I WAS 11 when Princess Diana died and distinctly remember my mum rushing into my bedroom to tell me the news.
The family gathered around the TV in the lounge watching the reports, I’m pretty sure someone cried, while it slowly dawned on me that my mum had dragged me up out of bed to witness a little bit of history.
On reflection it is probably one of my first memories of a ‘big’ news story and of the way people will sit and watch the same reports over and over when something major has happened. And it is an experience I will never forget.
In the few years that followed I added watching the Beslan school siege unfold on TV with my dad to that list along, of course, with 11 September. I’d been in an art class when the first plane hit and recall Radio One’s decision to broadcast only music until more news was known as a sign of the seriousness of the situation.
To this day I can still hear DJ Chris Moyles’ shock and can picture the newspaper front pages the following day in the shops in which, overwhelmed by the death tolls they were predicting, I stopped to look and stare.
In the 20 years since her death Diana has hit the headlines for all sorts of reasons, some of it true, some of it not, and a great deal of it painful for those close to her.
But this past week the world was talking about her death for an altogether more constructive reason – for the impact it had on her youngest child, Harry.
The Prince, who was 12 when his mother died, spoke to the Daily Telegraph as part of the launch of the Heads Together mental health campaign, the London Marathon’s charity of the year.
In the interview he explained that it was not until a few years ago that, aged in his late 20s, he finally processed the grief related to losing his mother.
And, he said, that was only after two years of what he called ‘total chaos’ and coming close to a ‘complete breakdown’.
Just as the Duchess of Cambridge spoke recently about the stresses and strains of motherhood and how they can impact your mental health, Prince Harry exposed a vulnerable weak spot in our society – talking about grief and death. And, just like Kate did, he has taken a brave stand to show that it is okay to not be okay.
I was 18 when my mum died, also unexpectedly. I was just days away from getting my A-level results, weeks away from heading off to university and about to feature as Miss Battle’s Maid of Honour in that year’s Battle of Flowers parade.
I well remember the night before Battle being stopped by a woman telling me all about how awful it was about that girl due to be in the Battle who had lost her mum. I told her, quite politely I recall, that I was that girl. I’ve never seen someone excuse themselves from a situation so fast.
It wasn’t her fault, just a natural reaction to an uncomfortable situation.
And I’ve wished on many an occasion since that I could tell her so.
I’ve also wanted to thank all those who helped me through such a difficult time. From the friends who held me when I sobbed and the dozens of people who sent cards, flowers, food and messages, to the couple who gave me a book about dealing with the loss of a parent and the teachers who turned up at the funeral to support me despite having never really known my mum.
Some days I worry that I can’t remember the sound of her voice or what it felt like to climb into her bed for a cuddle or even what her mobile phone number was. But these days, coming up to 13 years on, I cry less, have fewer dreams about her leaving me in bizarre situations and am slowly learning to accept, albeit begrudgingly and while never forgetting it, the fragility of life.
It breaks my heart that my mum never got to see me get married or even meet the man I’ve chosen to spend my life with and, of course, that she never got to be Granny Sheilagh to my son. But at the same time I know I am lucky to have known her and I beam with pride when someone tells me that I am just like her.
The way different cultures deal with grief varies. Some call for loud, open, raw displays of emotions. Others expect a quiet, dignified response.
And everyone’s personal experience of grief is different. But it is something we will all deal with at some point in our lives. And how we do indeed ‘deal’ with it will be different for everyone, and often out of our control.
But what we do have power over is the way that we as a society can accept grief and those going through it. And it is important not to forget that it never really goes away.
Just like his mother’s death, Prince Harry’s message this past week is about more than just headlines.
And it is one that, as awful as it may be to accept, is relevant to us all.
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