Depression

Updated 19 April 2017

Prince Harry's journey shows grief can be a long road

Prince Harry's failure as a child to process Princess Diana's death led to a period of 'total chaos' in his late 20s.

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Britain's Prince Harry's two-decade struggle to deal with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, is sadly all too common for children who suddenly face the loss of a parent, mental health experts say.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph this week, Prince Harry admitted that his inability to process his mother's death in childhood led to two years of "total chaos" in his late 20s.

A common pattern

The prince sought professional counselling at 28 at the urging of his older brother, Prince William, after feeling "very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions".

Now, at age 32, Prince Harry says he is in "a good place", he told the London newspaper.

Children who fail to process their grief following a tragic loss tend to be haunted by it for years and even decades, said Dr Matthew Lorber, a psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"The way he describes handling it, which is really initially not doing anything about it, having some problems, and then family pushing him to get help is quite a common pattern with many people who experience that kind of loss," Lorber said. "It's not at all surprising for me."

Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris on 31 August, 1997, at age 36, one year after she and Prince Charles were divorced.

'I refused to ever think about my mum'

Prince Harry, who was 12 at the time, told the paper he dealt with his mother's death by shutting down emotionally.

"My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?" he said. "[I thought] it's only going to make you sad, it's not going to bring her back. So from an emotional side, I was like, 'Right, don't ever let your emotions be part of anything.'"

Children dealing with a parent's death often are provided counselling to help them cope with their grief, but "it sounds like that didn't happen" with Prince Harry, said Dr Antonia New, a professor of psychiatry with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Prince Harry likely wasn't helped by the fact that he was a boy, facing certain gender expectations, Lorber noted.

As an adult, Prince Harry launched a decade-long military career that led to two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Dealing with the grief

But he also gained a reputation as a notorious party boy, smoking pot, drinking, and lashing out at paparazzi. Nude photos of Prince Harry playing "strip billiards" during a Las Vegas vacation surfaced in August 2012, and were circulated worldwide.

"Grief that isn't addressed can turn into anxiety, it can turn into depression," Lorber explained.

There is no right way of coping with death. The way a person grieves depends on the personality of that person and the relationship with the person who has died, according to a Health24 article.

Exercise also can help. "Physical activity helps the body to heal, and helps people get out the anger and frustration in a more positive way," Lorber said.

On this, Prince Harry agrees. He's taken up boxing, and found it a good outlet for his emotions. In his own words: "Everyone was saying boxing's good for you and it's really good for letting out aggression. That really saved me, because I was on the verge of punching someone."

Read more:

The phases of grief

Grief can be a killer

Culture, grief and mourning

 

Ask the Expert

Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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