By: Sarah Sheppard
Over two decades after her death, we still mourn, remember and reflect on the life and loss of Princess Diana
She was, of course, much more than a princess. Lady Diana Spencer was a blue-blooded aristocrat, a child of divorce, a love-struck teenager, a troubled princess, a doting mother with a soft-spot for the ‘every man’ and in the end, star of one of the world’s most dazzling and tragic cautionary tales.
It’s been 21 years since Diana met her untimely end in a Paris road tunnel. She was just 36-years-old when the Mercedes she was travelling in violently crashed, killing her along with rumoured boyfriend Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul. She would have been 57 today, and oh how we imagine what could have been.
In a way, Princess Diana is the Titanic of royal tragedies; a larger than life character disastrously cut down in her prime. Each year on the anniversary of her death, the world looks back at her story, still hopelessly caught up in it. And although the ending is infamously known, it’s surprisingly easy to daydream that somewhere, somehow, the people’s princess lives to love another day.
Her sons, Prince William and Harry, have come such a long way from the wilted young teenagers who walked behind their mother’s casket in 1997. They have grown up royal with grand titles and endless wealth but have also led the way for change and fresh perspectives within the royal family. And most importantly William and Harry continue to champion the charitable causes of their late mum, from battling homelessness, aiding HIV/AIDS research and removing the stigma around mental health.
Princess Diana often spoke about feeling connected to those cast aside by society. “Anywhere I see suffering, that is where I want to be, doing what I can…I knew what my job was; it was to go out and meet the people and love them,” she once said. Diana’s gravitational pull towards easing the suffering of others, likely came from a place of pain within herself. Her parents had desperately wanted a boy at the time of her birth and her mother eventually abandoned the family when she was just a girl. And as history goes, we all know she wanted the love of her husband, Prince Charles, which was essentially impossible, as he had always loved Camilla Parker-Bowles but was blocked from marrying her. As one author put it, the greatest tragedy of Diana’s life was her search for love and acceptance.
Diana was a tragedy in many senses and a triumph in so many others. Despite hailing from a powerful family with deep rooted connections to the monarchy, she often challenged the system she knew so well. This is ironic considering she was celebrated as a perfect match for Prince Charles given that her family name suggested Diana would be a strict follower of tradition.
“I don’t go by a rule book,” she famously said. “I like to be a free spirit. Some don’t like that. But that’s the way I am.”
A wonderful example of this was Diana’s work with HIV/AIDS patients. During a time when even shaking hands with an HIV/AIDS patient was considered dangerous, Princess Diana sat at their bedsides and hugged them, encouraging the world to do the same, simply saying, “Heaven knows they need it.”
Passing the Torch
It was that way of thinking and living that made Diana such a deeply loved role model, and it’s a kind of compassion that did not fade after her death. Although William and Harry were only 15 and 12 when she died, their actions today prove that Diana had already firmly planted the seeds of love and acceptance within her boys. The Princes are both known for impromptu walkabouts, always speaking to children on their level and sharing their own experiences with others who are suffering.
“All I want to do is fill the holes my mother left, and that’s what it’s about for us– is trying to make a difference and in making a difference, making her proud,” Prince Harry said recently.
And while they do walk the royal line, so to speak, they aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo either. William is now a husband and father of three, and Harry is currently basking in newlywed glow after his romantic wedding to American actress Meghan Markle in May. Both chose life partners based on love and not royal expectation. It’s safe to say, and comforting to imagine that Diana would be endlessly proud of her princes.
Life, and the British monarchy, has gone on without princess Diana, but the memory and the mystery of her has never wavered. During Diana’s life, her face and all the stories that surrounded her were a guaranteed sell-out for any magazine or newspaper and despite 21 years since her death, she remains a press favourite. A simple Google search will reveal hundreds of articles on the ill-fated princess. You can find anything from the latest conspiracy theories about her death to collections of rare photographs, her best fashion moments and all her televised interviews. There are also quite a few authors who have penned unofficial biographies of Diana’s life.
You can bet, a lot of ‘facts’ and stories in these articles and books need to be taken with a grain of salt or two, but every now and then a new story surfaces that does actually unveil just a little more of the truth.
Late last year, a French firefighter who was a first responder at the scene of Diana’s accident, finally broke his silence.
Xavier Gourmelon, 50, is now retired but worked at a fire station less than five minutes from Diana’s crash site. He recalls not realizing who she was at first and initially believing that he had saved her life.
“I held her hand and told her to be calm and keep still. I said I was there to help and reassured her. She said ‘My God, what’s happened,’” Gourmelon sadly recalls of his first moments with Diana inside the totaled Mercedes.
Those were her last words. He goes on to say that as the Princess was lifted out of the car she suffered a cardiac arrest and it was Gourmelon who performed CPR and restarted her heart and breathing. “I honestly believed she would live…but I found out later she died in hospital. It was very upsetting. The whole episode is still very much in my mind. And the memory of that night will stay with me forever,” he said.
Memory of that Night
It was also difficult for Gourmelon to shake the memory of that night as he was often called back to the same site for accidents caused by tourists who wanted to see where Diana crashed.
“People wanted to see it for themselves where it happened. But it’s a fast stretch of road and many times they were knocked down. I suppose it is all because of the imagination which the Princess captured in people. The week after her death was phenomenal and the scenes at her funeral were amazing,” Gourmelon shared.
And that’s just it. We are captured. Always have been and always will be, by a Princess without her happy ending and her legend that will never die. Long live the People’s Princess.