How did you feel when you found out Queen Elizabeth died? Although the queen's death was neither untimely nor unexpected, given her age and that she had begun stepping back from public life, the timing seems to have taken the world by surprise. So many people worldwide, most of whom had never met her, are expressing shock and engaging in very public mourning. As we observe the grief of others, we may also be surprised at the depth of our own reactions. It is common, though, for the death of a public figure to affect people profoundly.
For example, most people alive in the 1960s remember precisely where they were when they found out that John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated, the dates etched in their minds as part of their own personal history. While not unique to us, these public losses can feel highly significant.
We form bonds and associations with public figures, even if – and maybe especially because – we've never met them in person. They might represent periods in our lives (like the teenage heartthrobs we fell madly in love with), or they may symbolize our aspirations, hopes, or fears. We may maternalize or paternalize them (as so many did with the queen), and their death can leave us feeling unstable, anxious, and unmoored. When a public figure dies, especially if the death is sudden and shocking, we may find our sense of security and faith in the world challenged. Given the round-the-clock news coverage, it can be impossible to escape the constant reminders. This may lead to feeling overwhelmed by collective grief - a sense of societal sadness and mourning.
Unlike the death of someone we know, there may not be concrete opportunities to convey condolences or memorialize and pay tribute to the person who has died.
When someone has been a constant in our lives, even on the periphery, imagining life without them can be disconcerting. Consider the queen’s “staying power.” For many, she was the only British monarch they knew, and she was undoubtedly the most famous royal person in the world. The royal family is frequently in the news, and whether or not we are monarchists, many of us enjoy being spectators as they work out complicated family dynamics. With their private lives splashed across our computer screens and TVs, it is not unusual to feel we know them and identify with them. In the background of all this publicity and drama was always the queen, a stalwart and a steadying force, reliable in her demeanor and dress. Her death is bound to feel destabilizing for many, especially the British, who simultaneously welcome both a new prime minister and a new king.
News of her death (or any public figure’s death) may reopen past losses for us, and we may relive past grief. If you've pushed down feelings and never come to terms with them, they may rise up with an intensity that surprises you. It can feel awkward to experience a strong response to the death of someone you never personally knew. Whether or not your own reaction is palpable, you may feel judgmental and uncomfortable with the level of public grief displayed. These conflicting emotions can leave us exhausted and depleted, as well as sad.
If the death of Queen Elizabeth has reignited painful losses for you, this may be a good opportunity to experience, feel, and begin to clear them. In a recent article, grief expert David Kessler offers this advice: “If you realize you have some old grief, it's not an enemy; it's just a reminder. It's knocking at your door, asking for a little help." The collective mourning occurring at this time is generally socially sanctioned and can provide a safe space to process your own emotions. You don't need to necessarily offer that you are grieving others besides the queen; most people will understand if you simply share that you have feelings of sadness and loss. The mourning of a public figure can effectively provide a nudge for us to look at where we might have unresolved feelings and bring them into light.
I have another thought about why the death of the queen may feel so earth-shattering at this time. The world has experienced seismic shifts recently. The coronavirus pandemic, political instability, and the war in Ukraine have challenged our beliefs about the world and our sense of safety. Somehow, we know that these last couple of years have been a turning point. The death of Queen Elizabeth seems to be the final step in saying goodbye to what, in hindsight, may feel like a more innocent world. Her death is a concrete marker of the end of the old and the beginning of the new. And since the future feels uncertain, in addition to mourning the queen, we may feel as if we are grieving for a sense of stability and familiarity that feels gone forever. Recognizing that the multi-layered responses we might be experiencing in the aftermath of the queen’s death are completely normal can be comforting as we turn our eyes toward the future.