Being Good isn't Good for the Family

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:30

The Guardian

2nd September 1997

Being Good isn't Good for the Family

The news of Princess Diana's death shocked me, but what shocked me most was that on the day of their mother's death her sons had to show that they were good boys by putting on their formal suits, going to church and listening to a service where no mention was made of their mother even in the prayers. Sadly, this shows that the House of Windsor, like the Bourbons, the last of French royalty, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

It hardly seems possible that, from the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the seventies on the stages of grief to the present work of Susie Orbach on emotional literacy, anybody in the UK could not know how important it is to grieve and to be allowed to grieve. This visit to church illustrates not only how ignorant the Royal Family is of what it is to be human but also what little understanding they have of what non-royal people think. The Royals might have seen in Prince William a young man demonstrating the lack of emotion considered necessary for a future king, but what many people saw was an act of child abuse meriting a call to the NSPCC.

Anyone who has suffered a sudden, unexpected tragedy knows what a fierce and strange experience it is. Your first reaction is one of utter disbelief. This cannot be happening. All your surroundings, even the most familiar ones, become strange. You don't know whether you are in a dream from which you can't wake or whether your life is in ruins. This sense of strangeness is compounded if you are in unfamiliar circumstances which make it hard for you to be sure that it is not a dream, or if the people around you are behaving in ways which you feel is inappropriate if this terrible tragedy has in fact happened. Imagine your confusion if you are in a church, a place whose whole purpose is to help people come to terms with death, and the people there, one of whom has told you of the tragedy, act as if the tragedy has not happened and, indeed, as if the person you have lost has never existed. You might even think that you are going mad.

Some people hold on to this disbelief on the edge of madness to ward of the next experience, that of knowing that what is happening isn't a dream. Once you let yourself know that, the pain starts. It is terrible physical pain, the kind of pain that makes you scream and howl. There's no aspirin that dulls this pain. Then you need around you people who can tolerate this dreadful sound, and can also tolerate your tears. These are tears that need to be shed because with their shedding can come some ease from pain. These tears, so science now tells us, are life preserving. The tears we shed when peeling onions are little more than water, but the tears we shed in emotion take away various chemicals which, if retained, would impede the efficient functioning of the auto-immune system which maintains our health. The death rate amongst widowers in the twelve months following their bereavement is significantly higher than that for widows. Not a good advertisement for the stiff upper lip.

Next comes the fear, the fear we all feel when we discover that there is a huge discrepancy between what we thought our life was and what it actually is. You feel that your whole self is disintegrating, shattering, disappearing. This is when you need to be held because someone's arms around you can actually hold your self together when you feel your self falling apart. On the way home from church a good father would have put his arms around his boys instead of just counting his fingers. Despite Diana's many demonstrations, Charles still hasn't learnt the wisdom of holding one another in times of grief.

These stages of grief, terrible though they are, have to be gone through to get to the most difficult stage, which is to reconstruct yourself and your life. However, shouting, screaming, crying, wanting to be held are not what the Royal Family regard as good behaviour. Good behaviour from children is behaviour which does not upset the adults, and Diana's boys are already very good. After the service the Rev Robert Sloan, the Church of Scotland minister at Crathie, said that the princes "were remarkable. They were very good indeed, despite what must have been going through their minds and their hearts."

Being good will from now on dominate the princes' lives even more, because, while they have lost a mother, they have gained a saint. Living up to the ideals of the Royal Family will be hard enough, but living up to the ideals which people will impose on Saint Diana will be impossible. Let's hope that the princes have learned and will always remember what their mother showed them, that the best kind of goodness comes from knowing and accepting what you think and feel.