NBC News
updated 8/28/2007 3:22:51 PM ET 2007-08-28T19:22:51

A decade has gone by since the death of Princess Diana, and many Brits — and quite a few Americans — still mourn her death.

That sadness, though, has been tempered by time, and pales in comparison with the outpouring of grief that erupted after her demise in a Paris road tunnel.

The reaction was truly surprising, shocking even, especially in a nation noted for its “stiff upper lip” and stoicism in the face of tragedy and adversity.

So what was it about this woman — and the state of her country and its culture — that made her loss so particularly devastating? New York City-based psychiatrist and author Gail Saltz, a regular contributor to the TODAY show, looks back at the events of those incredible late-summer days of 1997, and offers insights into why England and the world were so moved by the princess’s passing.

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Young Diana Spencer was the embodiment of every girl's fantasy. Even though in reality she came from the kind of aristocratic, “proper” family that made her an appropriate choice for the Princess of Wales, for the women of England she seemed to be every girl, any girl.

She was the girl in the fairy tale where the prince comes along, falls in love with her beauty and charm and makes her a princess.

Fairy tale wedding
The pleasure in identifying with Diana's rise to a royal lifestyle made many a woman enjoy imagining being her. And as she went from girlfriend to fiancée to wife to mother, people felt they knew her as they lapped up every detail of her fairy-tale wedding, her pregnancies and the births of her "heir and spare."

They grew even closer as they watched her successfully mother her boys — another process that every parent could identify with. At the same time she set herself apart from the royal family in her glamour and beauty, all the while retaining an aura of modesty and dignity.

In other words, Diana had become the ideal fantasy figure. People, women especially, had become invested in her. So, when trouble appeared in her marriage — and the bubble of the perfect family was burst — the public was rooting for her, come what may.

Adding to her allure, Diana was the woman scorned. The country watched as her Prince wronged her by taking up again with his former flame, Camilla Parker Bowles. The drama only made her more compelling, more riveting, more the person who everyone hoped would triumph.

The nurturing woman
Her acts of good will shored up this image — the good princess, the resilient woman, the nurturing woman. The divorcee doing her utmost to protect her boys and keep her dignity.

More than that, her story was both familiar and so much larger than life. It contained equal amounts of compelling detail beyond the imaginings of most people and down-to-earth elements recognizable to all. Almost every woman could fantasize about being her while at the same time relate to her — a phenomenon completely unparalleled in Britons’ relationships with the stiff and distant members of the royal family who had come before her.

Attitudes to marital strife, too, had changed in Britain. Instead of being swept under the carpet, couples were more willing to face up to the realities of relationships gone wrong. The national divorce rate was such that everyone knew something of the heartache of splitting up — and Diana became the sympathetic representative of this change.

Along with all this, of course, came the stories of her own infidelities, as well as bouts with bulimia and depression. But these only served to make her an even more sympathetic figure, especially in light of Prince Charles’ prior philandering and apparent coldness.

Sudden, wrong, unfair
When she died, it was with the same drama and tragedy that her life seemed to be full of. Sudden, wrong, unfair. And just as she seemed to pulling her life together and finding happiness again.

The country was robbed of its fairy tale and grieved with the same intensity with which they followed her life. They wanted her to triumph and, instead, she lost.

The combination of anger at this injustice along with sadness at the loss of that little bit in everyone that could have been Diana created a tremendous outpouring of emotion.

The country with the "stiff upper lip" mentality, wept and mourned for all the little princesses, all the women cheated on, all the mothers who try their hardest to raise good children, make a happy marriage and live the best life they can.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to NBC’s “Today” show.  Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com .

Video: How Britain grieved

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