Saturday 15 December 2018

A royal reinvention - ‘He’s pretty tough but he talks about grief and loss and how it affected him’

With his engagement news, Prince Harry's transformation from lost boy to British national treasure is complete, writes Tanya Sweeney

Prince Harry with Meghan at their engagement announcement. Photo: PA
Prince Harry with Meghan at their engagement announcement. Photo: PA

Tanya Sweeney

Prince Harry is no stranger to the harsh glare of the world's cameras. This week, he looked every inch the proud and protective partner as he posed for official photos with his fiancée Meghan Markle. And in a TV interview, the chummy camaraderie between the two has melted the hearts of even the most hardened royal cynics.

It's a stark contrast from the hunched 12-year-old Harry that walked behind his young mother's coffin in 1997. The world's eyes were on him then too, but a good head shorter than both his brother and father, Harry looked lost and bereft. As royal protocol dictated back then, the youngster's collar was as stiff as his upper lip, but his cheeks were ablaze with torment.

And a lot happens in 20 years. At just 33, Harry has oscillated wildly from little-boy-lost to playboy prince. He had run the gamut from cheeky to controversial, via an ill-advised night partying in a Nazi uniform. His brother William had walked down the aisle in 2011, leaving Harry with the title of the world's most eligible bachelor.

Unfortunately for the officials at Clarence House, the youngster was also a royal pain with an appetite for society blondes, smoking cannabis and divilment in general.

In 2012, he was famously photographed partying naked in Las Vegas with a bevy of scantily-clad women, reportedly during a game of strip billiards. And in the long line of glamorous girlfriends and rumoured flings, Caroline Flack and Ellie Goulding stood shoulder to shoulder with upper-class It girls like Cressida Bonas and Chelsy Davy.

Come to think of it, Harry has always been the impish yin to his brother's more reticent, reflective yang. While his brother visibly squirmed in front of the world's press - thought to be a hangover from his belief that the media were involved in his mother's death in a car crash - the 'spare' heir has always taken photocalls and royal duties in his stride.

William and Harry at Diana's funeral
William and Harry at Diana's funeral
Harry in the army in Afghanistan
Prince Harry pictured during his first day at Eton
19-year-old prince Harry working in Lesotho

Both this sense of mischief and the natural way with the public are things Harry evidently took from his mother Diana. The late princess, Harry recalled, attempted to embarrass her sons at every turn, from sending them rude cards at boarding school to rallying supermodels to tuck the princes into bed. "One of her mottos to me was: 'You can be as naughty as you want, just don't get caught'," recalled Harry.

Yet against the odds, Harry has become more than just the 'People's Prince'. He has managed the near-unthinkable, turning his back on the monarchy's obsession with stuffy protocol.

In a royal first, he admitted to experiencing a number of mental health challenges after enduring years of total chaos.

From royal rebel to national treasure is an impressive image overhaul by anyone's yardstick, yet it's one that Harry says wouldn't have been possible without a lot of soul searching.

Harry with Usain Bolt
Harry with Usain Bolt

In a seismic interview with The Telegraph, Harry admitted he "shut down all his emotions" for almost two decades after losing his mother, Diana, despite his brother, Prince William, trying to persuade him to seek help. After feeling "on the verge of punching someone" and facing anxiety during royal engagements, he took up boxing and found himself in a better place after processing his grief.

The hope was, he said, that his candour would encourage others to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues. It became a watershed moment, not just for the young prince, but for British culture. His revelation was roundly hailed as a brilliant and brave thing.

Dublin-based psychotherapist Thomas Larkin observes that anxiety is common if a person hasn't sufficiently processed a trauma they've endured earlier in life.

"It's like housing a bomb," he observes. "The stronger the bomb, the stronger the casing has to be when you're holding that level of distress. Things can get a bit distorted otherwise. You're present in your life but holding the trauma close."

William, Charles and Harry
William, Charles and Harry

Larkin notes that Harry's well-documented rebellious streak isn't uncommon in bereaved youngsters. "When you're rebelling, you're a bit lost, and you're not working for yourself," he says. "You're anchorless, without the understanding of the world that a mother can give you."

A child losing a parent at 12 is particularly vulnerable, says Larkin. They are cognisant enough to feel the full emotional brunt of the loss, but not nearly old enough to be able to deal with the grief process. "At 12, you're not really shielded from the raw experience, and if it's not processed, and if adults don't help with it, you're left with it in its raw form.

"It's so overwhelming for a child but if there's no guidance or talking about it, the stress only stays with you and increases when you get older. And when we carry trauma, we act out."

Julia Samuel, a close friend of Princess Diana's, has recently written a book on grieving, entitled Grief Works. She remains close to the princes, and in light of Harry's interview earlier this year, has said: "I thought he showed incredible courage. The man has done two tours in Afghanistan, so he's pretty tough, but he talks about grief and loss and how it affected him.

"It's not about promiscuous crying in Sainsburys or on Facebook, but it's about functioning in the world, within your loving relationships and being open and honest about them."

Harry has emerged the other side from his mother's death, bloodied but not unbowed. And with his relationship with Markle billed as a meeting of equals, Harry's role as national treasure looks safe for the time being.

Yet just because he's settling down, doesn't necessarily mean the onset of Boring Harry, mind. "I am now fired up and energised and love charity stuff, meeting people and making them laugh," he said recently.

"I sometimes still feel I am living in a goldfish bowl, but I now manage it better. I still have a naughty streak too, which I enjoy and is how I relate to those individuals who have got themselves into trouble."

Irish Independent

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