Like the two princes, we are still on our journey through loss and grief
Princes William and Harry talked candidly about the death of their mother in a moving TV documentary. Four of our best-loved faces tell Karen Ireland about life after losing a loved one.
The ITV documentary ‘Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy’ that Princes William and Harry made about losing their mother, the Princess of Wales, was fascinating on many levels — not least the fact that both young men clearly wanted to talk about their grief and how they had tried to come to terms with it.
Many of their observations and reflections will have resonated with others who have endured the pain of losing loved ones and are struggling to cope with their loss — such as their wish to have had their last conversation with her all over again so they could have said the things they wanted to say to her.
They also spoke about feeling her presence near them at crucial moments.
William was 15 when Diana died, Harry 12, and in the TV show aired on Monday night the pair spoke with unprecedented frankness about the impact her sudden death in a car crash in Paris 20 years ago had upon their young lives.
Indeed, reminiscent of their mother’s candour when it came to talking about mental health issues — such as bulimia and self-harming — William and Harry also spoke openly about their regrets and lingering sadness.
Perhaps most poignant of all was their revelation that they cut short what would turn out to be their last phone call with their mother because they were anxious to get back to playing with their cousins.
No matter that their mum would have understood their preoccupation with their young friends, they have pondered over the years what they might have said had they known they would never get the chance to speak to her again. “I have to deal with that for the rest of my life,” said Harry.
Two decades since the world mourned the untimely passing of the princess, in some ways it seems as if the princes have not found it possible to move on in their journey of grief. “It’s probably a bit too raw up to this point,” Harry said. “It’s still raw.”
He confessed that he had cried only twice since her death — once at her private burial on the Althorp estate and on another occasion since then. “There’s a lot of grief that still needs to be let out,” he admitted. “I was so young. I grew up sort of thinking that not having a mum was normal. I think it was a classic case of don’t let yourself think about your mum and the grief and the hurt that comes with it, because it’s never going to bring her back and it’s only going to make you more sad.”
One of the most remarkable revelations is the influence the late princess has upon her sons’ lives even today.
William said that his mother’s spirit is constantly at his side. “There are not many days that go by, I don’t think of her.
“I have a smile every now and again when someone says something, and I think, ‘that’s exactly what she would have said’, or, ‘she would have enjoyed that comment’. So they always live with you, people you lose, like that. And my mother lives with me every day. I give thanks that I was lucky enough to be her son and I got to know her for the 15 years that I did.”
William also revealed that he felt his mother’s presence at his wedding, and that he has spoken to his children, George and Charlotte, about Granny Diana. “She gave us the right tools and has prepared us well for life in the best way she could, not, obviously, knowing what was going to happen.”
Undoubtedly the princes’ words will have struck a chord with many, as our interviews with some of our best-loved personalities about how they coped with losing loved ones, reveals.
‘They never really leave you ... you carry them with you every day’
Noel Thompson (61), co-presenter on Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster show, is married to Sharon, a yoga teacher. They live in Belfast and have two sons, Matthew (30) and Patrick (25). Noel lost his father in 1984 and his mum in 2015. He says:
It is one of the enduring sadnesses of my life that my father died before my two sons were born. He always said any grandchildren would be very spoilt and I know he would have been a great grandfather and a great teacher for my boys. They could have learnt so much from him.
Dad was 10 years older than mum and served in the RAF in Egypt for eight years. I was working on a story when I got the news he’d had a heart attack.
It was a big shock. Of course, there were a lot of tears at the time but I think, as the only one of four brothers who still lived in Northern Ireland, I coped by keeping busy and organising the funeral and looking after my mum.
I still miss my dad and think of him every day. That’s one thing I always tell people when someone passes away — they never really leave you as you carry them with you every day.
I think being the one brother left at home after he died probably influenced part of my decision to stay in Northern Ireland.
Dad died in November and Sharon and I were just back from travelling for eight months, so I am glad I was at home when it happened.
That Christmas was terrible, however, as we were all without him. It was a huge loss and very difficult. He was a very quiet, unassuming person, and family meant the world to him.
When mum died two years ago I had had a lot more time to prepare for it as she was battling cancer and we knew what was to come. She was so courageous and used to say ‘if it wasn’t for this cancer there’d be nothing wrong with me’.
Since dad passed away, she had lived a busy and active life but, as I said at her funeral, they were very much a couple and she loved him as much on the day she died as she did when he died. He was her world.
She was a strong matriarchal type and everyone in the family would go to her with their problems. When she took ill, Sharon and I spent a lot more time with her, taking her to and from appointments and visiting her in hospital.
In a way, when she died, a burden was lifted but it was bittersweet as it was a burden I was happy to carry.
Mum died in February so she had one final Christmas with all the family which she really enjoyed. Memories like that keep you going after someone has passed.
I know mum lived a happy and active life. Again, when she died, I coped by keeping busy. We had to sell the family home of 50 years and I mainly had the job of clearing it out. That’s when I did most of my letting go as I sorted through her things and memories.
In her later years, she had made a scrapbook photo album, one for each son, full of memories and notes. It was an amazing gift she gave us. It starts off with pictures of her mother and father and dad’s mother and father and there is space at the back for each of us to include our own families.
She was one special lady and I think about her and talk about her and dad all the time, so they are never far away from me.”
‘I’ve changed because of what I went through ... you are never the same’
Nuala McKeever (53) is a comedian and lives in Belfast. She lost her partner of four years Mike Moloney in 2013. She says:
It’s four years since Mike died so suddenly and I think only now I am in a better place and coping with my grief. He had an accident on the roof at his home and fell off and died instantly — it was me who found him so I had to come to terms with the shock and disbelief of that.
Recently, I started doing creative writing classes for people dealing with loss and sharing experiences with others was so powerful. It was like finally finding people who speak the same language as you do.
I’m writing about grief at the moment for some work I am performing soon and I describe it as feeling like your loved one has gone away on holidays at the start and you wonder what it is like where they are — what sort of food they eat and what language they speak there.
Then you feel like you are away and you will be going home to that person soon. I remember the morning I woke up and realised that there was no coming home — this was the reality of my life now. Mike was gone and somehow I had to get on with life. It hit me like a truck.
I am very fortunate as I have good friends and family around me who have been there for me every step of the way.
I have a really good friend called Barbara who is also a counsellor and her gift to me was just to let me be. She didn’t try to fix me, she just let me be one day at a time.
After Mike died I found, and still find, that I seek out peace and quiet a lot of the time. Life was very noisy and cluttered and I wanted quiet. Now I barely listen to the radio or have the TV on. I just like to be quiet.
A few months after he died I went along to a class in the City Hall on mindfulness by Zen Buddhist teacher Paul Haller. Everything he said made sense and I knew that was what I sought. I started going to morning meditation classes and that was a massive part of my healing.
Only on Mike’s anniversary this year was I able to think out of something so tragic came some beautiful connections. I learnt not to sweat the small stuff and to allow myself space to heal. I am a much more compassionate person and I have changed because of what I have been through. Grief does that to you — you are never the same person again.
You learn that, yes, life does have its traumas and it hurts but you can push on through them.
I also went to Cruse bereavement counselling who were amazing and I am now a patron for them. I’ve done lots of courses and workshops on communication and I have learnt so much about myself.
At times, I wonder how I ever got through that first year without Mike — that was the toughest year of all, but it has taught me a lot about myself.”
‘This is my first experience of grief and it’s been very difficult for me’
Chef Paula McIntyre (50) lives in Portstewart. She lost both her grandparents, Jim and Kathleen Bruce, in 2009. She says:
I know that losing a grandparent is an inevitable part of life, but it is still a shock when it happens to you. My grandfather was 89 when he died and my grandmother was 94, so we were very blessed to have had them in our lives for so long.
They were elderly and in poor health but I still went to see them three or four times a week depending on how busy I was.
Amazingly, they were married and together for so long and they died just 40 days apart. My grandfather died first and it was a real shock as we weren’t expecting anything to happen to him and then my grandmother, who we knew was very ill, died a few weeks later.
It was hard having the double blow of two deaths in the family and two funerals within such a brief time.
I missed them both terribly as I was very close to them. They had a beautiful big house by a river and it was a real sanctuary when I was growing up. Their home was a place I would go to if I wanted to get spoilt.
As they were elderly and in poor health their passing was in ways a blessing, but I still found it very hard. I think the main thing that helped us all get through was talking about them and what had happened. We are a very close family and we talked a lot about my grandparents and still do.
I am very blessed to have both my parents in my life so this was my first experience of grief and it is difficult. I never got angry about losing them as given their ages it was to be expected that they would pass away but I just found it very sad and I missed them and the homeliness they offered.
Something that consoles me is the fact I wrote a cookbook in 2008 which I dedicated to them and I am delighted they were part of that and got to see it. I think they were proud of me. I hope they were.”
‘I longed to pick up the phone and talk to him’
Hairdresser Paul Stafford (49) lives in Belfast with his wife Leisa (49) and their two daughters, Joni (16) and Ava (14). His father passed away 11 years ago. He says:
My dad died 11 years ago in June after a very long and difficult battle with cancer. He was a bit like Lazarus in that he would be very unwell and then he would bounce back.
Through it all he had a tremendous work ethic and never missed a day of work. He just got up and went on. I really admired him for that.
When my father passed away I didn’t grieve initially. I was relieved for him and the rest of the family that his suffering was over and, in many ways, I just thought now is the time to get on with my own life.
My father and I had a difficult relationship. As the eldest in the family I was the typical alpha male and wanted to do things my way.
I guess I just wanted to be independent and leave home, and we clashed on silly things like football and bigger things like politics but he was never a judgemental man and, when I said I was going to be a hairdresser, he respected that.
Looking back, all the fighting and nit-picking was my fault. I was strong-willed and determined. I thought I was always right.
I think it is brilliant that William and Harry stepped out of typical royal protocol to make the programme about losing their mum, and what they give back to society is a true inspiration and great example. I really respect them for it.
The grief and regret didn’t hit me until a few years after dad had passed away and Leisa and I were going through a well-documented difficult time with the business. I hit a wave of realisation and regret. I missed my dad and would have given anything to be able to talk to him about what was going on, to find out what he thought about it all and, most of all, to get his advice.
We all think we are invincible and don’t need our parents when things are going well but, when we are in trouble, they are the first person we want to turn to and dad wasn’t there. It was too late and it was all my fault.
I realised that I hadn’t grieved and that I missed my father dreadfully.
I longed to pick up the phone and talk to him.
Now, on his anniversary and his birthday, I sit and think about my dad and what a good man he was. He made a lot of sacrifices for our family and worked hard to support us.
He really was a very good dad and I learnt a lot from him. Our daughters adored him and I’d love to see him interact with them as a grandfather now.
I am full of admiration and regret, and it took me a long time to admit that and to grieve properly for my father.”