Twenty years after her death, Princess Diana is still a glimpse of something good.
On Sept. 5, 1997, just five days after Princess Diana of Wales died in a car accident in Paris, Queen Elizabeth II addressed the United Kingdom on national television. It was the first time she had spoken to her people in such a fashion.
“I for one believe there are lessons to be drawn from her life,” she said of Diana, “and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.”
Twenty years have passed since Diana’s death broke the hearts of people all over the world. Media outlets are reflecting on the anniversary in different ways. Netflix has a BBC documentary chronicling the events of the seven days between her death and funeral. HBO produced a beautiful, understated film of recollections from Princes William and Harry. In The Guardian, author Hilary Mantel reflects on Diana’s complicated relationships with her past, the press and our imagination.
Watching the documentaries and considering Diana’s life now from a distance, I am reminded of a moment I witnessed in St. Peter’s Square last summer. Pope Francis was wrapping up his normal post-Mass routine of walking the crowds and greeting visitors. Along his exit route, one last row of people sat waiting in wheelchairs for him.
The thing you hear again and again about Diana is that like Pope Francis, she “saw” the people around her.
He stopped before each one, spoke to them and put his hands on their shoulders and their heads. I watched him talk to one young man, smiling, patting his cheek and tousling his hair, like a grandfather with his grandson. The man beamed.
The thing you hear again and again about Diana is that like the pope, she “saw” the people around her, not in some photo-op, stiffly royal kind of way, but as actual human beings with hopes and fears and a sense of humor, and she enjoyed being with them. She was said to have told people she preferred the company of the sick and the down and out because they were more real. So along with her boys, Diana dedicated her life to the suffering, the overlooked and demonized—homeless men and women, AIDS patients, landmine survivors.
She also used the press’s unending fascination with her to raise the profiles of these groups. The 1991 photograph of Diana shaking the hands of an AIDS patient without wearing gloves helped change the way people around the world treated those with H.I.V. Weeks before her death she had been in Bosnia drawing attention to its terrible blight of buried landmines left from the war; a fortnight after her funeral, the United Nations promulgated a treaty banning the devices entirely. According to friends, even at parties she had an uncanny sense for who might be feeling out of place and would go directly to them.
Journalists and royals alike marveled at (and to some extent derided) the scale of grief expressed after Diana’s death. The BBC documentary describes the country as having been “brought to the edge of a collective nervous breakdown.” How else to explain how so many who had never met Diana could be so upset?
But rather than mental illness, people’s expressions of grief about Diana point to something much more fundamental: that we all have a great need for connection, to be seen and heard for who we are. Even now, just to see images of Diana sitting casually with a homeless man or to hear from a survivor of the war in Bosnia how her words that he would never be forgotten have helped him in dark times or to witness once again her wonderfully open smile, reminds us that we, too, have not been forgotten out here on this tiny planet flying through the darkness. Watching this kind-hearted woman see others, we too feel seen. And we are not alone.