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What the week of mourning for Diana revealed about the 20th century British psyche

It has been 20 years since Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris, ushering forth a wave of mourning that encapsulated a critical moment in Britain’s cultural history.

Two years after Diana’s death, I wrote about “Diana Week” – the spectacular period of public mourning following her sudden death. But this outpouring of national grief did not happen in isolation. It was the product of a change in the second half of the 20th century in how Britons dealt with trauma and loss. And it all came to a head in August 1997, because of who Diana was and what she represented.

That humans grieve the deaths of people to whom they are attached seems pretty much universal. Attachment between humans, especially family members, is vital – not only for personal survival but also for group cooperation and culture. Yet incapacitating grief has to be moderated by the need to survive, and it seems that in many societies throughout history people mourned in the first instance and then had to get on with life.

This provides the evolutionary context for the findings of psychologists Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut who have researched grief in contemporary Western societies. They identify two kinds of stress in bereavement – the pain of loss, and the need to rebuild life and adapt to a changed world. Mourners typically oscillate between the two, between loss and restoration. There may be times – whether in the life of an individual, a family or an entire society – when restoration or survival has to take priority. At other times, loss can more readily be addressed.

Focused on survival

I have argued that from 1914 to the early 1950s, British culture had to privilege survival and restoration. Witnessing your mate die next to you in the trenches of World War I, or your child die in the 1919 flu epidemic, or keeping your family fed through the week till the next dole payment in the 1930s, or living through the Blitz, or rebuilding the country after 1945 – all demanded stoicism and a single-minded focus on survival.

In wartime, you just keep on fighting, whatever personal misfortune has struck you. As the World War I marching song put it: “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag / And smile, smile, smile.” This ethic served the country well, even if at a psychological cost.

By the 1950s, however, the welfare state meant that the death of a spouse or parent no longer directly threatened the mourner’s survival. By 1957, prime minister Harold Macmillan announced that most Britons “have never had it so good”. The affluent society had been born, for many at least.

From then on, an alternative culture could slowly develop in which expressing feelings became socially more acceptable, encouraged even. The 1960s counter culture proclaimed it unhealthy to repress emotions. But many of those who had survived two wars through not expressing loss and pain were not going to abandon a survival technique that had served them and their country so well.

Many of those I call the new “expressivists” were women in caring and related professions. They drew strength from the growing challenge to dominant masculine, establishment values, led by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-1990s, demography meant that these baby boomers who were more comfortable with their emotions were coming to outnumber the old wartime stoics.

Enter Diana

In her 1995 Panorama interview with Martin Bashir, Diana admitted that “there were three of us in this marriage” and shed some tears. The nation was split. Old stoics grumbled that we never got through two world wars by snivelling into our handkerchiefs. Younger watchers rejoiced that at last a member of the establishment was providing a role model who expressed that it’s okay to be vulnerable.

Diana, Princess of Wales, cuddling a baby in Angola, where she went to monitor the work of the British Red Cross. John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images

Diana not only expressed the anguish of her collapsed marriage. In her public charity work she also reached out, literally, to others suffering loss – those who had lost their home, people with AIDS who had lost their health and might soon lose their life, landmine victims who had lost limbs. As well as connecting with their feelings, she also fought for the practical removal of landmines – her focus on grief and loss did not exclude the need for restoration.

The week of mourning after Diana’s death got its momentum from what I would call “the Diana moment” – not only the Panorama interview two years previously, but also the many “moments” when she reached out and touched another’s pain. In her life, these public performances encapsulated a time in our cultural history when expressing and sharing the emotions of loss came to be privileged over stoicism.

On her death, her mourners chose to reperform that moment. Diana and her mourners did not create this cultural shift; they dramatically expressed it.

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