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  • Rachel Burchfield

We remember you, Diana


Tomorrow, Saturday, August 31, 2019, will mark the twenty-second anniversary of Diana, Princess of Wales’ untimely and tragic death in a car accident. In Diana’s birthday tribute post, I already told my story of how I found out about her death. Now, today and next Friday, September 6 – the anniversary of Diana’s funeral – you’ll hear from two guest bloggers about how they were affected. Also, if you don’t follow @theduchesscommentary on Instagram, now’s the time. Over the weekend I’ll be posting 22 of my favorite Diana photos honoring the 22 years since she left us.

On Grief, Closure, and Diana’s Death

By Megan Gunderson

The first funeral I ever saw was when Diana died.

I was 10 years old at the time and living a relatively idyllic life on the shores of Florida, but that is not to say that I had not yet experienced the loss of a loved one. The year prior to Diana’s death, my own grandmother passed away. She lived with my immediate family for most of my life, and her passing was an unforeseen freight train that slammed into my sunny world.

Everything about the end of my grandmother’s life was a mystery to me, shrouded with protective whispers and veiled information. She was visiting my aunt when she suddenly passed away, so I was not directly involved in the end moments of her life. I did not understand the sickness that she struggled with and how it managed to win; diabetes was an abstract illness to me at the time. Even the day she died seemed disconcerting: February 29, Leap Day. How would we remember her legacy on an anniversary that only happened once every four years?

My emotional distress intensified when my mother told me I would not be attending the funeral. My heart plummeted to my feet, tears threatened to rain down my face. Why could I not go? What did that say about me, if I stayed? What right did anybody have to take away my one last opportunity to say goodbye?

I pleaded. I reasoned, as best a 10-year-old can. No amount of persuasion worked, and my mother attended her mother’s funeral without me.

For a year, I carried the consequences inside me. Guilt that I had not attended. Grief that I had not said goodbye. Sorrow that she was gone. Anger that I had not been given a choice. I was certain that attending the funeral would have made a difference.

And so it happened that the first real funeral I witnessed was not my grandmother’s but instead the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, aired on a television broadcast from the other side of an ocean.

I knew very little about Diana, her charity work, or her country for that matter. But I watched her body process through the streets of London for hours, and I saw when her children joined the cortège to follow their late mother while millions sobbed in the streets.

My first reaction felt like vindication: See?! These kids were a part of the final journey. Harry was my age, and he got to say goodbye. Their family didn’t say they were too young to go. They had an opportunity for closure.

I watched them walk that long road, and I studied their faces. The television broadcaster described Prince William’s head as “bowed in respect and deference,” but all I saw was a boy who kept his eyes glued to the ground, as if refusing to allow the image any space in his memory. Alternatively, Prince Harry stared ahead through dull eyes – watching everything but not seeming to see anything. Neither boy shed a tear, as they marched through a narrow path of wailing mourners. How did they do it? How did they not fall to their knees, sobbing uncontrollably?

When my grandmother died, I was not allowed to attend the funeral and it bothered me for a time. When Diana died, her children were directed to trail behind their dead mother in front of the world. How must those mental images haunt them? I began to consider that there was no clean way to achieve closure after the death of a loved one.

For most of my life, the funeral of Diana was colored in my memory by a child’s perception of the world. I identified with her boys. Whatever she did, and however she died, and whoever was to blame was really beside the point for me. Those boys were my age. Even though the funeral experience was markedly different for us, I could relate to them: They were living through a waking nightmare of grief and anger that they weren’t allowed to feel, and that was too familiar.

Prince Harry once remarked that the emotional outpouring exhibited by absolute strangers during his mother’s funeral procession was surprising and somewhat confounding, as none of them actually knew her. The truth is that Diana was one of those rare public figures who acted as both an “everyman” mirror into our own human spark and a window into the kind of person we aspire to be. Even in death, she mentored us. Her passing gave people from all nations the chance to deal with their own repressed personal grief, allowing a moment to let go of societal inhibition and for once just feel deeply without judgement or fear.

A few weeks after Diana’s death, my dad took me to the Air Force Base commissary to buy just two items: Identical copies of Elton John’s tribute single, “A Candle in the Wind/England’s Rose.” One went to my mother, and one went to me. I must have played that one-track CD a thousand times. To this day, I could sing the lyrics in my sleep.

We all find our own passage through grief and must struggle to find a semblance of closure. Large funeral or private memorial, massive outburst or quiet reflection, a song performed once in tribute or played on repeat for weeks . . . it’s different for every person and situation. When Diana died, we collectively normalized grief for a short space in time and worked our way to closure together. And perhaps, that was her last gift to us.

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