Trib­ute to a princess:

Diana’s death was the JFK mo­ment of Gen­er­a­tion X. Just as your par­ents re­mem­ber where they were when they heard about the grassy knoll, so too the news of the Paris tun­nel is etched in our psy­che, says Suzanne Har­ring­ton

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - News -

Why Diana’s death is a gen­er­a­tion’s JFK mo­ment

Iwas at an il­le­gal rave in the ru­ins of a cas­tle in Kent, danc­ing out­doors as the sun came up over the Thames es­tu­ary. Some­one sat in a car to roll a cig­a­rette, and turned the ra­dio on.

When he emerged, look­ing shocked, say­ing that Diana was dead, we thought he was hav­ing an au­di­tory hal­lu­ci­na­tion. We kept danc­ing. There were no mo­bile phones back then, no so­cial me­dia.

Ex­cept she was dead. We sat in a Kent pub, that Sun­day lunchtime, ev­ery­one silently watch­ing the news, ev­ery­thing sur­real. That was be­fore the wa­ter­fall of grief flooded the coun­try, wash­ing away for­mal­ity and re­pressed emo­tion.

Diana’s death was the JFK mo­ment of Gen­er­a­tion X. Just as your par­ents re­mem­ber what they were do­ing when they heard about the grassy knoll mo­ment on Novem­ber 25, 1963, when John F Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated, so, too, the news of the Paris tun­nel is etched in our shared psy­che. You didn’t have to be Bri­tish, or even re­motely in­ter­ested in the royal fam­ily, to have been shocked. You just had to be hu­man.

Now that the 20th an­niver­sary of her death is here, Diana has been res­ur­rected. She’s ev­ery­where — in doc­u­men­taries, in­ter­views, fea­tures. Her sons talk­ing about what she was like, her but­ler butting in, fash­ion pages dis­cussing the evo­lu­tion of her style from posh teen to global glam­our icon, the Daily Mail putting her all over its front page like it’s still the 1990s — she re­mains death­less, Gen­er­a­tion X’s Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe. What is most in­ter­est­ing about Diana, how­ever, is not the Diana story — a mod­ern fairy­tale, mi­nus the hap­pily ever after — but the im­print of Diana on the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. On us, the gen­eral public. While the strong­est im­pact was felt in the UK — the oceans of flow­ers out­side the Lon­don palaces, the weep­ing mourn­ers who had never met her, never known her — the shock of her death res­onated in­ter­na­tion­ally. Peo­ple cried in Aus­tralia, in the US, all over the world. Why?

In 1998, the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal pub­lished a pa­per ti­tled the ‘Diana Ef­fect’. In the week be­tween her death and her fu­neral, on Septem­ber 6, there was a de­crease in “in­ap­pro­pri­ate hospi­tal ad­mis­sions”, be­cause, said the re­port, “the de­gree of trauma was so great at this event that peo­ple de­layed seek­ing ad­vice, as their own prob­lems took on a sec­ondary im­por­tance.”

After the fu­neral, be­tween Septem­ber 10 and 15, in­ap­pro­pri­ate ad­mis­sions rose to 50% above the monthly av­er­age in some hos­pi­tals, as peo­ple pre­sented with all kinds of symp­toms. Dur­ing the pe­riod of un­of­fi­cial mourn­ing lead­ing up to the fu­neral, calls to the Sa­mar­i­tans es­ca­lated, as did vis­its to GPs by pa­tients re­port­ing de­pres­sion. Public-or­der of­fences and calls to the po­lice dropped sig­nif­i­cantly. Ev­ery­one was too busy cry­ing to be crim­i­nal. There was a 34% spike in the sui­cide rate of women the week after Diana’s death, and an 18% in­crease na­tion­ally. Self-harm­ing rose by 65% in the week after her fu­neral. Peo­ple were hurt­ing. Why?

Nor was such public grief con­fined to Bri­tain. Re­search con­ducted in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math, by Ade­laide Univer­sity, 10,100 miles from Lon­don, showed a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in peo­ple ac­cess­ing grief-coun­selling ser­vices — up to 75% in some cases. Most peo­ple re­ported that the grief of their own be­reave­ments (for par­ents, chil­dren, spouses) had been trig­gered by the dis­tant death of a for­eign aris­to­crat.

Very few re­quired coun­selling for grief felt di­rectly for Diana’s fam­ily — their own pri­vate wounds had been re­opened by the death of a pop­u­lar public fig­ure.

They might never wish to ac­knowl­edge it, but Diana’s vi­o­lently sud­den death mod­ernised the Bri­tish royal fam­ily and, ul­ti­mately, saved them. Their per­cep­tion of her death as a pri­vate

fam­ily mat­ter was one of the great­est royal mis­judg­ments since let-them-eat­cake, and caused a public that per­ceived her as the hu­man face of an un­feel­ing in­sti­tu­tion to mourn not just with sor­row, but with in­creas­ing anger.

The public knew noth­ing of the pri­vate Diana — they saw her as the hugging, smil­ing, car­ing, beau­ti­ful princess, and lov­ing mummy, who had been made mis­er­able by her un­feel­ing in-laws; whose chance for hap­pi­ness beyond her love­less mar­riage had been smashed to pieces in a car wreck. Con­spir­acy the­o­ries abounded.

Never mind that it was the public’s in­sa­tiable de­sire for her im­age which led to her death — by not low­er­ing the flag over the palace, not ac­knowl­edg­ing the mourn­ing, by rigidly stick­ing to pro­to­col, the roy­als’ pop­u­lar­ity plum­meted. After Diana, one in four mem­bers of the public was in favour of abol­ish­ing the monar­chy. Then Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, Tony Blair, was in­stru­men­tal in trans­lat­ing the public’s grief, so that the queen and her fam­ily could fi­nally re­spond in a man­ner that chimed with the na­tional mood — although their ad­her­ence to pro­to­col meant that Diana’s chil­dren walked un­ac­com­pa­nied be­hind their mother’s cof­fin, as the world watched and wept.

The shock of her death un­leashed public grief that had not been seen ei­ther by Boomers or Gen­er­a­tion X — the Bri­tish, not fa­mous for emot­ing in public, briefly re­sem­bled Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cals. But­toned-up be­came un­but­toned, up­per lips un­stiff­ened, tor­rents of tears were re­leased in public places, caus­ing some tra­dion­al­ist com­men­ta­tors to wince and cringe, yet oth­ers to wel­come in a new era of emo­tional lit­er­acy and con­nec­tiv­ity.

These days, Diana’s chil­dren pub­licly sup­port men­tal-health char­i­ties. Such is her legacy.

It re­mains en­tirely vis­ceral, our at­tach­ment to her. Imag­ine if it had been the other di­vorcee, for­merly mar­ried to the other prince, who had died. Would we be mark­ing the 20th an­niver­sary of Sarah Ferguson, exwife of Prince An­drew, had she been killed in a car crash? Not a chance. Fergie, for rea­sons en­tirely su­per­fi­cial, which were cru­elly high­lighted by the tabloids, was never a queen of hearts. She was never adored. In­stead, Diana re­mains the Kate Moss of roy­alty, pretty as a pic­ture, and just blank enough for the public to project their pri­vate ideals upon. Be­cause ev­ery­one loves a fairy­tale princess, even a dead one.

Pic­ture: PA/PA Wire

The Prince of Wales and Diana Spencer in the grounds of Buck­ing­ham Palace af­ter an­nounc­ing their en­gage­ment, in 1981. It was the mod­ern fairy­tale – with­out the happy end­ing.

Lady Diana, whose death in 1997 be­came a fo­cus of pub­lic grief. Pic­ture: Ken Goff//Time Life Pic­tures/Getty Im­ages

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