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Grief Hurts the Same for Prince or Pauper


No matter that their royal status, wealth and fishbowl family life are beyond most people's imagining, nor that their divorced parents had widely publicized romances, nor that nannies and teachers helped raise them. Surviving princes William, 15, and Harry, 12, have suffered the same staggering loss as any child whose parent dies without warning, grief experts say. And their grieving, though more public and perhaps more complicated, will likely be just as individual, enduring and unpredictable.

"The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a child," said Helen Fitzgerald, a death counselor from Springfield, Va., and author of "The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide" (Fireside, 1992). A sudden death is particularly jolting since children may feel guilty if they had misbehaved in their last times together or had not said "I love you." Overestimating their own power, some may believe they might have prevented the death if they had been there or acted differently.

The sons of Princess Diana are old enough not to engage in such "magical thinking," said Gerald Koocher, chief of psychology at Children's Hospital in Boston. "The downside is that adolescence is a time when you're struggling to individuate yourself from your parents and establish your own identity. Although most teenagers wouldn't like to admit it, having the security of two parents to touch base with, especially if you're not getting along with one of them, is really important."

They struggle, perhaps more than adults, to comprehend the finality of death. Consequently, counselors said, children grieve in a way that is more sporadic and erratic, sometimes appearing to be indifferent. Underneath, however, they commonly experience a profound sense of abandonment and are afraid, as caregiving responsibilities shift, "What will happen to me now?"

In this case, it would be expected that the two princes would also be angry and frustrated at the circumstances surrounding the death of their mother, said Don Spencer, director of family services at the Dougy Center, a bereavement center for children in Portland, Ore.

"They'll be angry at the driver whose blood alcohol level is so high. They may be angry at their mother for whatever she was doing."

Often, children will fantasize about their own deaths as a way to be with their parent again. Teenagers might engage in risky behavior--taking drugs, speeding or cutting themselves. Some might be quiet, withdrawn and depressed. Others might have psychosomatic reactions, such as stomachaches.

In later life, they may revisit their loss at particular moments when their parent would have watched proudly, such as gaining a place on the honor roll, winning a sports competition, graduating, getting married, giving birth to their own children or earning a promotion. Those who feel abandoned when parents die may face difficulties in later life as they start developing personal relationships.

What children need most, experts agreed, is honesty, a chance to talk without being judged, to express whatever emotions they are feeling--even seemingly inappropriate giggles or black humor that may surface.

Recent evidence has shown that while the surviving parent is an important role model, the best kind of treatment for children who have experienced a death in the family is a peer support group, Spencer said.

It is also important for children to attend the funeral, and even view the body if they choose to, he said. "For children, there's a sense that it's like a fantasy, a dream not true."

People should avoid innuendo and tell the children the truth--even if it involves unpleasant details. It is not helpful to tell children, as is commonly done, that rather than feeling sad, they should be grateful to have known their parent for as long as they did.

Counselors expressed concern that--based on reports that the princes will not receive outside counseling and on the British reputation for praising a stiff upper lip--that the children may not receive enough help.

"Grief delayed is grief denied," said Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Center in Los Angeles. "In our society, we're taught to bottle up grief alone and don't soil the memory of the deceased. In England, they have that squared."

(Ironically, they noted, Princess Diana was not at all shy about discussing her own problems and various therapies.)

But Spencer said outward appearances may be deceiving in a public family. "It doesn't mean in the privacy of their own homes, family or other peer situations, they're not allowed to do some kind of grief work."

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