Richard Feynman’s Letter to His Departed Wife: “You, Dead, Are So Much Better Than Anyone Else Alive” (1946)

feynman letter to wife

In June 1945, the 27-year-old physi­cist Richard Feyn­man lost his wife, Arline Feyn­man, to tuber­cu­lo­sis. Only 25 years old, she was Richard’s high-school sweet­heart. And yet she was much more. As Lawrence Krauss writes in 2012 biog­ra­phy on Feyn­man:

Richard and Arline were soul mates. They were not clones of each oth­er, but sym­bi­ot­ic oppo­sites — each com­plet­ed the oth­er. Arline admired Richard’s obvi­ous sci­en­tif­ic bril­liance, and Richard clear­ly adored the fact that she loved and under­stood things he could bare­ly appre­ci­ate at the time. But what they shared, most of all, was a love of life and a spir­it of adven­ture.

Dur­ing their years togeth­er, Richard and Arline exchanged fre­quent let­ters, many now col­lect­ed in the vol­ume, Per­fect­ly Rea­son­able Devi­a­tions from the Beat­en Track. But none is more poignant than the one writ­ten to Arline six­teen months after her death. Still despair­ing, still lost, Feyn­man wrote a cathar­tic let­ter that was sealed and nev­er opened until his own death in 1988. Deeply touch­ing, it reads as fol­lows:

Octo­ber 17, 1946


I adore you, sweet­heart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a ter­ri­bly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you under­stand how I am, stub­born and real­is­tic; and I thought there was no sense to writ­ing.

But now I know my dar­ling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to under­stand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to com­fort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have prob­lems to dis­cuss with you — I want to do lit­tle projects with you. I nev­er thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We start­ed to learn to make clothes togeth­er — or learn Chi­nese — or get­ting a movie pro­jec­tor. Can’t I do some­thing now? No. I am alone with­out you and you were the “idea-woman” and gen­er­al insti­ga­tor of all our wild adven­tures.

When you were sick you wor­ried because you could not give me some­thing that you want­ed to and thought I need­ed. You needn’t have wor­ried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clear­ly even more true — you can give me noth­ing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of lov­ing any­one else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much bet­ter than any­one else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am fool­ish and that you want me to have full hap­pi­ness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are sur­prised that I don’t even have a girl­friend (except you, sweet­heart) after two years. But you can’t help it, dar­ling, nor can I — I don’t under­stand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meet­ings they all seem ash­es. You only are left to me. You are real.

My dar­ling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.


PS Please excuse my not mail­ing this — but I don’t know your new address.

via the always great Let­ters of Note

Relate Con­tent:

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Lec­ture Series at Cor­nell, 1964

Richard Feyn­man Presents Quan­tum Elec­tro­dy­nam­ics for the Non­Sci­en­tist

Leonard Susskind, Father of String The­o­ry, Warm­ly Remem­bers His Friend, Richard Feyn­man

Free Online Physics Cours­es

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Comments (21)
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  • Idara says:

    This is so beau­ti­ful. I know what it is like to love some­one like that. The prob­lem was that I was­n’t back.

  • Idara says:

    *was­n’t loved back.

  • Margaret Rose STRINGER says:

    I did that: I wrote to my hus­band after he had died. And I talked to him … but then, I still talk to him, all the time.

    Richard’s not being able to “under­stand what it means to love you after you are dead” is the ker­nel: ter­ri­ble bereave­ment cen­tres around an all-con­sum­ing inabil­i­ty to *under­stand*. I wrote that I did­n’t under­stand how to BE: not a lot has changed.

    As no-one will seek to read what I wrote once I’ve gone, I wrote a book and got it pub­lished, in hope of explain­ing life’s now unre­al qual­i­ty, just as Richard found.

    “And then like my dreams”.

  • Joan Hager says:

    What a beau­ti­ful let­ter. Tuber­cu­lo­sis was such a killer in those days. Peo­ple were so ter­ri­fied they would­n’t asso­ciate with fam­i­lies if a mem­ber came down with it — and many did. My father had it when he returned from the war but he was for­tu­nate enough to sur­vive till the new drug peni­cillin was intro­duced and he lived anoth­er 55 years. What a ter­ri­ble thing for such young cou­ples to go through.

  • niyuogyg says:

    His last sen­tence is shock­ing.

  • S. J. Paige says:

    “The Order of the Good Death” men­tioned this post on their Face­book page this morn­ing.

  • Hali Athena says:

    Hi Dan,
    It was men­tioned on The Order of the Good Death on Face­book today.

  • Pratik says:

    Feyn­man’s remark­able per­sona is reflect­ed so pro­found­ly even in this sad let­ter.

    As a ratio­nal­ist, I tend think that roman­tic love is too hyped up, self­ish, unre­al, and hyp­o­crit­ic.
    This let­ter has prompt­ed me to ques­tion those con­clu­sions.

  • mary says:

    ‘the order of the good death’ is the FB page that men­tioned it.

  • mary says:

    I can see now some­one already answered that. His book “Sure­ly You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man!” is real­ly good. very inter­est­ing and fun­ny sto­ries.

  • Mark says:

    How con­sid­er­ably for­tu­nate am I to know what this man feels like, and what an incred­i­ble bur­den it is to bare and yet go on.
    It is with every wak­ing thought, no mat­ter how dis­tract­ed with the cur­rent task at hand, that I think of you Mary.
    No, you’re not dead. But you want to be noth­ing but in the past to me.
    My mind is tru­ly bro­ken by the attempt.
    I fail con­stant­ly to leave you there.
    As you wish.
    It should­n’t be long now. Sure­ly, this fee­ble mind will sput­ter out and towards an end alight.

  • warda says:

    I don’t just know how to start am just short of word’s Due to the help of Dr ogudugu,This Dr ogudugu has brought back hap­pi­ness into my life that i have lacked for year,My name is War­da Mark am from the Unit­ed State of America,Am just so hap­py today and today has been the hap­pi­est day of my life and this hap­pi­ness has brought me joy and am so happy,Because Dr Ogudugu brought back my lover kelvin into my arms with­out any delay,After my lover left me for good 2years,i was in deep pain and always think­ing because i tru­ly loved kelvin,Until a faith­ful day lis­ten to the radio due to tiredness,Then in which i had a lady shout­ing in hap­pi­ness about the great thing Dr ogudugu has done how Dr ogudugu brought back her lover back into her arms with­in 48hours,when i had that good­ness i decid­ed in con­tact­ing Dr ogudugu immediately,Because i was des­per­ate in get­ting in touch with him,So i got in touch with him,Which then i told him my prob­lem and he promised in bring­ing back kelvin back to my arms with­in 48hours,And then when i had that Kelvin would be back to my arms with­in 48hours i was so hap­py and wait­ing to feel Kelvin,And real­ly Kelvin came into my arms with­in 48hours,Begging me for forgiveness,i was so hap­py when i saw Kelvin now my lover is ful­ly back to my arms due to the help of this great man Dr ogudugu who has bought back hap­pi­ness into our great country(USA)Please friend in need of help you don’t need to go far all you need to do is for you to kind­ly con­tact Dr ogudugu for help,Because he his trust wor­thy and straight forward,You can contact( he said he can cast the fol­low­ing spell , such as, to bring back your love one,lost money,get rich,get go result,get good job,get good husband,build and buy a car. etc, just con­tact him and tell him what you need, i am so hap­py to adver­tise for him or you can also call his mobile num­ber +2347051611888

  • Anthony Alfidi says:

    That was excel­lent.

  • Sungsoo jang says:

    The death of a per­son seems he or she is gone. Yes, they are dead. How­ev­er, it is just the idea of a per­son is gone. Every atom that con­sist­ed of that per­son is still there. It’s just might be tran­si­tion or/and trans­form­ing.

  • Peyton says:

    What some don’t know is, Arline was ill with tuber­cu­lo­sis when Feyn­man mar­ried her.

  • Martin says:

    Wow… I have been read­ing about Richard Feyn­man for sev­er­al years and have just found this. So very mov­ing I was close to tears, then the p.s. made me smile. R.P. Feyn­man thank you for your con­tri­bu­tion to the world :-)❤

  • Shah Kaisar says:

    I am so excit­ed by their sto­ry of true and pure love…I think feyn­man is the great per­son­al­i­ty.

  • MIke says:

    If Ya’ll think this is mov­ing.…. Well they real­ly loved each oth­er he was a good man, I’m a man & not ashamed to say that when I read in one of his books it broke me down into tears under­stand­ing how he felt because at the time she was on bedrest at her par­ents house there was noth­ing that could make her bet­ter with med­i­cine in that era & he was still in col­lege while she was sick the extreme work he did to try to cre­ate a cure for her to Feyn­man when he was not able to cre­ate some­thing that would kill the TB I think he felt as if he failed him­self & his wife when he could not make a cure in time.….

  • mtj says:

    As bril­liant a sci­en­tist as he was, I can imag­ine that his thoughts did lean towards look­ing for a cure and I’d imag­ine he did inves­ti­gate any pos­si­ble med­ical trials/etc. I know when my sis­ter was diag­nosed with can­cer I flailed about look­ing for ‘tri­als’ she might have qual­i­fied for, but she duti­ful­ly endured the hor­ren­dous chemother­a­py… more for us her sib­lings than for her­self (the odds were huge­ly against her by the time she was diag­nosed). I so much wish we’d have been able to know ahead of time because we could have spent that last year trav­el­ing with her and doing just the things she want­ed to do! I miss her ter­ri­bly.

  • Widower says:

    Dear Open Cul­ture Admin­is­tra­tors — please remove the mon­ey-grub­bing abuse of “war­da says:
    Jan­u­ary 2, 2014 at 12:58 am ”

    That they would pray upon Love and Death is evil, and such evils must be exposed and ban­ished.

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