How are you today, really?

"So [Prince Harry], how are you today, really?"
"Erm you know what, I've spent most of my life saying I'm fine [...] it was a case of just saying 'fine' is so much better than having to go into the detail because as soon as you say 'Oh, you know, so so' then there is another question of 'What is that?' and then another question, another question. And most of us aren't up for going that deep."

Many of us, when asked how we are, conceal the truth and hide behind a mask of 'ok', 'fine' or 'not too bad'. Indeed sometimes it is probably quite appropriate, at the supermarket checkout with a long queue of people behind you for example it's perhaps not the best idea to suddenly launch into describing in depth a life trauma that is getting you down.

A thought that struck me about Harry's words towards the beginning of his podcast interview with Bryony Gordon, is that sometimes the person who you try to convince yourself is fine is yourself because it is too frightening to either feel difficult emotions or to admit that there is a problem.

Indeed, this was Prince Harry's experience. Following the tragic death of his mother, Princess Diana, when he was 12, he spent his teenage years and twenties determined not to think about her.

“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 my work as well,” he said.

“I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle."

Obviously, his experience is very different than any that we may have of grief, due to firstly the unique nature of any given person's bereavement and secondly due to not having the public spotlight shone intensely brightly on us. However, I believe that many of us can relate to the suppression of painful feelings.

'I believe that many of us can relate to the suppression of painful feelings'

Smiling and laughing with my classmates and teacher in a A-level media studies class, at the age of 17, the vibration of my mobile phone came to my attention. Surreptitiously, I checked the caller ID - Mum. She would never normally call me during the day; there had to be something wrong. I apologised and explained that it must be important and took the call.

Between sobs my mum explained, "Dad has had a heart attack. The ambulance has arrived. You need to come home NOW if you want to go with him." Swiftly, I left my class, and my classmate saw me across the busy main road through fear I'd not be paying attention and be struck by a car. I ran the two miles home, arriving just as my father was being lifted on a stretcher from his workshop where a little time before my mother had seen him waving his arms frantically in the air, and had initially assumed he was playing with the cat. By the time she went over to him he, oxygen starved, was blue.

I remember distinctly, after he was put into the ambulance, climbing into the first responder's car, armed with a notebook to document the experience. The journey was spent soaking in the sights, sounds and sensations as though we were setting off on some sort of safari adventure. I convinced myself he would be ok and bounce back. Before long we would be laughing and joking about his third heart attack, he would stop smoking copious amounts of cigarettes and drinking to excess and take control of his health.

'The journey was spent soaking in the sights, sounds and sensations as though we were setting off on some sort of safari adventure' 

He wasn't fine. The minutes starved of oxygen severely damaged his brain. He had to be sedated. I slightly suspected something was seriously wrong when I saw him jolting in the bed, but told myself that perhaps that was just a normal thing that happened under sedation. The reality bludgeoned me in the chest when the hospital called my mother, my siblings and I into a meeting. After handing us a bag of my dad's possessions, the doctor explained that we needed to make a difficult decision and that he would never recover.

Throughout the meeting my mother proceeded to pull out and examine the clothes, his wristwatch, and St Christopher medallion necklace. I felt angry, how dare she already seemingly want to move on to the practical stage of questioning what to do with his things. In the wisdom of time, I understand that she was overwhelmed and was struggling to hear what was going on given her partial deafness. The hospital stopped feeding him, and it was slowly over the course of around a week that he finally succumbed.

That burning anger was the only emotion I allowed myself to feel for around two years. I was unable to allow myself to cry, even at the funeral delivering a speech in which I explained that he saw funerals as a celebration of life and thus wouldn't want us to be sad and ended in the close of Mary Elizabeth Frye's poem: "Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die. " I went straight back to sixthform, being met with surprise from many that I was back so soon and was coping so well. The reality was  that denying the problem was the only way I knew how to cope.

'The reality was that denying the problem was the only way I knew how to cope'


My logic followed that of Prince Harry: "My way of dealing with it was burying 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. So from an emotional side, I was like 'Right, don't ever let your emotions be part of anything."

My snuffed emotions surfaced when I finally slowed down, feeling extremely isolated and lonely whilst on my year abroad in France. Even then I tried to push them away, convincing myself that it was not normal to be grieving this far down the line. I should be over it by now.

I finally admitted that I needed to act when, not content with just lightly scratching my forearms with the sharp end of a pair of tweezers, I started to force blood to the surface because the physical pain was easier than the emotional pain and temporarily distracted my messy mind. Knowing that this was not the way forward, and that I desperately needed help I called a wonderful American couple I had become very close to. They told me to come over. Finally, the emotions, so long denied and beaten down, came flooding out. With the encouragement of my friends, I took a couple of weeks out of university and booked an appointment with my counsellor who encouraged me to unpick and process my emotions, to allow myself to feel the pain.

I would love to say that the wisdom gained during that period helped me when my mum died following a horrific battle with oesophageal cancer during my final year of university. Unfortunately, it didn't. I took much the same approach I had when my dad had his fatal heartattack. The pain was there, for both of them, bubbling under the surface, sometimes a gentle simmer and others like a kettle stuck on boil. Instead of acknowledging the pain, I tried to just get on with my life, my studies, keep myself busy. Eventually, it all became too much and I broke down. I finally admitted that I could not continue pretending that eventually it would go away by itself, took a leave of absence and sought counselling.

'The pain was there, for both of them, bubbling under the surface, sometimes a gentle simmer and others like a kettle stuck on boil'

Today, just over eleven years since my dad died, I believe I still have not fully processed all the emotions. I still struggle to allow myself to be in touch with the pain. I am getting married this Saturday, and it feels too raw to think about my dad not being there dressed in suave, not walking me down the aisle, my mum not being there wearing a very fine hat and not helping me to get ready, my parents not ever meeting my soulmate.

I can, however, acknowledge that processing the emotions, and talking about them to others really does help. You do have to make the choice to be ready to, however, and it's not something you should rush. Prince William encouraged his brother to help, but, as Harry said, "The timing wasn’t right. You need to feel it in yourself, you need to find the right person to talk to as well.” It's perfectly ok if, like Harry, it's twenty years or more years down the line before you recognise that you need to deal with the emotions, especially if they are permeating your life and manifested themselves in other ways such as anxiety and depression. When you feel that it is time to process your feelings, and are ready to talk about them make sure that you find the right person to do so with, a close friend, family member or a professional.

'Processing the emotions, and talking tabout them to others really does help. You do have to make the choice to be ready to'

I found that counselling really helped, because it gave me a safe place to work through and understand my feelings and to recognise that it was perfectly normal to still be grieving and to have a whole range of emotions centred around the grief. If you are in the UK, you can find NHS services in your local area, and some locations even self refer, by clicking here. Alternatively, the charity Cruse Bereavement Care provides resources and support - you can call their freephone national helpline on 0808 808 1677 on weekdays.

If it feels too difficult to vocalise your grief, I would also highly recommend journaling out your thoughts and emotions.Either, just freely in a  blank notebook or using something more structured like the excellent The Understanding Your Grief Journal by Alan D.Wolfelt, Ph.D.

It does not just have to apply to grief, it can apply to other difficult emotions as well. I greatly admire Harry for his current focus on mental health, encouraging people to be able to "sit down and have a coffee and just go ‘you know what, I’ve had a really s--- day, can I just tell about it?" Often that has to start from within, by asking yourself "So, how are you today, really?"

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