Everybody’s talking about Prince Harry and the intimate details he’s revealed in his memoir, Spare. But with so much focus on the soap-opera storylines of spats with his brother, the rift between Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, and their struggles with the press, there’s one extremely important theme that needs more attention:
The ways in which Spare provides a valuable, up-close look at common threads in the life-long journey of childhood grief.
I am well acquainted with this journey. A small-group facilitator at a children’s grief center and an active participant in mother loss communities, I’m also the author of a book on the topic of early mother loss and aftergrief: The Art of Reassembly. The book is based on losing my mom to breast cancer when I was seven.
Although everyone grieves differently, these threads of experience are normal emotional processes, no matter how long after the death they may emerge. They are not linear stages. Think of them as spiraling movements, or a collage.
Spare is filled with descriptions that suggest the presence of each of these threads in Prince Harry’s story. Many adults with childhood loss will likely recognize them. But taking it one step further and naming them can help countless grieving people feel seen and understood. They are:
For Prince Harry, Princess Diana’s death was the shattering event that set so much in motion. Unsurprisingly, the book opens with it, and with the stark “before” and “after” that takes hold for any griever but is especially poignant for a child losing a parent.
Hearing this news becomes a defining moment for the rest of a grieving child’s life, as it does for Prince Harry. I, too, still review the bedside conversation in which my dad gave me the news of my own mother’s death, playing itself out like a vintage movie in my mind’s eye even now, fifty years later.
Spare’s presentation of Harry’s shattering event is an important reminder that children grieve differently than adults because their understanding of death evolves with their developmental stage. Past events are revisited – and further grieved – from the older perspective.
Mother loss as a child is a major trauma creating profound fear along with grief. With little control over events, instinctively children develop survival strategies to navigate their changed world.
Spare describes how Prince Harry shut down emotionally after hearing the news, including memory loss and inability to cry. These are normal responses for any child, but especially one living in the public eye who received no support or encouragement to talk about his loss. Privately, he told himself that his mother had faked her death to escape constant press harassment. To most observers, he probably seemed basically fine. Other children might act out or, as I did, show the opposite and be super well-behaved, perfectionist.
Grieving children carry these survival strategies into adulthood, long past their usefulness. Spare shows us Prince Harry continuing to struggle with emotions as he grew up and moved through adulthood, highlighting an under-recognized echo of early loss into adult life.
Awakening in Adulthood
Today’s culture expects us to wrap up grief in a year or two. But regardless of a child’s behavior, grief remains present, waiting to be expressed, which can occur at any point, even many decades later. Awakening in adulthood to the full reality of loss after decades have passed can feel lonely. Often, it leads to furtive searching for the lost parent, in photographs, stories from friends and family, or visiting places of significance.
Spare brings Prince Harry’s quest into full view, starting in his 20s when he obtains the police file on the fatal accident in Paris. We witness his painful realization that flash bulbs dominated Princess Diana’s final moments, and we accompany him on drives through the tunnel in Paris that help him let go of the fantasy that she is alive.
It’s noteworthy that Prince Harry describes how his trust in a staff member enabled him to request the police file. Such connections are crucial to opening to long-buried grief, which is neither a swift nor tidy process, as we also observe in Spare. Prince Harry’s gradual awakening gained intensity as he entered his 30s with significant anxiety that worsened to panic attacks.
Threshold moments like graduations, marriage, and becoming a parent always relate to past grief for adults bereaved in childhood, sparking renewed longing for the parent who died. In Spare, we particularly see how marriage can be one such moment through Prince Harry’s relationship with Meghan Markle.
She insisted that he go to therapy after he spoke harshly to her in anger, which propelled him to address his grief directly. At the book’s therapy scenes, many adults bereaved in childhood will nod in recognition as Prince Harry gains insight into himself, especially his realization that part of him was stuck in 1997, still 12 years old and afraid.
Moments that enable those grieving to see their younger selves creates a powerful shift toward self-compassion after years of feeling broken by loss. It’s not coincidental that Prince Harry’s family struggles escalated after he processed grief in therapy. He had come to greater clarity as his adult self. Now a husband and father who cherishes his wife and children, he claimed their well-being as his highest priority.
The Need to Be Seen
When it takes decades to surface your full story of grief, frequently it’s not enough to simply hold that awareness inside. You need to share your truth, to feel seen as your whole self. It’s why I wrote my memoir, and it’s the lens through which I view Spare. Where some perceive endless complaining by Prince Harry, fellow adult-child grievers see a fellow traveler who needs his story to be witnessed. Reading such stories, they themselves feel seen in the reflection of their experience.
Being seen can come at a high cost, as Harry has learned. Yet what he is giving to the world by revealing the threads in the life-long journey of childhood grief is priceless. While I hope that telling his truth brings Harry peace, I know his grief will always need tending. Such is the nature of childhood loss.
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Peg Conway writes and practices Healing Touch energy therapy in Cincinnati, OH, where she also volunteers at a children’s grief center. Her essays about early mother loss and long-term grieving have appeared at The Manifest-Station, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and The Mighty. After earning a master’s in journalism, she worked in corporate communications. Later, she became a certified childbirth educator and doula. Peg and her husband have three grown children and one grandchild. The Art of Reassembly: A Memoir of Early Mother Loss and Aftergrief is her first book.