“Dealing with Olivia’s Death”

This story is from the March 31, 1997 issue of People Magazine. It appeared as part of a larger piece on celebrities who’ve survived the death of a child. Roald Dahl’s first wife Patricia Neal contributed the following…

Updated: If you’d like to read more about Olivia, please see “MEASLES: A Dangerous Illness”. In it, Roald Dahl urges parents to have their children vaccinated against measles to avoid tragedies like Olivia’s death.

Patricia Neal
Patricia Neal

In 1961, Neal, the Oscar-winning actress (for 1963’s Hud), her husband, writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and their three children moved to the tranquil town of Great Missenden, England, after their son Theo was almost killed by a Manhattan taxi cab. A year later, 7-year-old Olivia, the eldest, contracted measles. Inoculation was then rare in England, and Olivia had never received measles vaccine. Less than a week after coming down with the virus, she developed measles encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. On Nov. 17, 1962, she fell into a coma and died.

The phone rang. It was the doctor. He said, “Mrs. Dahl, Olivia’s dead. Did you hear me? I said Olivia is dead.” I said, yes, thank you. I couldn’t believe how cold he was. Roald came back from the hospital and he cried. Oh, he cried. He had seen her dead. I unfortunately never did. My sisters-in-law talked me out of it. I wish they hadn’t. I stayed up that first night just looking out the window. Your love is dead, and the sun still comes up. It’s just so sad.

I was the strong one at that point. I don’t want to brag about myself, but I’ve never seen anything like it. Roald really almost went crazy. I held everything together. I cooked all day and went on. Of course 34 years ago anything like a survivors’ support group was virtually unheard of. You had to pull yourself together. I loved Olivia, loved her, but my God, I had two more children. I had to go on.

Over the years, I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald – who died in 1990 – couldn’t say a word. It was locked inside him.

Part of my healing came by having another child. No one could replace Olivia, but a new child would begin to heal the emptiness. In a letter to my doctor in California soon after Olivia’s death, I wrote, “I absolutely believe in a soul. And I long to let her go, to free her and hope she will be born again to me.” Two years later, Ophelia was born and a year after that, Lucy.

Over the years, I did other things to help keep Olivia’s memory alive, donating a silver cup to her school each year to be awarded to the best high jumper, as she was in 1962. And when I played Olivia Walton in the TV film that preceded The Waltons television series, I insisted that my character’s name not be changed to “Mary” as the producers wanted.

I keep a few momentos of Olivia around the house. One is a letter that she wrote when she was about 6 to a family friend. It says, “Dear Sheila, Thank you for the bubbly gum. I hope you are well. The bubbly was the most exciting present I ever had and I can blow bubbles . . . Love, Olivia. XXXXX.” That’s my Olivia. Isn’t she a honey of a girl?

Olivia Dahl
Olivia Dahl