22nd April 2017
It was the summer before I started university in 1997 when my mum came into my room obviously sad. She had just heard the news of the crash in which Princess Diana had died. I remember being intrigued by my mum’s reaction. She hadn’t known Diana and to me it was slightly unreal, like a movie or television drama, she was a character not a real person: tragic for her children and for her family but certainly not my grief. And then I realised with my detached pragmatism I was most definitely in the minority. My mum’s little sadness was magnified around the country by those utterly devastated. I remember watching the queues of people waiting to sign a book of condolence. I remember being intrigued by more than a million people who lined the four-mile funeral route from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey. Outside the Abbey and in Hyde Park crowds watched and listened to proceedings on large outdoor screens and speakers as guests filed in. Less a funeral and more a spectacle. It is estimated that 31.5 million viewers in Britain watched the funeral. Precise calculation of the worldwide audience is not possible, but estimated at around 2.5 billion. It was a most extreme example of a nation in mourning.
Prince Harry’s revelation this week about seeking help all those years after his mum’s death was a fabulous publicity stunt which reminded me that I live in a very particular bubble. Working for a community where the single most frequent profession on our membership database is “psychotherapist” you can forget there is still a taboo among other parts of British society in seeking mental health advice, so if Harry’s revelation helps even one person admit they too need help then he has done a great thing. However I wonder if the national hysteria all those years ago in fact stole his opportunity to grieve.
Looking back now at Britain’s judgement at the time of the Royal response I wonder if the population were so busy looking for a deep outpouring of emotion from the Royal Family that the collective expectation in some ways paralysed them from having any natural response. The reaction of the Royal Family to Diana’s death caused resentment and outcry. They were at their summer residence at Balmoral Castle, and their initial decision not to return to London or to mourn more publicly was much criticised at the time. Their rigid adherence to protocol and their concern to care for Diana’s grieving sons was interpreted by some as a lack of compassion. In particular, the refusal of Buckingham Palace to fly the Royal Standard at half-mast provoked angry headlines in newspapers, “Where is our Queen? Where is her Flag?” asked The Sun Newspaper. The Palace’s stance was one of royal protocol: no flag could fly over Buckingham Palace, as the Royal Standard is only flown when the Queen is in residence, and the Queen was then in Scotland.
When every tear is being scrutinised it isn’t surprising that the tears that came were not natural, free flowing and a means of grappling with the intense pain of losing a parent so young.
But as a Rabbi I was most interested that Prince Harry opened up this conversation during the week of our reading Parashat Shemini because it made me understand that perhaps my own Torah commentary over the years has been as unfair to the biblical Aaron as the Sun Newspaper’s were to the Royals.
For years I understood Aaron’s silence at the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu as his shame that their death represented a betrayal of all he stood for. He was the High Priest charged with getting the religious aspect of communal service to God just right and his sons missed the mark so absolutely in their worship it resulted in their death. Surely Aaron’s silence is akin to any politician whose child is exposed in the press for going off the rails or anyone whose profession is meant to reflect morality being caught in a compromising position. But maybe communal theft of grief is an age-old phenomenon and the British public did to the royals when Diana died exactly what the Israelite community did to Aaron when his sons died.
Moses says to Aaron (Leviticus 10:6) “Do not let your hair grow untended and do not rend your garments…and as far as your brothers are concerned, the entire house of Israel will mourn the ones whom God has burned”. Moses is telling Aaron not to show any outward signs of mourning. Again I had always thought this to mean that he was being encouraged to show his disapproval of their actions and his support of God but maybe this was in fact an acknowledgment that the whole community will be in turmoil over this brutal and sudden death, everyone else will have fears and doubts, we as the primary mourners have to take a backseat as we as leaders have to set the tone to instil calm.
Student Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen in her beautiful D’var Torah for the Leo Baeck College wrote, “The verb which describes Aaron’s silence is from the root דמם. In this context the verb can be translated as ‘to grow dumb’ or ‘to be still/silent’. In another rendering of this verb it can be translated as ‘to be made silent’ and even ‘to be destroyed’. And the same root, in other contexts, means ‘to wail’, ‘to groan’, or ‘to lament’. Aaron’s silence is not therapeutic, it is a sign of trauma, a sign that the violent deaths of his boys has devastated and destroyed him. He has been silenced.”
Yet I wonder if it isn’t just the devastation that has silenced him, it is being faced with societal pain as well. Did so many people share this love for the boys, the pain for their loss and the fear for how fragile their untimely deaths made life feel, that as such a public figure there was no space for Aaron’s own grief for he needed to protect others, be seen to be strong in the face of adversity to maintain calm. So how does the parasha continue? With kashrut: rules around eating, a distraction from grief with the mundane, day-to-day structures of life, a message for society to keep living rather than dwelling on their grief.
During the four weeks following Diana’s funeral, the suicide rate in England and Wales rose by 17% and cases of deliberate self-harm by 44%. Researchers suggest that this was caused by the “identification” effect, as the greatest increase in suicides was by people most similar to Diana: women aged 25 to 44, whose suicide rate increased by over 45%.
Often bereavement leaves others feeling fragile and it becomes someone’s job to bring strength to those around them. Perhaps the lesson we need to learn from Prince Harry’s message this week is not as simple as breaking the taboo of seeking professional help with one’s mental health but the message we get from Aaron too which is however much your role in life is to bring a semblance of normality at the most tough times or to bring strength to those more fragile than yourself, we also have to take time to do what comes naturally to us as individuals, we have to mourn in our own private way too. It’s natural to protect others from our own emotions so as not to exacerbate theirs but that makes it all the more important to find a space for our own grief too.
As a community who support and grieve with each other and help to give each other strength I know we are also a community who can show our weakness and vulnerability as well. I hope Prince Harry and the Biblical Aaron will be our reminders to strive for a balance, to seek out our moments for weakness as feeling the responsibility to be strong always has far longer lasting challenges attached.
As an endnote I hope it goes without saying that Rabbi Howard, Cantor Zoe and myself are always here to support those moments don’t hesitate to contact us.