Prince Harry has been admirable in disclosing his feelings about the loss of his mother at the age of 12, and how that grief affected him 20 years down the line. The loss of a parent on the cusp of, or during, adolescence can be devastating and can indeed have long-term affects.
When I was researching the question of heroin addiction among young people, I came across evidence that one of the triggers that can start a heroin addiction habit is the loss of a parent in these years – either through death or divorce. Very young children adapt better to a loss than adolescents, for reasons that are readily understood: a new routine can help a young child, whereas an adolescent, already going through a transformative period in life, can find loss of a strong attachment profoundly wounding.
Harry is surely right to have sought counselling for the emotional “chaos”, as he puts it, that he felt. But with respect, I don’t think that it is correct to associate the pain of bereavement with mental health issues. This, I believe, is a diagnostic error that runs through our society and should be examined. Grief and sorrow are deeply distressing experiences, but they are not a form of mental illness. To feel grief and sorrow is a normal response to a very sad event. Indeed, not to feel grief and sorrow as a consequence of loss would be a greater indication of having something wrong with your emotional processes.
This confusion of grief with “mental health issues” has a link with the ebbing of religious sensibility in society, and the medicalisation of every human experience. Religious cultures have always had meaningful rites for mourning – the Jewish tradition includes tearing your clothes as a sign of grief. Until modern times Christian societies encouraged the wearing of mourning for at least a year.
Prince Harry seems a lovely young man, and he will have helped many people by being open about the loss of his mother. But sorrow and grief are not a mental illness just the same.
People under 35 are being called “Generation Hopeless” because they seem to be less skilled at various household tasks. A survey by Aviva insurance disclosed that almost a third of this age cohort can’t cook without a recipe, two thirds don’t know how to change a flat tyre on a vehicle, and 20 per cent are unable to change a light bulb.
So what’s new? My late husband (a Balkan expert), when requested to affix a plug to an electrical apparatus, replied that as he didn’t expect an electrician to be a Serbo-Croat specialist, why should he do an electrician’s job? Hilaire Belloc’s famous quatrain about one Lord Finchley was then quoted:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
I follow a professional cook’s recipes to cook and, when needing to change a flat tyre, I either do the helpless-little-woman act – and a kindly knight of the road soon appears – or, if the location is deserted, call the AA. Unlike Lord Finchley, I have managed to change light bulbs without, so far, suffering electrocution.
For more than a week now – spending Easter in Dublin – I have been without a television, because the cable in the building has been cut off (not a job for Lord Finchley). And I discovered that I can live quite serenely without a TV – for a while anyway. Yes, I miss good drama, uplifting documentaries and the superb Daily Politics, presented by Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn at noon each day – except that as Parliament is in recess, it’s off-air anyway.
But you do other things. You listen to music, ring friends, read poetry, walk, think. And I reflect on a pre-modern phrase an aunt of mine would invoke: “If you can’t have it, then go without!”
One of the purposes of a religious retreat was to take a break from the routine and habits of everyday life, and while I wouldn’t call an absence of TV a retreat, it’s a restorative exercise in life balance.
Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4
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