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Princess Diana 1961-1997

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

-- Robert Frost, "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

The flowers began to pile up outside of Kensington Palace even as the mangled blue Mercedes was being carted off the street in Paris. The sun came up over Europe, and the news crawled slowly across the world: Princess Diana was dead.

So the people brought flowers and left them at the palace gates. A hopeless gesture by a hopeless people, trying to express a grief they should not have felt, but did feel nonetheless.

When I heard that Diana had died, I was surprised at my own sense of mourning. I have known death, known the grief it conjures -- but the people I have mourned were people whose lives had been inextricably bound with mine, due to the love and experiences we shared. I shared nothing with Diana. During her life, I thought she meant little to me. I saw her as another country's princess, an overrrated celebrity with a broken marriage, a vast wardrobe, a hatred of the tabloids and a seemingly compassionate view of the human condition. The details that surrounded her were like background noise to me, seldom entering my conscious thoughts. My everyday existance, after all, had nothing to do with her, and so why should I think of her? And yet, as I sat alone in front of the television on the morning of her death, I felt an unmistakable sadness.

Sadness. It is hard to navigate the emotions that come with the death of someone famous. The grief we experience seems somehow unjustified or innapropriate, a one-way flow of feeling that can find no true destination.

But something happens when a celebrity dies, and I think it has something to do with falliability. The public eye builds its perceptions upon certain assumptions and beliefs, all of which are ripped away when death arrives. The living celebrity was somehow super-human, but the dead celebrity becomes, in a moment, simply human.

True, a famous person's death will eventually bring a magnified version of the idol worship that marked her life, and she will become -- like Elvis or John Kennedy -- immortal. But the catapult into that frenzied realm comes only after the initial shock and sadness have been overcome. It's as if there is a window, a brief period of time between death and memorium, when the few who've lived in the spotlight fall into the shadows of normality and become "one of us."

Ever since she married Prince Charles in 1981, Diana has been a constant presence, with or without our interest. It has been said that she was the most photographed woman in the world, and indeed, she seemed to be everywhere. We pushed grocery carts past magazine stands where her face was on display; we did crosswords in newspapers that told of her latest "cause"; we ate breakfast in front of television reports about her failing marriage. She was always there, but she wasn't real.

And then she was dead, and every picture, every video clip, every story was somehow altered. No longer a princess, a scandal, a fairy tale or an icon, she became human -- a body of flesh and bone and blood that came up against too much force and damage and pain to keep itself sustained. Diana is more real to us at the moment of her death than she ever was while she was alive.

Love of celebrities is a strange phenomenon, experienced -- to varying degrees -- by almost everyone in society. But the grief we feel when a celebrity dies is not about that love but rather about the way that love changes. We stop adoring and start understanding. We realize that the presence of public attention does not make the famous person any happier than its absence makes us sad, nor does it make the celebrity's life any more or less fragile than our own. We are reminded that all of us walk the earth for a time, giving and taking, going where the fates have planned -- and we all do it the same way. So Diana, in all her glory, turned out to be just as vulnerable and ephemeral as we are.

Maybe that's why we feel this unexplained sadness at her death. We looked at her for so long, but we never saw her. And now that we have lost her, we realize we never really had her at all.

This essay was written in the early morning hours of August 31, just after I heard about Princess Diana's death.


Thoughts on Another Day

Five days have passed since Diana's death, and the anguish, like a punch in the gut, comes every time I see an image of her. And it is strange, somehow, for me to feel this way -- after all, I never knew her except through pictures, and the pictures will continue to exist just the same. But they hurt now. She lulled us with her constant comfort, and now she is gone.

Strange to think how long she has been there. When she married Charles that summer I was a nine year old little girl, ripe for fantasy about princesses and castles and fairy tales. I was, like many, smitten by her innocent beauty, captivated by the grand entrance she made in a carriage patterned after her babyhood pram. Of course, as the press likes to reiterate in its cliche' way, the fairy tale didn't have a happy ending. But by the time things fell apart, I had grown up, become a young woman who already understood that fairy tales are often illusions. I was looking for different things. And Diana, in her strength and her goodness, was still the gentle princess who embodied perfect dreams. Did it take her death to make me see that?

In the wake of her death, everyone clamors for a way to remember her, and a way to explain the mountain of emotion that now towers over the world. I think we loved Diana, most of all, for her complete lack of pretense. She was about as high up on the social echelon as one could get, but always there was that shyness, that hesitation, that demure smile that told us she did not consider herself to be above anyone else. Her most prominent feature was her compassion, evident in every clip that shows her caressing the sick or visiting the poor. Some called her phony, but the rest of us needed only to see the look in her eyes to know the truth. She was kind. She was good. She cared.

To call her a celebrity, I now realize, seems wrong, because the rest of the celebrity world bears so many flaws as a matter of course: the politicians have their egos, the entertainers have their hunger for the spotlight, even the activists seem to have some hidden agenda. But Diana was pure, genuine, not just a princess in title but a princess in spirit. Her presence in our lives was comforting and sweet; her absence is a bitter anguish.

September 4, 1997


Poem I Wrote about Diana


When we glimpse your image and we
Hunger for you and we
Want your comfort and we
Make mistakes will we
Hold the power will we
Make you break?

Was the castle haunted?
Were the ghosts too rough?
Was our passion wounding?
Was the love enough?

And the lonely spaces
Were they our fault too?
And the awful faces in the crowd
Scared you.
And the pictures took you
Piece by piece
And the end was no release:

Lights like flash bulbs
Voices like lies
People like objects of air and sky
Leave me alone
Leave me alone

I miss my boys
I want to go home
Pain like daggers
Memory staggers
Life unveiling
Destiny's made --

And I'm a shadow:
Watch me fade.

September 11, 1997


I welcome comments, questions and general feedback.
Thanks for reading.

Read the feedback of others.

One reader sent me a beautiful poem, which I told her I'd share with others.

Read the revised lyrics to "Candle in the Wind" as sung by Elton John at Princess Diana's funeral.

Diana Links

CNN's Coverage of Diana's Death
PEOPLE's Coverage of Diana's Death
A beautiful tribute