23 Years On: How Diana’s Death Changed Lives
When the princess lost her life in 1997 it triggered an outpouring of grief unlike anything we’d seen before, but what did it really mean for ordinary people?
I’d never met her. I’d never written about her. And yet here I was sitting in front of my TV crying for a woman I had no connection with.
Maybe it was the alcohol, (I’d just arrived home from a club after a boozy night) maybe it was something else.
As a visibly shocked newsreader broke the news, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing and hearing.
In my world, journalists were supposed to be impartial. There to report the facts and nothing more. But this moment was something else.
The tremor in the announcer’s voice took every viewer into new territory.
I’d always fallen on the side of Princess Diana — ‘The People’s Princess’ as she was destined to become known.
Charles and Camilla were the ‘villains’. Diana — a pawn in the game. A beautiful, heart-centred woman used by the establishment to secure the future of the British monarchy with her offspring. At least that’s how I saw it. My family and I were most definitely on ‘Team Diana’.
Of course there are two sides to every story. In this case many sides.
But in this moment, in the midst of my failing marriage and struggling with my sexuality, Princess Diana had been a welcome distraction from my own problems.
It’s partly why her death felt so very personal. For many of us, though we might not feel comfortable admitting it even now, Diana’s death was an outlet. A hook to hang all our own grief, trauma, hurt, frustration, doubt, and any other difficult emotions on.
Red Roses For A Princess
Diana was an incredible woman for many, at least in her public facing role, representing the best of us or what we perceived to be the best. Kind, caring, compassionate, sensitive, loyal and ‘one of us’.
As more details of the accident came through in the early hours I sat glued to the television.
The TV stations played endless footage of the Princess through the years and then the first glimpses of the tunnel where the accident happened.
It couldn’t be true, but it was.
The next day my husband and I got on a train from our Kent home, clutching a red rose each, and made our way to Buckingham Palace.
We were among some of the first people to gather outside and, as the TV cameras rolled, we laid our simple floral tributes in front of the gates.
Within hours the flowers, balloons and messages mounted up, leaving a sea of tributes and outpouring of emotions.
Men, women, children openly crying.
“Forever in our hearts, the People’s Princess, Queen Of Hearts.” The tributes went on and on.
Shock and grief was in the air. I’d never seen or felt anything like it.
Things only intensified as we went on what felt like some modern day pilgrimage.
Drowning Emotions In A Sea Of Tributes
We made our way to Kensington Palace — Princess Diana’s home. It was awash with thousands upon thousands of tributes, poems, letters, flowers, balloons as far as the eye could see. And as the light faded thousands of candles were lit, some laid out as giant hearts, flickering in the breeze.
It was an incredible sight. An outpouring of sadness and love mixed with an awareness of being part of a very special moment in our history. The hairs on my arms stood on end. My eyes filled with tears as I looked around. It felt like every age group, every community was represented and had been touched in some way by what had happened. Many wandering around in shock and sadness.
People gathering in groups, tying messages to branches. Others playing music and talking in hushed tones. A kind of reverence, like the doors of the church of Diana had been opened wide and all were welcome.
During those days after Diana’s death I queued twice in London to sign the Book of Condolence. The first time standing in line for more than 17 hours in a never ending train of grief and togetherness stretching down The Mall.
The second time I returned and signed the book on behalf of my mum and dad. Another 13 or so hours of queuing.
I will never forget the atmosphere on these two days.
Thousands of people from all over the UK and further afield, coming together to pay tribute to a woman who most never knew but felt like they did. Who couldn’t explain why they felt this connection but knew they needed to do something, anything to mark this woman’s passing.
In a grim picnic scenario we took sandwiches and tea. We sat on pavements. Others had brought their own seats. We talked to so many. There were tears, and genuine shock and sadness on the faces of those forming an orderly queue in that unique way only Brits can do.
Memories On The Mall
But there was laughter too. People reminiscing about those funny or memorable moments we’d all seen of the Princess that were etched on our memory. Like moving postcards from a loved one.
Diana dancing with John Travolta, of her having that fit of giggles as she got soaked on a log flume with her boys or her greeting them with arms fully outstretched on the Royal Yacht Britannia.
On that second signing of the Condolence Book the atmosphere was different somehow.
The sadness was still there but now it was mixed with a tinge of frustration, of anger.
It was the day before Diana’s funeral when the Queen finally responded to the call of the people by addressing us in a live broadcast from the palace.
A few of us watched her address via TV crews’ broadcasting equipment on The Mall, others listened in on radios.
Another intensely moving moment as the sovereign spoke of her daughter-in-law, paying a personal tribute and describing her as an “exceptional and gifted human being,” who she admired and respected for “her energy and commitment to others and especially for her devotion to her two boys.”
Despite the obvious show of emotion from our monarch, for many this was not nearly enough. Too little, too late was the response from some. In small pockets of the crowd, people were audibly expressing their anger.
The Queen had only just returned to the capital from Balmoral and up until this moment had stayed silent on Diana’s death.
Also there was no flag flying at half mast above the palace and it was the topic everyone was talking about in that queue.
As a compromise, the Queen eventually offered to fly the Union Flag at half mast on the day of the princess’ funeral.
Flying The Flag For Diana
This was to bring in a major change to royal protocol.
Since Diana’s death, the Union Flag has regularly been flown in this way, including when the Queen Mother died and after 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings. Even in death Diana was making her mark.
During this second trip to London, after listening to the speech and queueing to sign the condolence book again, we waited. As the light faded, the atmosphere shifted in ways that are hard to explain, even now.
Then, at 8.15pm on Friday, September 5, amid a flurry of flashes from photographers, we watched as Princess Diana was taken home to Kensington Palace from St James’s Palace. Her funeral to take place the next day.
People sobbed, wailed, clung to each other in the streets that night, expressing grief in ways I’d never seen before or since.
This was not a Britain I was familiar with. The sights, the sounds hit me like a shock to the heart. Like being operated on without an anaesthetic.
I wept too. For a life cut short, for two young boys left without a mother. For the sheer magnitude of what I was experiencing, of what we were experiencing.
Twenty three years later and I still don’t fully understand it.
Was I crying for Diana and her beautiful boys? Yes, of course. Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by their loss.
Change In The Air
But, reflecting on things all these years later, I was crying for me too. Diana’s failing marriage was my failing marriage. Her feelings of being misunderstood and not fitting in, were my feelings.
I didn’t know it back in September 1997, but now I have to ask myself whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was the catalyst for monumental change in my life?
Within five months I was to leave my husband after nearly seven years together.
Three months after this I would meet the woman who would change my life forever.
More than 22 years later we are still together. Happily married (we were the first gay couple in Lincolnshire to tie the knot when equal marriage was recognised in 2004), we share a happy home in the flatlands with our five fur babies.
Could Diana’s death really have had such an impact on me? As ridiculous as it may sound, it’s a possibility. It certainly made me aware of my own mortality and take stock. After all, she was only seven years older than me when she died.
What I do know now is that life’s too short to be anyone other than your true self.
I think Diana was on her way to discovering this for herself when she died in Paris.
As her royal sons mark what would have been her 60th birthday next year with the unveiling of a statue in her memory, who knows what more she would have achieved if she had lived?
I wonder how many more of us may have made life changing decisions as a result of experiencing the grief of a nation in that week in 1997?
Did you? What’s your view?
Asha Clearwater is an NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) qualified journalist who’s been a news reporter, features editor and arts editor, as well as editor of several national business magazines.
Today, through her business Turquoise Tiger, she coaches SMEs on the art of great storytelling to promote their products and services.
Asha occasionally freelances as a writer for national magazines and is even behind some of the information boards you’ll find strolling through Woodland Trust Forests.
She is also curator of TEDxPeterborough. www.tedxpeterborough.com