Private Pain / Public Scrutiny

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and this November marks the same number of years since my mother’s death. I wrote this piece in 1998, pondering the connection between the two and my own journey a year into grieving. Looking at it after all this time, I ache for the person who wrote it. I’m well past active grief now, but I can hear the pain I felt coming through my writing voice. And yet, much of it is still the way I feel today.

What a difference a year makes. Last September I, like so many others, sat glued to my television set watching blow-by-blow coverage of Princess Diana’s death. I watched Diana’s funeral, not once, but many times. I listened to Charles Spencer’s eulogy over and over, and cried every time, as if repetition could somehow make it all true. Why did I do this? What was I waiting to see, to hear? What emotion locked deep inside was this spectacle tapping into? Flipping back and forth between channels for coverage and critical comment, I told myself that my interest was media deconstruction and trying to attach some meaning to the phenomenon of millions upon millions of mourners displaying emotions that they’d perhaps bottled up for months, even years. Feelings maybe not even their loved ones knew they possessed.

When I spoke to my mother about it all her attitude struck me as somewhat cynical and I was bothered by that. She was critical of Diana’s public persona, her courting and shunning of the media. And although she also watched, she seemed unaffected and unimpressed. But then my mom was no stranger to grief. As a young child she had lost her mother, then later, her oldest daughter before her youngest were grown, and two siblings far too early. All too often she’d been attending funeral after funeral as family members and friends succumbed to age or illness. Of course, she knew then what I know now – something that my multiple viewings of Diana’s funeral was in some strange way foreshadowing. Once you’ve lived through the real thing, you have little or no appetite for voyeuristic viewing of death via “breaking news” broadcast venues.

It never occurred to me last September as I watched and participated in the Diana display, that two short months later I’d be sitting panic-stricken at my own mother’s funeral mass. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for standing in a room full of caskets choosing one for my mother’s dead body. Or greeting every single family member and friend at her visitation – their presence creating a domino effect of memory of her life and my own. Nothing could ever be further from my mind than the few torturous minutes it took me, on rubbery legs, to walk up the church aisle behind her coffin. The fact that my private feelings would be publicly seen felt overwhelming and I remember trying to hide my face even from the familiar and also grieving gathering of people who knew and loved my mother.

Watching anniversary commentary and coverage of Diana now is excruciating to me. Suddenly my tolerance for anything funereal is drastically diminished. Reality, after all, is not at all entertaining. It’s painful in a way that only becomes obvious in the many months that follow – even almost a whole year later when I no longer expect to still remember the details so acutely. When what has forever changed my life is a faint memory to those around me. When nothing and no-one can relieve the emptiness of not hearing her voice for so many days in a row. After weeks and months of the processing and reprocessing that it takes to fully understand that the kind of comfort her voice provided is no longer available to me. The refuge of my mother’s love, custodian of my memories, champion of my successes, holder of my tears, my own personal spin-doctor, will sadly never be enough as a mere memory.

Remembering how much courage I had to muster for my brief walk behind my mother’s casket makes it impossible to think of what it took for Diana’s young sons to walk through the streets of London behind their dead mother. In order to purge a collective grief that probably had nothing whatever to do with the woman in that box, we forced two terribly impressionable boys to experience an extremely private moment right in front of far too many hungry eyes. Who can ever forget the picture of the word “Mummy” peeking out among the flowers atop Diana’s coffin? Not at all lost on me then, it has since taken on a much more poignant significance, and beauty.

For me, the death of my mother means the loss of my main relationship, my closest friend and my strongest connection to my personal history. But by this time, this is not outwardly noticeable. Inside me, however, everything has shifted so that even the tiniest occurrence takes much longer to process, leaving me with a block of confusion in my brain. I still need time and space to adjust to profound and unalterable loss. This fact is difficult to articulate in the real world of grief, where people need to see that you’re “coping” well. Sometimes I think we have more empathy for the loved ones of dead public figures because we can measure their loss without asking questions whose answers make us afraid for ourselves. It’s less messy with the protection of a television screen.

Ironically, I would have shared these observations with my mother first – a person whose point of view was both familiar and surprising, my daily breath of fresh air. Had I more experience with the extremely personal after-effects of losing her – or any such profound grief – I would have agreed with her about Diana. So, now when I reflect back on our differing opinions on the subject, I just know my mom is up there somewhere beyond the ether hearing me say: “Hey Mom – how come you’re always right?”

– August 1998 –

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