Oliver: Unresolved grief turns out to be royal pain for Harry and me

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Who knew that Prince Harry of Britain and I would have something in common?

I mean, Harry is a royal, well-known and independently wealthy. I am none of those things.

Yet, we have gone on a similar journey, one that no doubt countless others have, too: We have dealt with unresolved, lingering grief after the death of a parent.

I was 19 years old when my father died of cancer on Sept. 3, 1987, nine days after his diagnosis. I had little time to process, much less come to grips with, his death.

Harry was 12 years old when his mother, Princess Diana, died Aug. 31, 1997, in a Paris car crash. Her death shocked the world, her loss unexpected and surrounded by intrigue.

Prince Harry, however, was stoic. I remember watching the funeral on television and marveling at how composed he and his brother, Prince William, looked in the face of such tragedy. Then again, shock will do that.

Unfortunately, Prince Harry would not grieve in private, either. In an interview with Bryony Gordon of the Daily Telegraph for a podcast, called “Mad World: Why it’s totally normal to feel weird,” Harry recounts how it took him until he was in his late 20s to get help with his grief.

“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 told Gordon. “[I thought] it’s only going to make you sad, it’s not going to bring her back.”

I similarly tried to throw myself into my college coursework, believing that if I just kept going, somehow I would not have to experience the crushing grief that lurked just below the surface. 

Both Harry and I found out the hard way that we could run, but we could not hide from our grief. It found ways to manifest itself even when we weren’t aware of it.

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” Harry told Gordon.

All those years of suppressing his emotions eventually caused him to have feelings of anxiety at public engagements and anger issues that had him, he said, “on the verge of punching someone.”

It was only after his brother and others continued to suggest that he get help that he finally sought the counseling he desperately needed.

For me, I had what I’ll call “inappropriate” grief. I nearly fell apart when Princess Diana died.

I now know I was using her death as a way to mourn for my father. This would happen again and again … until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. My grief became so large that I had to get help.

Like Prince Harry, I have regrets that I did not deal with my grief sooner. Now all we can do is try to encourage others to not be scared to reach out for help.

Harry, along with Prince William and his wife, Kate, have started a campaign called Heads Together to end the stigma around mental health in the United Kingdom. They hope to end the “stiff upper lip” response in their country toward dealing with emotional issues.

Here in the U.S., May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five American adults experiences mental illness in a given year. That’s 43.8 million, or 18.5 percent of the population.

In McHenry County, help is just a phone call away. The McHenry County Crisis Line is available 24/7 at 800-892-8900.

“The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you’re part of quite a big club,” Prince Harry told Gordon.

I count myself a member.

• Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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