A late summer’s Saturday morning, 1997. A friend and I are watching the funeral of Princess Diana on the sofa, in our pyjamas, like the insolent students we are. Then, two people in suits far too big for them appear in the cortège: a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old boy. Their heads are tilted as their mother’s body is lifted out of a car in a coffin. I still remember how it felt seeing that, every bone seizing up in my body. God knows what it must have felt like for them.
But, this Easter weekend, in the most extraordinary way, Prince Harry told The Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon how it did, and therefore told us. I couldn’t quite believe the words coming out of his mouth on Gordon’s Mad World podcast – words delivered with fervour and commitment, words that he knew would soon be lighting up headlines and news feeds all over the world: “Shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had quite a serious effect, not only on my personal life”; “I had two years of total chaos, I didn’t know what was wrong with me”; "I was refusing to think of my mum.”
Memories, for many people like me, become buoys. We will them to keep us afloat as we bob for days, months or years, barely moving in the same patch of sea
I’ve spent the Easter weekend thinking off and on about my father, who died suddenly when I was young, as I’ve just finished a radio project borne from that experience. The death of a parent at a young age is a particularly strange thing to articulate. If you’ve spent time with that person and remember them, your recollections become almost hopelessly precious, especially when they seem to start floating away. Memories, for many people like me, become buoys. We will them to keep us afloat as we bob for days, months or years, barely moving in the same patch of sea. We don’t even really think about rescue, or where to look for it. We just hold on tight, keeping our heads above water.
The trick, you learn later, is to treat memories like life rafts – to allow them to take you places, to let yourself drift with them, and know that this is OK.
On the podcast, Harry describes how he spent his late twenties finally starting to talk about what had happened to him. Young adulthood is often the time when this happens – we’re finally working out who we are, all grown up. “Don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything” was the younger Harry’s maxim, which makes absolute sense when this process begins. No one wants to become vulnerable to sadness, or pain, or questions that will never get satisfactory answers. Nobody wants to become the person without a parent for others to pity. We want to be fully rounded, complete people, strong in ourselves, and strong for our futures. We just have to open wounds sometimes to do this, to let our skin grow again.
I first wrote about my father’s death when an editor encouraged me to, off the back of an idle, non-work conversation, back in 2009. It felt like jumping from a cliff into open ocean, a huge exhalation of breath. I wrote about the male pop stars who helped me through my childhood for a music magazine a year later, heroes who gave me ideas and stories like someone else had. Speaking out also taught me lessons in other times of grief – when I had a miscarriage, which I wrote about for The Pool, or when I had a difficult birth in an operating theatre, the setting in which my dad died. I didn’t write about everything, granted, and we absolutely don’t have to do that. But, when I’ve given the toughest things in my life a voice, and put them out there, an extraordinary thing has happened – other people have spoken back.
“Once you start talking about it, you suddenly realise you’re actually part of quite a big club,” Harry continued. The work he’s doing with Heads Together, the mental-health charity spearheaded by him, the big brother who stood near him that morning 20 summers ago and his sister-in-law, is something that rings true in my heart. And I say this as someone who’s never been a fan of the Royal family, as someone who’s always been cynical about celebrity endorsements, but as someone who was moved profoundly by the words left to us last year by Jo Cox, that we have far more in common with each other than the things that divide us. Also, once we start opening up about what happens in so many of our minds, and recognising difficult things that happened in our lives, we can realise there’s “a real community there, and everyone’s gagging to talk about it,” as Harry says. Harry’s so right. Long may the conversations continue.