The day Diana died. Where were you?

Video via MWN

Where were you when Princess Diana died?

If you’re a woman over the age of 30, that’s a question that will immediately transport you back to a moment in time when there was only one news story, only one image on every screen, on every magazine and every newspaper. It was a personal tragedy for a few, and a tragic, historic landmark for millions more.  

It was 20 years ago. August 31, 1997.

Mia Freedman writes:

I was lying in bed feeling intensely uncomfortable. It was a Sunday morning in August 1997 and I was heavily, heavily pregnant. Just a couple of weeks from my due date. The kind of pregnant where you can no longer sleep and you have to get up to go to the toilet throughout the night.

I was drinking a cup of tea, in bed, reading the newspapers because the Internet was not yet a thing. The TV was on in the background. And then……. breaking news. Princess Diana had been in a car crash with her boyfriend Dodi Fayed. The paparazzi had been chasing them. In Paris.

In her own words: “I am performing a duty as the Princess of Wales, but at least when I finish my, as I see it, my 12 or 15 years as Princess of Wales, I don’t see it as any longer, funny enough, I always knew I would never be the next queen, put it that way.” ■ من أقوال اﻷميرة: “سوف أقوم بواجبي كأميرة ﻹمارة ويلز، ولكن سوف انتهي من القيام بتلك الواجبات، على ما أعتقد، بعد اثني عشر عاما أو خمسة عشر عاما على أقل تقدير، كأميرة ويلز، لا أعتقد بأنني سوف أبقى أميرة لفترة أطول، إنه أمر غريب حقا، لطالما شعرت بأنني لن أصبح الملكة القادمة لبريطانيا، هذا هو ما أعنيه.” ■ #princessdianaforever #humanitarian #princessofwales #princessdiana #gb #hertruestory #kensingtonpalace #uk #thebritishroyalfamily #theroyalfamily #thebritishmonarchy #queenofhearts #instagood #instaroyal #instalike #di #fashionicon #peoplesprincess #style #glamorous #icon #foreveryoung #uk #الأميرة_ديانا #أميرة_ويلز #أميرة_القلوب #الأميرة_ديانا_لﻷبد #بريطانيا #لندن #قصتها_الحقيقية #أميرة_الشعب

Advertisement

A post shared by Princess Diana Forever (@princess.diana.forever) on

This didn’t seem so remarkable. Diana had been in the news constantly during that European summer –  our winter. She’d been photographed kissing Dodi and sitting coyly on a diving board that came off the back of his giant boat as they holidayed in the Mediterranean. It was enchanting and I gobbled up every image. We all did. Every bit of press coverage. It would be easy to airbrush that now with what we know about the role the paparazzi played in her death. So easy to pretend I wasn’t complicit in the economy which ultimately led to her death. But we were all complicit in a way. Not in her death, of course, but in the industry that was fuelled by our insatiable appetite for photos of Diana.

Magazines and newspapers sold millions of copies from these photos and that’s because we bought them.

Still, a car crash? It was probably nothing serious. How could it be? She had body guards. She was famous. My generation, Gen X had not yet experienced the sudden death of one of our icons. Our parents could tell you where they were when JFK was shot. Or when Grace Kelly died. Until the day Diana died, we were naive to the fact that celebrity did not make you immune from tragedy.

13 May 1992: Princess Diana coveres her blonde hair appropriately with a floral silk scarf during a tour at Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt ■ 13 مايو 1992: اﻷميرة ديانا تغطي شعرها اﻷشقر بوشاح من الحرير أثناء زيارتها إلى مسجد اﻷزهر الشريف في العاصمة المصرية القاهرة ■ #princessdianaforever #humanitarian #princessofwales #princessdiana #gb #hertruestory #kensingtonpalace #uk #thebritishroyalfamily #theroyalfamily #thebritishmonarchy #queenofhearts #instagood #instaroyal #instalike #di #fashionicon #peoplesprincess #style #glamorous #icon #foreveryoung #uk #الأميرة_ديانا #أميرة_ويلز #أميرة_القلوب #الأميرة_ديانا_لﻷبد #بريطانيا #لندن #قصتها_الحقيقية #أميرة_الشعب

A post shared by Princess Diana Forever (@princess.diana.forever) on

The news trickled out slowly. Diana had injured her leg. Dodi had died. This information was shocking. How would she recover from this heartbreak? How unfair was this, losing her boyfriend after she’d lost her husband to Camilla?

I called my mother. She was watching the TV too. I felt a knot in my stomach, the kind you get when you’re watching rolling news coverage and it’s not yet clear if events are still unfolding or the worst is over.

It wasn’t. With a stammering voice the presenter told us that word had come that Diana had died.

20 years later, it’s hard to articulate the shock. My husband and I sat on the bed in front of the TV with our mouths open. I had my hand over my mouth in the way I’ve since read women do when they’re confronted by shocking or distressing news. As if to muffle a scream.

MORE FROM Mia Freedman

My friend Bec Sparrow – who I wouldn’t meet for 15 years – remembers that on the day Diana died, she was driving home to her parents’ house when she heard the news……

“I’d been in the State Library for a few hours and I drove home from the city listening to CDs rather than the radio. As I pulled into my parents’ driveway I saw my dad tinkering on something and he turned and flagged me to wind my window down. “What’s wrong? What is it?” I said. “It’s Princess Diana. There’s been an accident. Her boyfriend Dodi has died but I think she’s okay.”

The next few hours are a blur. Sitting in front of the TV. Hearing the news of her death. And the utter disbelief.

I cried for a week. Maybe more. My grief lasted for a long time. I attended the public memorial service they held in Brisbane and for months and months got into arguments with anyone who questioned why I would grieve the death of a woman I never knew. I cried 20 years ago for exactly the same reason I cried just last Sunday night when I saw footage of Diana and watched William and Harry talk about losing their mum. I cried because she had so much love for people but especially the young and the fragile, the vulnerable, the isolated and the lonely. I cried because she loved those boys, her boys, so deeply and to be taken from them seemed so cruel. I cried because watching her change the world or someone’s world with a hug or a handshake made me believe I could do it too.”

My friend Wendy Squires was a few suburbs away from me when she heard the news.

” I was in the bath and my boyfriend came in and asked me, “What would be the biggest news story today?” I said the Queen dying. He said, “Close. It’s Diana.” I refused to believe him. I went numb. I was mute. It just didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be. I thought of those boys she loved so much. I got out of the bath and turned the TV on and sat there for the next 24 hours without sleeping, trying to take it all in. It was about three days later and I was in a coffee shop when it really hit me. I heard two elderly ladies discussing her death and lost it. I cried for hours that day, for her, her boys and a world that can be that cruel.”

The rest of that day and the days that follow were surreal. I attended my sister in law’s wedding shower within hours of hearing the news and my mother and I sat there weeping quietly together in a corner while she unwrapped gifts and the other guests tried to celebrate her upcoming wedding.

Not everyone felt it that deeply. Some people seemed remarkably unaffected. Some were women but most were men. I distinctly remember men being quite taken aback by how distressed so many women could be about the far-away death of a stranger in another country. Why would you cry for a woman you didn’t know?

GALLERY: Click through to see some of our favourite Diana moments…

It’s hard to articulate that. Can you? I think it’s that we felt that we did know her, we knew her deeply. She was the first celebrity of our generation to be vulnerable and imperfect. Her confessions about having bulimia and her husband cheating on her and feeling betrayed all seem kind of quaint in the age of celebrity sex tapes. But in the 80s and 90s, over-sharing was not something that anybody did. Certainly nobody famous. And never anyone royal.

We felt protective of her. And now she was dead.

Her funeral was telecast live around the world and it was night time in Australia. My best friend Paula came over to watch with me and we ate boiled eggs on toast and sobbed so hard I was worried it would somehow harm the baby kicking in my tummy. The little boy who would be born three weeks later and who, more than a decade into the future, would stand with me on a Paris footpath next to the tunnel where Diana died and ask me, “Who is Diana?” and I would look at him, shocked to remember he was born into a world that had never known her. I tried to recover and turn it into a cautionary life lesson about the importance of seat belts and the perils of drink driving and I watched as his eyes quickly glazed over. Mine did too. I was lost in a kind of revery at being at that place where she died.

My mother was too upset to come to my house the night Diana’s funeral was broadcast. She had her own girlfriends over and they too watched and cried together. The men were banished from the room. Confused and silent, having experienced the full extent of our emotional fury when they tried to suggest it all seemed a bit much.

This was a female ritual. As women, we grieved with Diana. For Diana. And for those little boys, oh god. Those boys. The card on the coffin that said ‘Mummy’ in wobbly handwriting.

That card undid the world.

Elton John sang his special version of Candle In The Wind, through his own tears. Diana was his friend. And mixed potently with our grief was rage. Rage at the royal family for treating her so badly. Rage at Charles for betraying her with Camilla. Rage at the paparazzi and magazine editors we felt had hunted her to her death.

We were vengeful and inconsolable all at once.

29 June 1987: Princess Diana with her sons William and Harry at a polo feild in Smiths Lawn, Windsor ■ 29 يونيو 1987: اﻷميرة ديانا مع ولديها اﻷميران ويليام وهاري في نادي الضباط لرياضة البولو بمنطقة سميثز لون في مدينة وندسور ■ #princessdianaforever #humanitarian #princessofwales #princessdiana #gb #hertruestory #kensingtonpalace #uk #thebritishroyalfamily #theroyalfamily #thebritishmonarchy #queenofhearts #instagood #instaroyal #instalike #di #fashionicon #peoplesprincess #style #glamorous #icon #foreveryoung #uk #الأميرة_ديانا #أميرة_ويلز #أميرة_القلوب #الأميرة_ديانا_لﻷبد #بريطانيا #لندن #قصتها_الحقيقية #أميرة_الشعب

A post shared by Princess Diana Forever (@princess.diana.forever) on

 

Eventually, the rage dissipated. There really were some lessons about drink driving and seat belts. It wasn’t simply the fault of the photographers who had been chasing her. And 20 years later, that industry remains a thriving one.

In some sense it took many years until we were able to embrace Charles and Camilla as a couple without feeling defensive and protective of Diana. Her ghost felt very present at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton… .I cried again for her when I watched them marry.

14 August 1986: Princess Diana with her sons Princes William and Harry, and King Juan Carlos, during a press photo call at the Spanish royal family residence; the Marivent Palace, in Palma de Majorque, Spain ■ 14 أغسطس 1986: اﻷميرة ديانا مع طفليها اﻷميران ويليام وهاري والملك خوان كارلوس أمام مدخل قصر ميريفنت الملكي، مقر اﻷسرة المالكة اﻹسبانية في مدينة مايوركا الساحلية بإسبانيا، وذلك خلال جلسة تصوير مع الصحافة ووسائل اﻹعلام [ينظمه القصر سنويا كوسيلة للتعاون مع ممثلي وسائل اﻹعلام] ■ #princessdianaforever #humanitarian #princessofwales #princessdiana #gb #hertruestory #kensingtonpalace #uk #thebritishroyalfamily #theroyalfamily #thebritishmonarchy #queenofhearts #instagood #instaroyal #instalike #di #fashionicon #peoplesprincess #style #glamorous #icon #foreveryoung #uk #الأميرة_ديانا #أميرة_ويلز #أميرة_القلوب #الأميرة_ديانا_لﻷبد #بريطانيا

A post shared by Princess Diana Forever (@princess.diana.forever) on

I don’t think there will ever be a woman so iconic for my generation. I often wonder what she would be like now. She’d definitely be on Instagram. Would she have her own reality show? Would she have married Dodi? Divorced him? Had more children?

For a long long time I missed her as though she’d been a person in my life. I missed looking at photos of her. Reading about her. Following her life. Cheering for her. Watching interviews and hearing her laugh. Seeing her mother those boys she clearly loved to the moon. Poring over her outfits and her changing hairstyles. Taking note of how she grew older.

Vale Diana. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. Your death was cruel and unfair and should never have happened.

We miss you.

Where were you when you heard the news about Diana? Share your memories below in comments…..

MORE FROM Loss and grief

JOIN THE CONVERSATION