Prince Harry, Grief, and The Challenge Men Face in Asking for Help

Britain’s Prince Harry was only 12 years-old when his mother Princess Diana was tragically killed in an automobile accident.  It would take Harry 16 more years before he sought help to deal with the grief of losing his mother.

In a candid interview with British newspaper The Telegraph, Prince Harry admitted the loss of his mother at such a young age had led to a period of total chaos.  “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 also my work as well,” he told The Telegraph in a podcast interview published Sunday.

Prince Harry did the interview to promote his mental health charity, Heads Together, and encourage people to be more open with their personal feelings and struggles.  It was by far the most frank interview of Harry’s life, and gives the public its first glimpse of the inner turmoil he suffered growing up in the public eye after losing his mother when he was only 12.  The Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997. Her sudden death sent shock waves around the world and plunged Britain into a period of mourning.

Still Grieving After All These Years

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Prince Harry’s admission of the struggle he has endured helps shed light on prolonged grief and how just waiting for time to pass does not heal what’s unresolved.  As a mental health professional, I have seen how destructive grief and loss is with young men.  Harry was still a boy when his mother died.

I have counseled adolescents struggling with the death of a parent.  I have worked with grown men in their fifties that struggle to organize their thoughts and emotions around their parents passing away.  And I have found that many men lack the skills needed to process grief in a healthy fashion and avoid destructive coping mechanisms.

Grief and loss can play out in numerous ways.  A person can get fixated on the manner that someone died.  The question of how much pain and suffering the person experienced can eat away at surviving family members.  Diana’s death was the real or concrete loss that Harry and William experienced.  But grief also involves abstract, imagined, and future losses; every birthday, holiday, or anniversary.  Every milestone in Harry’s life or in the lives of his loved ones can remind him of his mother’s absence.  Men also tend to struggle with how to respond when faced with other people’s grief.  Harry was exposed to an entire country grieving over his mother.

Where Do Boys (or Men) Go in our Culture to Learn to Grieve?

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I primarily see young adult guys ages 16-32 in my counseling work.  Because I work primarily with men, I’d estimate that roughly 90% of the folks I see come because of someone else’s urging.  Men struggle with the idea of talking about their problems, and talking with a stranger is not an especially appealing proposition.

Prince Harry told the Telegraph that he pushed aside his emotions for years before realizing that they had to be confronted.  “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? It’s only going to make you sad. It’s not going to bring her back,” he said.  “From an emotional side, I was like ‘right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything.’ So, I was a typical sort of 20-, 25-, 28-year-old running around going ‘life is great, or life is fine.'”

But life was understandably not fine for the fifth in line to the throne.  “Then I started to have a few conversations and then, all of a sudden, all of this grief that I’d never processed came to the forefront. I was like, ‘there’s actually a lot of stuff here I need to deal with.’”  Harry said he had at times felt “on the verge of punching someone” and had taken up boxing as an outlet for his aggression.

In my experience working with men in therapy, the majority of them posture and hide the pain and any intense emotion they interpret as sadness. American culture tends to promote different messages to each gender.  Girls are wired and socialized to view conversation as a viable method of dealing with problems.  Girls talk earlier than boys, have larger pre-school vocabularies, and use more complex sentence structures. Once in school, girls are one to one-and-a-half years ahead of boys in reading and writing.  Girls do better on tests of verbal memory, spelling and verbal fluency.  Past research has suggested that  girls speak two to three times more words per day than boys and even speak faster—twice as many words per minute (although there isn’t as much robust research to back up these claims).   At a young age, if a girl is upset, they are encouraged to talk about it, with parents, with friends, or with school teachers.  A woman’s femininity is not challenged by their openness to talk about their feelings and problems.

For many men, the message they receive in our culture is vastly different.  Boys are wired and socialized to communicate by acting-out behaviors rather than words.  Masculine stereotypes promote that real men don’t have problems, real men don’t talk about their problems, and real men solve their own problems.  A man’s masculinity is often called into question (in subtle or unsubtle ways) the more they open up and talk about their feelings and problems.

Only Harry and his mental health counselor knows exactly what Harry’s struggles were, but the most common problems my grieving clients experience are:

  • Withdrawing from others or isolating
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Losing control in other areas of life
  • Developing substance use problems
  • Intense feelings of anger and resentment
  • Having suicidal thoughts

It may have taken him until age 28, but by his account, Prince Harry has been able to overcome the two biggest obstacles men face when it comes to grief and loss; asking for help and allowing yourself to mourn and feel grief.

Things Can Get Better

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Prince Harry described how his brother, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, urged him to seek professional help.  Along with William and his sister-in-law Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Harry has worked with a charity that promotes mental health. They have argued that mental health problems must be given the same priority as other illnesses and should be spoken about openly and without stigma.

Now, because of the “process I have been through,” Prince Harry said he feels he’s in “a good place.”  The younger members of the Royal Family continue to break the stigmas associated with mental health problems.  And by his own account, Prince Harry appears to be finding more peace and hope in the present and for his future.

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