Issue 276: 2021 04 22: Families

22 April 2020

The Importance of Family

And the difficulties.

By Lynda Goetz

Families are strange and strangely important.  This much was highlighted by Prince Phillip’s funeral last Saturday.  This wonderfully moving ceremony, watched on television apparently by over 13 million people last weekend, was clearly not a private affair.  It involved the consort to our Queen, her ‘support and stay’ over seven decades.  It was nevertheless, as it turned out, because of Covid-19 regulations, very much a family affair.  Outside St. George’s Chapel, which can hold 800 people, as indeed it did for the wedding of Prince Harry and the American actress Meghan Markle only three years ago, there were 700 military personnel; but inside there were a mere 30 members of the Duke of Edinburgh’s family (both immediate and extended), all seated apart and wearing masks to conform with the current coronavirus regulations.  The amassed military aside, many similarly pared-down funerals have happened over the last year.  How many family stories of rift, division and reconciliation must there be in all those scaled-down ceremonies?

For the House of Windsor, the family rift was horribly public; Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah, not only widely viewed, but even more widely reported on, was the stuff of family melodrama.  Nevertheless, Prince Harry was there, at his grandfather’s funeral with the rest of the family, in spite of the words he had spoken and allowed his wife to speak against all of them.  We do not yet know what the outcome will be and yet, as with so many other families in the land, this was an occasion to bring the family together; an occasion where attempts to heal the rift could be made.  In this, the royal family is not unlike any other family.

The English are not really that good at family.  Compared with many other cultures our understanding of family and how it works seems in many cases stilted and frankly awkward.  Amongst the upper and upper-middle classes, understanding has not been helped by the tendency, until relatively recently, to pack children, especially boys, off to boarding school at a very tender age.  This can clearly make closeness difficult.  Among the middle and working classes there is less and less chance of the elderly being part of three-generational households for a number of reasons: houses are not considered large enough; with women working there is no capacity for unpaid care; with people living longer in ill-health, care is often more complicated and beyond the capabilities of immediate family.

This is not to say that we, the English, do not care for family, simply that we do not really put ourselves out to understand what it is or what it means to us until it is frequently too late.  Thus, funerals, instead perhaps of being celebrations of a life well-lived, can become occasions of reconciliation or even regret.  Should we be more appreciative of family?  Friends, it is said, we choose; family we are saddled with.  This is only to some extent true.  Many friends are friends because of time, location and circumstance.  Family in some ways is similar, but we are bound to them by ties which can be stronger than friendship.  At the same time, sibling rivalry is not imaginary or the invention of novelists.  It can be strong, real and deadly.  Historically, literally deadly in royal houses or families where the eldest inherited.  We do not always like our siblings, even if we may love them because they are our siblings.

Such ties are hard to explain and sometimes even harder to live.  The jealousies, recriminations and perceived slights can be real and impossible to see beyond and yet those without family often live a life of loss; a life with an empty space where family should be; a life which is an attempt to fill that void.  Those of us fortunate enough to have family should perhaps, if we don’t already, learn to appreciate it more; recognise the value not only of immediate family, but extended family, of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, in-laws and so on.  Families of today do seem to be far more complicated than ever with divorces and remarriages, with stepchildren and half-brothers and sisters.[i]  This may be in some ways a challenge, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to embrace a small world within which we can exercise our skills of understanding, inclusion, tolerance and inter-generational friendship.

It would appear that the late Prince Philip possessed this ability and openness in abundance, apart from all his other impressive talents.  Many others may well posses them too, but if we are to take anything from the death and the funeral of a public figure, whom most of us didn’t know in any meaningful way, it is his example of dedication to everything he did and to all those around him, particularly his family.  Very few have the opportunity to shine and be remembered as public figures.  We all have the ability to become legends within our own extended families.



[i] The recent stabbing of Sir Richard Lexington Sutton allegedly by his stepson perhaps highlights the tensions created by such relationships, although the circumstances of this tragedy are yet to be made public.


Cover page family photo: Annie Spratt (Unsplash).


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