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

The Richard Feynman Trilogy: The Physicist Captured in Three Films

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.

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  • 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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