Jan 14th 2023

What Prince Harry’s memoir Spare tells us about ‘complicated grief’ and the long-term impact of losing a mother so young

by Sarah Wayland

 

Sarah Wayland is Associate Professor, University of New England

 

The thought of her, as always, gave me a jolt of hope, and a burst of energy. And a stab of sorrow.

Prince Harry’s reflection on his mother Princess Diana, who died unexpectedly when he was just 12 years old, appears in his memoir Spare, released officially this week.

In fact, the bestseller is marketed as a story about the “eternal power of love over grief”.

The book’s revelations, retold in high-profile TV interviews and featuring in his Netflix series, are the subject of much media coverage. These revelations chart the prince’s experience of mourning the traumatic death of his mother in public, media intrusion, and its long-term impacts.

On face value, Prince Harry may share typical symptoms of people suffering “complicated grief”. But not everyone agrees with how he “shows” his grief so publicly.

The myth of ‘time healing all wounds’

It’s been more than 25 years since the traumatic death of Prince Harry’s mother after a car crash in Paris. And with his family’s immense privilege, it’s easy to assume the need to explore the layers of grief that shape his experiences has passed its use-by date.

But the idea of “time healing all wounds” is a myth. Pain is ongoing. And by silencing someone’s pain, this can worsen it. The public, health professionals, the media and family can all silence someone’s grief by minimising discussions about the impact of losing a loved one.

Twenty years working with grieving people and researching grief reminds me of the countless people in my counselling rooms reflecting on the stinging words someone says to them: “it’s time to move on”.

Counsellors urge people to make meaning of the life lost with those still living. This can involve sharing memories with family members about the person lost, remembering happy times, imagining their inclusion in life currently, and always creating space for conversations about their absence.

If people struggle to make meaning of the new life they are forced to live due to their loss, this can lead to long-term reactions known as complex or complicated grief.

What is complicated grief?

Complicated grief is a severe, persistent and pervasive longing for the deceased. If the death is sudden and unexpected, the prolonged impact will be greater.

People who experience this intensity of grief struggle to engage in everyday life. This profound distress can affect their physical and mental health, and the relationships around them, for years.

Prince Harry has been candid about his struggles with mental health since his mother’s death and his fractured relationship with his wider family. He’s openly admitted to drug use to help him cope with his loss. We see these types of effects on people suffering with complicated grief, as well as the associated trauma when the loss is sudden.

 

He was so young

Grief isn’t just about what who was lost, but when the loss occurred. Prince Harry was just 12 years old when his mother passed away.

Psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson tells us this period of development between childhood and adolescence oscillates between a child seeking a sense of identity versus confusion about where they “fit” in the world.

It’s a time when young people explore values, beliefs and ideas about who they might become as adults. But this stage of development is impacted with the loss of a parent to guide them through this period.

When a significant loss happens at his life stage, this can destabilise the child for significant periods – well into adulthood – especially when the death is related to an external cause, such as an accident.

Prince Harry has shared this destabilising effect and the strain between himself and his surviving parent. Not all siblings experience grief the same way. There may be conflict with the wider family.

Long-term studies in the United States show children who have lost a parent do eventually grow to be resilient and forthright individuals. Yet traumatic memories of both the event and the impact of that loss remain just under the surface.

Prince Harry’s accounts of his experiences are reminders of what can happen for children who have experienced trauma.

His perspectives about the ways his wife was treated in the media and by his family, may have activated reminders of this past trauma.

So what helps?

Grief will have long-term impacts on people’s wellbeing throughout their lives, especially if they were only a child when the loss occurred.

When we look back on what helps children to manage their childhood grief, personal agency is key. They want to choose how they grieve, and their voice needs to be a priority.

This may mean choosing not to attend performative activities, such as funerals. This may mean openly sharing their experiences in a way that suits them – at school, work or with families. This may mean getting angry.

An evidence-based national grief program for children in Australia, Seasons for Growth, emphasises the importance of agency. This includes choosing how to accept the reality of their loss, and finding ways of voicing the emotional impact of that loss. This won’t always be through calm, reflective sharing. It may be through frustrated, angry voices, that suddenly emerge later in life.

Even with all the access to therapy, or even family members to speak to, grief will eventually show up in our thoughts, behaviours and actions. There is no discreet way to do it. Grief is both hope and sorrow.

Sarah Wayland, Associate Professor, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "In 2018, former US president Bill Clinton coauthored a novel with James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author. The President is Missing is a typical “Patterson”: a page-turner of a thriller, easy to read, with short chapters and large font. Patterson is accustomed to collaborative writing ..... He is as much a producer as he is a writer, using a string of junior collaborators to run his factory of novels. Patterson outlines the plot, the coauthors write the story, Patterson offers feedback. While he doesn’t seem to do much writing himself, it is a system that has made Patterson a rich man."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "With hindsight, 2022 will be seen as the year when artificial intelligence gained street credibility. The release of ChatGPT by the San Francisco-based research laboratory OpenAI garnered great attention and raised even greater questions.  In just its first week, ChatGPT attracted more than a million users and was used to write computer programs, compose music, play games, and take the bar exam. Students discovered that it could write serviceable essays worthy of a B grade – as did teachers, albeit more slowly and to their considerable dismay."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The thought of her, as always, gave me a jolt of hope, and a burst of energy. And a stab of sorrow."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: ".....if academic discourse and campus debate are shut down every time a person feels offended, how can universities possibly examine controversial topics? Without intellectual freedom – one of the great achievements of American civilization – they can’t."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "London's Tate Britain and Paris' Petit Palais have collaborated to produce a wonderful retrospective exhibition of the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942).  The show is both beautiful and fascinating. ----- Virginia Woolf loved Sickert's art, and it is not difficult to see why, because his painting, like her writing, was always about intimate views of incidents, or casual portraits in which individual sitters momentarily revealed their personalities.  ------ Sickert's art never gained the status of that of Whistler or Degas, perhaps because it was too derivative of those masters.  But he was an important link between those great experimental painters and the art of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, ...."
Dec 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the great paradoxes of human endeavour is why so much time and effort is spent on creating things and indulging in behaviour with no obvious survival value – behaviour otherwise known as art. Attempting to shed light on this issue is problematic because first we must define precisely what art is. We can start by looking at how art, or the arts, were practised by early humans during the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, and immediately thereafter."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "As a portrait artist, I am an amateur at this compared to the technology gurus and psychologists who study facial recognition seriously. Their aplications range from law enforcement to immigration control to ethnic groupings to the search through a crowd to find someone we know. ---- In my amateur artistic way, I prefer to count on intuition to find facial clues to a subject’s personality before sitting down at the drawing board. I never use the latest software to grapple with this dizzying variety.
Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."