The Grief of a Motherless Child

Article excerpt

After the mourning, after the public recollections and eulogies, after the royal grief and the glow of the embers of millions of broken hearts has faded, the irrevocable misfortune of Diana's death will hang heaviest over William and Harry.

The trappings of royalty and wealth cannot relieve what everyone of us - yeoman or aristocrat, commoner or of royal blood - can understand: Diana's sons are motherless. Never again will they enjoy her love, her laughter, her passionate and protective concern for their welfare.

Her charities will find other less dazzling sponsors. The couturiers will dress other less glorious models. The beautiful people will enjoy other rich and famous celebrities, although none so beautiful and none so vulnerable.

It is her sons who must live out the darker emotional side of the fairy tale. No theme is more powerful or more poignant in the collected fairy tales than those about children whose mothers have died. The absent mother, the wicked stepmother, the weak or ineffectual father left behind, all are stock figures in fairy tales that offer emotional and empathetic sustenance to motherless children.

There are many sources of these ancient fables, but fundamental to most is loss of a mother to sickness and childbirth, translated into tales of moral and physical abandonment. Cinderella, for example, tends the hearth, is covered with rags and dirt and is penitential as she grieves in sackcloth and ashes for her dead mother.

Origins of this story are found in tales of children who conduct their own personal lent, who show bereavement by covering themselves with earth and who camouflage their beauty in ashes to hide from the jealousy, wickedness and newly gained power of stepmothers and stepsisters. While most of the stories focus on the vulnerability of a daughter, Hansel and Gretel is about the impact of a mother's death on a brother and sister and the subsequent abandonment of them by a weak father and an evil stepmother.

While such stories are both realistic and metaphorical, they persist in popularity because they seek to assuage the psychological terrors of every child who fears being abandoned by a parent. …