One of the most iconic moments of Princess Diana’s funeral, and perhaps the most moving, was the image of princes William and Harry slowly and solemnly walking behind their mother’s coffin, with a handwritten note addressed to “Mummy” written by her son Harry sticking out of a flower arrangement on top of the coffin.
While many in the media and public mourned the public persona of Diana, who had just unexpectedly and tragically passed, that moment many realized the deeply personal loss the handful of people in her family had felt. No matter their fame or fortune, the princes were still just two young boys robbed of their beloved mother.
Just as their mother was famous for championing causes society deemed taboo like leprosy and AIDS, Princess Diana’s kids William and Harry, in addition to William’s wife Kate, have made mental health a centerpoint of their outreach efforts as members of the royal family.
Recently Prince Harry brought together other high-profile British personalities to discuss mental health. Harry made some of his first comments about what life was like after his mother died when he was 12 years old. The event, a barbecue, was filmed by the BBC and included a conversation between Harry and former soccer player Rio Ferdinand, who recently lost his wife and the mother of his young children to cancer.
‘I Really Regret Not Talking about It’
They discussed what it’s like for kids to lose a parent and what each stage of life might bring for Ferdinand’s children without a mother. Harry told Ferdinand, “You know, I really regret not ever talking about it.” While the card on top of the coffin was a famous expression of grief from the prince, it was one of the only times he has shown the impact of his mother’s death. During the BBC special, Harry said he had only begun to really discuss his loss (presumably both in public and in private) in the last three years.
When my mother died 14 years ago, a relative told me “There’s no right way to grieve.” Another valuable piece of advice from this wise older relative was this: “Don’t stop talking about her, even if it makes everyone around you uncomfortable.”
They say there are two things you should never discuss socially: politics and religion. Even more taboo than these two topics, however, are dying, death, and grieving. Recently, when a friend who shares my dark sense of humor had a death in the family, I suggested she write down all of the most ridiculous things people said to her in the aftermath of the funeral, because nothing brings out the worst in people quite like death does.
The inappropriate things that tend to come out of the mouths of the well-meaning aren’t said with malice, but due to a total inability for most in our culture to cope with death. One of the only ways I was able to laugh after my parents died when I was 16 and 19, respectively, was remembering all of the crazy things people said to me in the aftermath.
Another friend who had a tragic loss in her family noticed that as soon as the immediate mourning period was over, her family’s social life ground to a halt. Lunch and dinner invitations dried up, playdates for their kids became elusive, and soon she was feeling as though many in her social circle thought tragic death must be contagious.
One of the ways this friend coped, and that made many so uncomfortable, was that she still spoke of her dead relative, frequently and in everyday conversation. Just because he died doesn’t mean he never existed, although that’s how she felt most of the people around her expected she should behave. She told me once that she knew it made everyone around her uncomfortable, but that talking about her relative was the best way she did her grieving. She was the only one in her social circle who knew this fundamental truth about grief.
Don’t Grieve Alone
For better or for worse, our society looks to celebrities like the royal family to set the tone on cultural issues. To their credit, the British royal family have always taken this responsibility seriously and to heart. Especially in the case of Princess Diana and her sons, they decide to tackle issues that most speak to them, even if they aren’t the most comfortable areas of focus. While American first ladies focus on health and reading, on the other side of the pond the royals are taking on far more dark and pressing concerns.
That Harry may have struggled with his mental health following the untimely death of his mother as a child is unsurprising, although it is critically important for others to hear him say. In the BBC special, Harry said of Ferdinand’s, and perhaps his own, struggle: “A lot of people think if you’ve got a job, if you’ve got financial security, if you’ve got a family, you’ve got a house, all that sort of stuff, everyone seems to think that is all you need and you are absolutely fine to deal with stuff.”
The Western world has a hard time dealing with death. We are unable to appropriately comfort the mourning because we are so out of practice discussing death, and the emotional and mental health fallout after for those surviving openly and honestly. Given the benefit of the passage of time, Harry has learned that grieving is best accomplished openly, instead of pushing feelings of loss and loneliness inward. Hopefully more open and honest conversations about death like Harry’s on the BBC can change the way our society deals with grief, for the better.