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I suppose a lot of little girls growing up in the ’80s and ’90s were fascinated by Princess Diana, if only because she was a literal princess. Living in the U.S., I had no day to day awareness of her — at least, not until her death.
I remember August 31st, 1997 vividly. I was six years old. We were still living in the trailer park. My little brother was crying, which was not at all unusual. My mother was also crying, which was extremely unusual.
To this day, August 31st, 1997 marks the only day in my 26 years of life that I saw my mother cry. We were a family of early risers, aided by the lingering light of summer, but even if we hadn’t been the news of Princess Diana’s death had hit the airwaves hours ago, given the time difference between America and England.
I sat in the middle of the living room floor, with its scratchy carpet that gave me rug burns without much provocation. My gaze followed Mum’s, which was glassy-eyed and fixed on the images of a sad looking blonde woman that the voices in the TV said had died.
Death was not an unfamiliar concept to me, but grief was. I looked up at Mum, who stood above me wrapped in an afghan, still in her night dress. She wasn’t as thin as she would be in a few years’ time, the way she would ultimately be sealed in my memory, but she still looked gaunt. In the hazy early morning light, she looked even more ashen. At first I couldn’t figure out why, but when she inhaled sharply I realized that she was crying. Not just tearing up, but audibly crying.
There were a chorus of as-yet unexplained sounds that emanated from my mother, most often from behind a locked bathroom door, but this was a sound that I could identify. I knew what sadness was.
I turned back to the television where they kept playing a loop of the slight blonde woman with the downcast eyes in a poofy white wedding dress and a tiara. At six years old I didn’t need any further proof that she was a princess, but I also couldn’t figure out why my mother would be so upset about her death.
“Did you know her?” I asked hesitantly, pointing to the ghost.
Mum shook her head, but she almost seemed to hesitate — as though she’d somehow felt like she could have said yes.
Over the next few years, we amassed a good deal of Diana memorabilia: books, mostly, many of them plastic-wrapped and commemorative. Some trinkets, some plates with her face painted on them. A collection of beautiful porcelain dolls meant to be collectables for her wedding to Prince Charles were left to me by a grandmother I never really knew. They lived on the top shelf of my closet because they were yellow stained from cigarette smoke and inspired in me a hollow melancholy.
I read a lot of those books about her over the years because I wanted to understand why her death had impacted my mother so deeply. I wanted to know who this woman was — the only person Mum’s heart had ever ached for, that she’d ever felt for, cried for.
The most obvious resonance was that Diana was bulimic — and openly so, at a time when many people were not. My mother’s bulimia, and the secrecy it necessitated, was all-consuming. Not just of her life, but of mine.
In terms of fact, Diana Spencer couldn’t have been any more the opposite of my mother: Diana grew up in affluence, Mum in poverty. Diana was blonde, blue-eyed, and soft whereas Mum was raven haired, black-eyed, and almost angular. Diana went to people, was drawn in to their suffering. She empathized, she witnessed. The People’s Princess, they’d call her.
My mother barely left the house.
Diana belonged to the world long before her death, and many have argued that this was precisely what lead to it. She was hounded by the press, and the public truly felt entitled to her in a way that seemed to transcend the monarchy. Diana was worshipped.
She did look, at times, like her face could have been that of a saint on a prayer candle. I have found myself compelled by photographs of her where she’s looking off to the side, out of the frame, wearing an unfettered expression of mourning. There was something so devout about her sadness, about the purity of it.
Throughout her life people saw it, commented on it, speculated about it — yet no one ever absolved her of it. She was so visibly miserable, suffering at times, that I wonder if that’s why people clung to her like they did. Why her death was experienced so intimately by so many thousands of people.
How many people, like my mother, had seen Diana as some kind of holy, ethereal, beautiful effigy of their own sinful, guilt-ridden, ugly anguish?
Perhaps what captivated people about Diana was not that she was a princess, but that she was a paragon. The public face of her graceful, well-kept, almost wistful sorrow a more palatable expression of the grotesque variety the rest of us struggle to swallow.
Of course, Diana’s suffering was not always resplendent, but those unsavory bits went unseen. Not just because they were hidden, but because she was immortalized the way the collective We saw her even before she died. And the tragedy of her death only stood to ensure that she would be cast in an almost saintly light. Not to say she wasn’t deserving: Diana did a lot of good while she was here, even as she suffered.
I imagine it was that very suffering of hers that gave her the empathy for which she is exalted. I am of the firm conviction that broken hearts are the only ones that know how to heal — not just themselves, but any others that they encounter.
20 years ago, as I sat in the middle of the living room floor, I struggled to understand how she, an enchanting stranger, could have meant so much to my mother. I doubt I’ll ever understand the nuances, but what I do believe is that Diana touched the lives of millions of people she never touched. That whatever she represented to my mother, whatever my mother projected upon her, was ultimately of pure intent. That it was about healing, about learning not to suffer in silence, but with dignity and an awareness that others were suffering too.
Diana’s death was the first time I heard her name. Everything I learned about her, or came to understand about her legacy, would always come under the darkness her death cast over her life. Still, she was a light, and clearly others felt much the same. Elton John rewrote Candle in the Wind for her, after all.
Since she meant so much to my mother, Diana came to mean a lot to me. It has moved me to tears at times; not because she died, but because she lived. Because I can’t help but believe that if she had witnessed my mother’s suffering, she would not have hesitated to reach out and take her hand. Something that most of the people in my mother’s life — her own family, even — refused to do.
Diana’s gift to the world — and curse unto herself — was that she cared.
When she died, I imagine my mother felt as though one less person existed in the world who might have cared about her; of whom there were already precious few. In the days after Diana’s death, when a sea of flowers appeared and people were sobbing soundlessly on the news, I realized my mother was not alone in that grief.
When Princess Diana died, those hopes that likely lived in millions of people may have gone with her. But she remains strangely, if not reassuringly, present in our cultural framework. Revered and iconic, trapped in time eternally not the way she was, but the way we made her.
The way we needed her to be.
Abby Norman is the author of ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN. She lives in Maine with her dog, Whimsy.