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
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.
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