I was twenty-nine when Princess Diana died. I was living in a historic row house in Lambertville with my boyfriend Josh, and two roommates, Jim and Dave. We were a happy house of misfits.
I was upstairs in bed when Josh yelled from downstairs, “Princess Diana was in an accident!”
“Is she ok!?” I yelled back a little panicked.
We were a house full of Anglophiles. We watched the Spice Girls HBO concert special nightly. A few times nightly. We studied every move. Every side glance from Posh. Every eye twinkle from Baby. Dave was partial to Sporty. I never understood why. I think I liked Ginger the best. Josh loved Dr. Who and all of us were into the newest new British Invasion in music.
About five minutes later Josh came upstairs and told me the special report just came back on. Princess Diana had died.
Is there a name for the moment you receive shocking news? There should be. I remember having a hard time going to sleep that night. How could I sleep knowing Princess Diana was gone. How could I sleep not knowing where she had gone? Why did I think she was indestructible?
I was sad for quite a while. I didn’t understand why this affected me so much. I had trouble eating, sleeping, and enjoying our nightly Spice Girls showings. I was really consumed by it.
There would be times to come in my life that someone I loved was sick, in emotional or physical pain, in the hospital, or even dead. I would have a hard time living my life fully during those times. Not just being very concerned or grieving but feeling like I didn’t deserve to be happy or have happy thoughts or any fun while others hurt. I took on so much emotional weight.
After Noah died, a piece of me actually did die. An actual piece of me. I know I was obviously still in shock but I remember a few nights of sitting shiva actually feeling like a party. Friends who hadn’t seen each other in years all coming together again in sadness, support, shock, and fear. Fear of what they would find when they saw Hal and me for the first time. Fear that something so horrible and unexpected could happen to one of their kids. Fear of what to say or what not to say.
During a night of sitting shiva , there comes a time when everyone gathers together and a short formal service is held. Prayers will be prayed and readings will be read. On one of the seven nights, the crowd was particularly raucous. Like an awesome party with platters of food, an urn of coffee, two liter bottles of soda and lots of cake. The rabbi leading the service that night had called out a few times into the house that it was time to start. Apparently it took a bit for the crowd to respond. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember hearing the rabbi chastising everyone for “acting like it’s a party” and feeling like I needed to stop smiling immediately at the love in the room. Or the fact that people traveled hours to come see us. Or that an old friend just reminded me of something hysterically funny we did twenty years earlier that I had forgotten and really needed to be reminded of, especially now.
The rabbi was being traditional in a non-traditional situation. Parents don’t bury their children. That is most definitely not the tradition. A beyond incredible friend of mine stopped the rabbi on his way out after prayers. She wanted him to know that we, the mourners, didn’t need to be chastised at that moment. She wanted him to know that the room took on its own life and that if Hal and I were enjoying ourselves (if those are even the right words to use) and ok with the energy in the room, he should let that happen. Not chastise us for not showing the appropriate reaction. We went back to storytelling, eating, crying, and laughing.
How do we process another person’s pain without letting it go so deeply inside us that we cease to be happy? How can we allow happiness to come through without guilt or feeling like we need to artificially stop happiness the way the rabbi thought he should.
In the past six years, my sense of humor has sustained me. I’ve never felt so deeply in my life. Felt so much. The whole rainbow. Guilt, shame, despair, extreme joy, laugh until I cry funny, anger, Hallmark commercial happy tears, you name it. Should we mourn like the old Italian ladies I sometimes see, dressing in black for the rest of their lives after their dear husbands die? I guess that would certainly be easier. Like wearing a uniform everyday that dictates emotion. I’d like that kind of help on the days I’m not sure what I feel. Like an everything bagel from a shiva platter, a little bit of everything all at the same time.