Many of us were amazed at our own reactions to Diana's death. Corinne Sweet offers an explanation
On the day Diana died I had a flurry of urgent calls from many of my clients - I am a counsellor - including people I had not seen for a year or two. A week later they are still coming. We all know that the floodgates have been opened: we've seen the flowers, queues and funeral with our own eyes. But do we understand exactly what is pouring out? Are we crying for Diana or crying for ourselves, especially as the outpouring has continued well into the second week?

It seems that what started as a Di-centred shock wave has sent ripples into the deepest crevices of our own unresolved griefs and losses. Clearly, there has been a genuine shock for many people as they have experienced the recognisable stages of bereavement: numbness, sadness, anger, disbelief and so on. But unofficial reports are now emerging of an increase in suicide attempts and casualty accidents during the aftermath, which signals something happening on a more significantly personal level.

It's not that people are swallowing bottles of pills or tripping up on pavements purely because they won't see Di's tanned and gymmed figure hugging children again, it's more because their own inner pain has been touched. The bereavement care organisation Cruse has had to open a special helpline to deal with the increased volume of calls. John Dillie, a spokesman for Cruse, says, "Diana's death has rekindled a lot of feeling of past losses for people - such as the death of a mother or loss of a child - and it has restarted the grieving process afresh."

This is certainly true of Pat Hackney, a 57-year-old picture researcher, who had very mixed feelings about Diana. "What grabbed me the most was little Harry's bereft face," she says. "My own father died when I was seven, and I was forbidden to show any feelings. I was threatened with beating if I cried and no-one was allowed to mention him again." Born into a stoical working-class family, it's taken Pat 50 years to begin to mourn her father's death. "I've found this whole thing terribly painful and confusing," she says. "Seeing little Harry's mournful but dutiful face took me right back to the loss of my own dad; to that emptiness and shock I felt and which has never left me. The difference this time has been that I've been able to blub away in the privacy of my own home."

Pat's grieving has been triggered by what is termed by psychologists as "identification", whereby she has projected the feelings of her own bereaved inner child onto Harry's blank face. According to Professor Roland Littlewood, a psychiatrist and anthropologist from University College London, identification is key to understanding the continued public outpouring. "All my clients are very down at present and some have definitely felt suicidal. They identified strongly with Diana as someone who had psychological treatment but who 'made it' through to the other side. Now she's gone, they feel completely hopeless about 'making it' themselves."

Identification also explains why so many people have felt so much about someone they did not know personally and didn't agree with ideologically. Indeed, the least likely, usually cynical, people found themselves compelled to go the funeral. Pet and Andy Chaplin, who are usually healthily critical of all things establishment, felt they had to go to St James's on the day. Pet, 31, in children's publishing and Andy, 33, an architect, suddenly found themselves whisking their eight-month-old baby, William, with them onto the Tube to pay their respects.

"I just couldn't stop crying," explains Pet, "I felt I wanted to be there. I was saying 'Oh, my God, oh, my God, those poor boys (after all one was called William), and Andy, who's usually so cool about these things, suggested we go on the morning of the funeral." A week on, Pet is gaining further insights into why she grieved so intensely over Di. "I think I've been crying about some very painful, and largely still buried, aspects of my own childhood, such as when my own family fell apart and I was separated from my mother'.

The popular criticism that people like Pet were simply being manipulated by an overheated media machine doesn't quite wash. Pet is fully aware of what was happening to her. "I'm sure I was prey to media hype, we all were. But I was crying all the way to the funeral and all the time there. There was a permission to do this - and in public. It was a way of letting my own feelings be heard - and I can tell you, it was such a bloody relief."

And here we come to what I feel is the crux of the issue: we have finally had an opportunity to empty out barrel-loads of pent-up past grief. The trigger which was Diana's death has simply led to an uncorking of the emotional bottle on a scale that has confounded everyone. For myself, last week propelled me into getting back in touch with feelings which had lain dormant for years. When I was 17, I was run over by a ten-ton gravel lorry and nearly died. When I heard about Diana's fatal crash last week I felt deeply shocked at first and then found myself crying uncontrollably. As I absorbed the gory details, I started having the old nightmares and flashbacks. I felt shaky and sick and found I couldn't get out of the house one day because it felt "too dangerous" out there.

"It's quite typical for someone who has suffered Post-Trauma Shock Disorder (PTSD) to have it reactivated when major dramatic events occur at a certain level of seriousness," explains Dr Stuart Turner, of the Traumatic Stress Clinic in London. But what had triggered me off? I realised it was the accounts of the paparazzi continuing to snap Diana callously as she was dying. I suddenly remembered that when I was run over, five workmen leaned on their spades about 10 metres away, watching me coolly, rolling cigarettes. It was one of the most terrifying, loneliest, moments of my life.

Margaret Hayman, a 30-year-old trainee singer who suffered severe spinal injuries in an IRA bomb attack, reported a similar reaction. "I found myself obsessed with the gory crash details," she says. "I was crying for Diana, crying for me. For a few days it brought it back and I felt I was trapped under rubble, fighting for my life." After the funeral, throughout which Margaret said she shook and wept continuously, "I suddenly felt relieved and released and very urgent about getting out into the fresh air and sunlight with my family".

It might sound macabre, but as a counsellor, I actually welcome an opportunity to deal with any reserves of unprocessed pain, because it is necessary for emotional healing to be completed in the long term. Simon Armson, chief executive of the Samaritans, agrees. "The Princess of Wales' death has enabled people to explore feelings that are not normally permitted space by the conventions which govern their lives". More importantly, "there has been an enormous mutual empathy, with people caring about each other in a way that wouldn't normally happen". Indeed, it's been okay to be OTT without the usual British embarrassment because, in a sense, we've all been doing it together.

That people may not even recognise precisely what they are grieving about or for doesn't really matter. Whenever we grieve we are, in fact, draining all the unspent losses and griefs which are still unresolved from the past. So, being able to pinpoint exactly what belongs to what doesn't really make a great deal of difference. What really does matter, however, is being able to grieve and move on. "And of course what may surface emotionally may take a lot longer than a couple of weeks to deal with," reminds Armson, "so people shouldn't be afraid of calling the Samaritans for ongoing support once the after-shock of Diana's death becomes old news."

Indeed an ex-client e-mailed me from Australia only yesterday. "I've been crying about Diana for two weeks now," she said. "It's all blowing over in the press, but I still can't get my mother's recent death out of my mind." I was extremely pleased to hear from her, and to encourage her to continue to feel and talk about her feelings. After all, Diana may be sadly dead, but we are all still very much alive.

The Traumatic Stress Clinic: 0171 530 3666. Cruse: 0181 332 7227. Samaritans: 0345 90 90 90.