, what’s wrong with you? 

‘I really blame my children because they may have tipped the programme makers off.

‘Or it may be something I said, which was, “I’ve never talked about my own death to anyone”, I’d say my mother’s view that I’m going to live forever. That was the view she took about herself.

Esther and Desmond are pictured renewing their vows in 1999, one years before his death 

‘Anyway, my children persisted and the programme makers persisted. And it was actually turned out to be a very positive step forward.   

‘Because as I met more and more people and they told me about their own feelings and their own ways of coping, all of them different.  I realised that there are no rules,’

Esther married Desmond Wilcox, a fellow journalist, in 1977. The couple had three children together, Miriam, Rebecca, and Josh, before Desmond died from heart disease in September 2000 aged 69. 

All three children feature in the documentary to speak about mourning their father. 

In the show set to air tonight on Channel 5, the presenter faces her two-decade long fears of confronting her husband Desmond Wilcox’s death face on, which includes watching a tape of his memorial and going through his belongings which have been left in a barn in her Hampshire home for twenty years (pictured)

‘There were very few of us that saw what was going on underneath,’ her daughter Rebecca Wilcox explains about the her mother’s reaction to her father’s death. ‘She was classic swan. Everything was fine on the surface and the feet were going underneath the water. 

‘Everybody has to find their own way,’ Esther added.

‘But when everybody persuaded me to sit down and do something that I had avoided for 20 years, which is watch my husband’s memorial service. It was wonderful. And I suddenly thought it wasn’t a which I thought it might be. 

‘It would put me straight but I personally put me straight back into those raw feelings. What it did was it made me realise it was a celebration. And I celebrate him.

In the show, Esther talks to Mandy, 61, from Essex who lost her husband Larry to Covid, while they were both being treated for the virus in separate wards of the same hospital.

In the show, Esther talks to Mandy, 61, from Essex who lost her husband Larry to Covid, while they were both being treated for the virus in separate wards of the same hospital.

Mandy tells Esther: ‘We were admitted to hospital. First, Larry. And then, myself, maybe two hours later, I didn’t know where he was but he was somewhere in the hospital. 

‘I was in a ward for COVID. Everybody had PPE on, and the nurse came up, she took my hand with her gloves both hands and she just sat on it meant. He’s gone. 

Despite admitting to her daughter she’s only cried in front of her twice in twenty years, Esther is visibly moved and tears up over some of the stories she’s hears. Among them is Lucy Herd, whose 23-month-old son Jack drowned in their garden pond in August 2010 when Lucy took her eyes off him for just a short moment

‘My last words to him was, “I’ve got you an ambulance darling, my darling, let me put a jumper over you let me put jumper I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t save your life I can’t because I’m so very ill.” And I said, “I love you darling I said I’ve put clean pants in, I put my hand on his shoulder and I never saw him again.”   

‘I met him in a nightclub in Ilford 43 years ago. He said well go and see Saturday Night Fever together. 

‘And the rest is history, we had three children, a wonderful life, he was my rock. And I’m lost Esther, I’m lost. 

She added she was unable to give her husband a proper funeral because the  undertaker had buried 21 people that day, and she ended up collapsing at his service.

Esther also speaks to is 26-year-old Durone, whose brother Aaron was murdered aged 24 when Durone was just 11

Esther, who founded ChildLine and The Silver Line, believes there should be a ‘grief line’ too.  

‘There must be so many examples who’ve gone through similar situations to Mandy,’ she said.

‘Maybe the Department of Health should set up a line, so the people who’ve been through Amanda’s experience could just talk to each other a little bit not forever, but just have a few conversation, sharing experiences, not a counselling service.

‘I also think we should create a new bank holiday, and call it COVID Remembrance Day, in which the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve lost someone could celebrate the lives of the people they’ve lost. 

‘It would also be we a way to celebrate all the professionals. The volunteers, everybody who has united to fight this awful disease and save lives. 

Also featured is 55-year-old Joy, whose mother was charged with – and acquitted for – her father’s murder when the couple both attempted suicide following a terminal cancer diagnosis.

This powerful image is the last picture taken of devoted Mavis and Dennis Eccleston together. Just 20 minutes later, Dennis died, but medics saved Mavis and she was later arrested for helping him die 

Mavis and Dennis Eccleston, of Cannock, West Midlands, are pictured before Dennis’s bowel cancer took hold and the pair vowed to end their lives together 

Mavis Eccleston with her two of her children Kevin (left) and Joy (right)

Speaking about keeping busy, while grieving, she added: ‘Before Dessy died we’d do it together. 

‘He was just as proactive as I, you know, when he was making about facial disfigurement or about something else he would immediately try to see what causes what charities were working in the sector and how he could support their work.

‘I was accused by Professor Anthony, who did a programme called in the psychiatrist chair. He was said to me,”is there any experience in your life that you have not talked about publicly?” 

‘And I said “guilty as charged” because it does feel that way sometimes. 

Widower Gary, 59, who lost his wife Joy to sepsis when she was just 41, appears in the show. Gary says that telling his children their mother died was ‘the hardest thing he’d ever had to do’.

‘As I speak I have two cousins in hospital with COVID. I’m hoping that this will be one of the stories that emerge from, from this, because we are learning so much more about how to treat the illness and help people, effectively some hoping that will work. 

‘And I think they both did have the first challenge so I’m hoping that that will mean that they would cover well painfully. 

She added that she still has people come up to her to talk about her husband and that it was ‘lovely’ to see the public celebrate him.  

‘People still come up to a lot, to say what a fabulous man he was and what wonderful programmes he made and I find that so often. 

‘Because, again, we’re celebrating his achievements because his life. And I love it. 

‘I’m sure that Captain Tom’s family feel the same, but the knowledge that that whole country was lamenting his passing to him about his extraordinary courage and achievement.  

Despite admitting to her daughter she’s only cried in front of her twice in twenty years, Esther is visibly moved and tears up over some of the stories she’s hears.

The broadcaster also speaks with Amber, 23, whose mother died of a heart attack four years ago. Amber started a podcast to talk about grief because she ‘couldn’t find any resources’.

Among them is Lucy Herd, whose 23-month-old son Jack drowned in their garden pond in August 2010 when Lucy took her eyes off him for just a short moment.

On top of the unimaginable grief, Lucy discovered that as a bereaved parent her then-partner could take just three days paid leave off work – one of which had to be for the funeral.   

Lucy, 46, tell Esther, ‘It was a beautiful sunny day in August and I took a phone call. I got Jack settled doing some drawing and I went back to my phone call. It wasn’t very long, about three minutes. Then I turned round and Jack wasn’t there and the back door was open.

‘I was calling him and I went outside and the dog was sat up by the pond and I just knew.

Esther is pictured with her two daughters at her Hampshire home discussing her husband’s death

‘I ran up to the pond and he was face down. I got him out and tried to resuscitate him. I remember screaming and screaming for help.  

‘At the hospital the emergency director put her hand on my shoulder and she said, “Lucy, I’m so sorry there’s nothing else we can do”. That’s when my heart broke into a million pieces and that’s the day that I died. It changed my life and my family’s life forever.”

Jack’s Law, making paid parental bereavement leave a legal right for those who lose a child under the age of 18,  came into force in April last year.

Esther is pictured with Desmond and two of their children in 1980

Among the others she speaks to is 26-year-old Durone, whose brother Aaron was murdered aged 24 when Durone was just 11, and widower Gary, 59, who lost his wife Joy to sepsis when she was just 41.

Gary says that telling his children their mother died was ‘the hardest thing he’d ever had to do’. 

The broadcaster also speaks with Amber, 23, whose mother died of a heart attack four years ago, and started a podcast to talk about grief because she ‘couldn’t find any resources’.

Also featured is 55-year-old Joy, whose mother was charged with – and acquitted for – her father’s murder when the couple both attempted suicide following a terminal cancer diagnosis. 

Esther added to FEMAIL that making the documentary has showed her that there’s no ‘one way to grieve’.

Esther Rantzen with her daughter Rebecca Wilcox after she made a Dame by the Princess Royal at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 25, 2015

‘I was talking to someone who’s really well known, this morning, who told me that some one close to him died very recently and he couldn’t  talk about it, there are no  rules. 

‘I think if you avoid the subject, because you’ll frightened someone, sometimes that’s wrong sometimes people do want to talk about it but no one should be compelled to, because we find our own way through. 

‘The word people use about documentary is uplifting. 

‘I think that’s a lovely word because it means it gives you support to look and feel uplifted and that’s what I felt missing’.

Esther Rantzen: Living with Grief, Tonight,  10pm on Channel 5 

The Silver Line is the only free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Call anytime on 0800 4 70 80 90 

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