Diana, (nearly) twenty years on… grief tourism and emotional performativity

Diana, Princess of Wales (née Spencer) has been in the news this week… well, she’s in most of the time for various reasons, but this time the 20th anniversary of her fatal car crash in Paris is fast approaching. It caused me to, if you excuse the pretentious term for a moment, reflect on what that even meant for me at the time, and since… no, no, please, stay with me, please. This isn’t going to be one of those posts.

See, I remember the day fairly well. And I also very clearly remember exactly how I felt…

…I felt nothing.

I didn’t care. And I still don’t, really.

No, no, please, against, stay with me… I’m not saying this because I’m one of those people, either. You know the kind, the one who so does not care about [insert today’s top story] that they have to tell you about it three times a day how much they totally don’t care about it. I’m simply saying that the event had very little salience to me. I had no basis on which to build the required level of “care”.

I was young in 1997, but I wasn’t even born in 1981 when Diana rose to fame and married Prince Charles. I was barely sentient for most of her good works afterwards (and, yes, I objectively admire her work and charitable contributions) but it has absolutely no effect on me on an emotional level. Her charitable efforts were only something that, literally, happened to other people. Her name was something that appeared on the news, like “Bosnia” or “Nelson Mandela”; something that got in the way of me watching Power Rangers. She was a thing, certainly, but I had no deep connection to her as a person or as a concept.

Her death elicited nothing but a shrug from me at the time. And it still does, to be honest. Yes, I do, objectively speaking, understand and hold a positive impression of her today, but that’s come to me in the context of her being an historical figure – in the same broad category as Henry VIII, Winston Churchill, or Emmeline Pankhurst. There was no true and current emotive connection to me, there still definitely isn’t. I have had, and continue to have, no salient value attached to Diana as a person or in the abstract.

Then we come to what happened that week at school.

Or, more specifically, what happened with one RE teacher who thought it would be a fabulous idea to make a lovely, colourful tribute board, made with the traditional materials of young schoolchildren. We were asked to write tributes and cards to Diana, expressing our sad feelings about the tragedy, and place them on a display in the school corridor. Looking back, it seems quite strange that a run-down school in a working-class mining town would celebrate a central figure of the Royal Family and the upper-class of the South, who rose to prominence in the decade when the Establishment was busy systematically destroying and disenfranchising the area, but hey, they must have thought it was a good distraction and good for us. Or something like that.

But I literally didn’t care. I couldn’t care, perhaps. I had the same feeling (or lack thereof) I just described, at length, above. I might not have known those words, I might not have had the confidence to express it out loud, but I definitely felt it – and even at that age I had the meta-cognitive presence of mind to know it.

I was asked to express my feelings, and I genuinely didn’t have any.

This wasn’t good enough for that particular teacher, though. I had to have feels, or I had to try to have them. Because I must have felt them, they were sure of that – so it would have been good for me to express it! I said I didn’t actually care (or words to that effect) and I was told I did, and had to express it.

So I did it…

Well… I faked it.

And, at the end of the day, it wasn’t that hard. I faked a few feelings. I wrote something that was, apparently, quite poignant for a pre-teen. I was complimented for it being so true and expressive. And that was it. It was so easy to fake emotional engagement.

I think that experience has shaped my life far more than Diana’s death itself ever could. I now had direct experience of faking feelings, expressing grief where there was none, and ever since I have been utterly distrusting of grief. To this day I’m uncomfortable with seeing other people do it publicly over people they don’t know or had no connection to. I remember watching the funeral and not quite understanding why people were throwing flowers and crying. They didn’t know her, they had no good reason to feel like that. At least, that many people couldn’t possibly have a good reason to. If I could fake it, so my reasoning went, surely they were faking it, too.

That’s been my default assumption ever since. I’ve distrusted public displays of grief. It’s even spilled out into distrusting my own feelings. How can I tell that it’s genuine? How do I know they’re not just performing because they think they ought to? How can I tell that they really feel sad, and don’t just think they’re sad because they have a much deeper, and much more demanding, believe that they should feel sad?

I can’t. I could just trust them… but if can fake it, then…

It’s left me cold and cynical. This idea of taking a tourist-like break into the grief of others only got worse after 1997. People flocked to places where children had been murdered, cried for the news cameras and left flowers and cuddly toys…

Okay, rapid aside. It bugs me that those cuddly toys would almost certainly have just been binned and sent to landfill after being left out in the elements for a week. It bugs me that these inanimate objects never got to fulfil their purpose of comforting or entertaining a living child. It bugs me that I have a greater emotional attachment to inanimate objects with cute faces than I do to actual humans. There, I’ve finally admitted that in writing. Moving on…

…and as the internet grew into a thing, these displays could be made even more easily. Now you just have to comment “Hastag-RIP!” or “you’re in our thoughts”.

Sorry, another one. Okay, I get that, should you feel pushed for what to say, as I was in 1997, then a ready-made, widely acknowledged phrase is a good thing to have, it’s a nice default for when you don’t know what to say… but I do think that silence is a more honest response if silence is all you can come up with when pressed for something original, anyway, moving on again…

To me, it comes across as a performance. You’re there, making sure you say the right things from a select set of pre-approved terms and phrases, and commenting on the death of someone you never met, someone who you probably didn’t care about before, and someone you almost certainly would never have heard of if they died in some other way. And… with it all being online these days, how can anyone know that this sentiment is anything other than a performance? How do we know they’re really “keeping you in our thoughts” and not just fucking off to play another round of Candy Crush and thinking about dinner, and anything but what they said they were thinking of?

I could trust them, but then again it’s so easy to fake, I know that too well.

So, a few years ago, someone was murdered (I won’t say who, and I apologise if this comes across as horribly blasé). The usual messages cropped up… “RIP”, “This is so sad”, and other delightfully original pithy phrases… but… this was different for me – because one of the victims friends cried in my arms for the best part of an evening. I’m not sure we got that much sleep that night. I was only two degrees of separation from the victim. Only some prior commitment and a long distance stopped me from being literally at their funeral. After that, the “supportive” messages felt so hollow to me.

I have to emphasise the “to me” part of that, though. I am emphatically not saying that the family and friends shouldn’t feel comfort from those messages if that’s how it makes them feel… but it’s not for me. I felt that grief a mere second hand – and it still wasn’t enough for me to truly comprehend the loss. I was in that category of someone who didn’t even know they existed, I didn’t feel I had the right to feel grief-stricken or out-pour it publicly in a great competition of who can feel saddest and buy the most flowers and write the most pre-approved buzzwords in a Facebook comment.

So what about people only read about it via BBC News, and probably couldn’t remember the victim’s name if asked today? Did they really feel something? Or did they feel the need to perform as if they did? Are these comments now only Pavlovian responses to the news?

Maybe not… maybe they’re real connections. But if I can fake it so trivially and so easily…

I felt first-hand, back in 1997, how easy it was to perform grief. I felt first-hand the pressures people are put under to show it. I’ve seen and felt the pressures we’re under to feel something, and the stigma of how cold it seems not to – and how afraid we all seem to be of just throwing our hands in the air and saying “look, it’s a bad thing, yes, but I have no emotional connection to this, I can’t feel anything about it and I respect the truly grief-stricken too much to lie about that”. I actively lied to the world about feeling something I didn’t because of those pressures. There was no benefit for it – no-one gave a shit what I wrote, even I can’t properly remember the words I wrote down. If I didn’t do it, the world would be no worse off. If I did a better job of it, the world wouldn’t be any better. I only did it in response to social pressure and social pressure only… and I don’t think I’m special in doing that.

Do I have an actual point to this? No, I suppose I don’t. I don’t want a massive call to arms that says “NO MORE PUBLIC GRIEF!” – I’m not writing for the Guardian, here. If you want to, go on, do it. If you take comfort from the support of thousands of people you don’t know, take it – if you’re in that position you need all the support you can muster. If you take comfort from expressing it, go ahead.

Just that, if I die, and all you can come up with is “#RIP”, know this; I’ll be back to get you.