Opinion | The Royal Grief You Will Not See


Death holds up a mirror to everything — moments of love, stretches of strife, memories that punish and exalt. This is true if your family is far removed from the public eye, and it’s true if your family is ensconced in the world’s spotlight.

Queen Elizabeth II was the matriarch both of a country and of the most famous family in the world — certainly the most scrutinized family in the world. That fame, that scrutiny, goes back generations. Children are born into the royal family with the instruction that their lives, with some notable exceptions, will be lived in public. In the past, Prince Harry spoke about how hard it was when his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, died unexpectedly, needlessly — chased down by paparazzi in a tunnel late at night. He was 12, struggling to wrap his heart around the loss, yet he had to be in public accepting condolences from strangers. Hopefully this time, with the passing of his grandmother, he will feel buoyed and comforted by a country that is grieving along with him, that has watched their monarch age, knowing as he must have that time was growing short.

When my father, Ronald Reagan, died, the world moved in quickly. By the time I left my parents’ house on the day of his death, having waited for the coroner to come for his body, the streets in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles were crowded. The police had set up barricades to keep the people back so vehicles could get through. I remember being vaguely aware that bystanders were taking my picture as I drove past, some of them wiping away tears. And I remember steeling myself for the public events commemorating my father’s life, the cross-country flights with his coffin in the plane, and the world watching us.

All of us know the difficulties and travails of the royal family. Each time the family members come together, the news media and the public analyze every gesture, every interaction. Did William and Harry speak? Embrace? Having been on the receiving end of such scrutiny, I can tell you that it’s a balancing act. You want to be present, available, sincere, yet there is a part of you that’s always aware you’re being watched and, in all likelihood, judged.

Queen Elizabeth had the ability to call her fractured family together to show up … because of her. My father was the beacon of light we all gravitated to, no matter how we felt about each other. When forces like this die, the fault lines in the family that were always there remain. Yet the beauty of memorial services and funerals is that for a while, that breakage is healed.

During the five days of services for my father, on each coast, we were more of a family than we’d ever been. I didn’t want it to end. As we were flying back to California from Washington, D.C., for the final service and burial, I said to my mother: “Can’t we just fly around a bit more? Go to some other states? I’m sure they’d welcome us.” She smiled, sadly, and I’m not sure if she knew that I was saying I wanted the fragile peace we had during those days to last.

Several times during that period, friends remarked on how hard it must have been to mourn in public. I always said, “No, that actually was the easy part.” I felt thousands of locked hands beneath me, keeping me from falling. That’s also why I didn’t want the week to end. Once it did, I would be left with the solitariness of my own grief, slogging through the waters that would inevitably rise around me.

Even if you are the royal family, the most famous family in the world, everyone doesn’t see everything about you. There is grief that spills out in the shadows. We need to remember that when we watch the public ceremonies surrounding the queen’s passing.

After the final service at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, at sunset, there was a reception, but my mother didn’t want to attend. My brother Ron; his wife, Doria; and I got in the car with my mother and were driven back to her house. Night had fallen and, because her two housekeepers were at the reception, the house was dark. I raced in to turn on the lights, and we went into the kitchen where Doria fixed us scrambled eggs. I felt the bonds of the past few days dropping away as we sat at the small Formica table and ate. We were transforming back to who we’d always been, a family that wasn’t very good at being one. Driving home through dark quiet streets, I knew the river of grief that was waiting for me, and I knew I would have to cross it alone.

My hope is that people remember this about the royal family: In the end, though they breathe rarefied air, they grapple as we all do with life and death, with the mystery of what it means to be human. When darkness falls, and they are alone, they sink into the same waters that everyone does when a loved one dies. And they wonder if they’ll make it to the other side.

Patti Davis, a daughter of President Ronald Reagan, is an author. Her most recent book is “Floating in the Deep End.”

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Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/09/opinion/queen-public-grief.html