But British mourning experts are hoping the Queen’s death and her ways – at home, with family, at her beloved Balmoral Castle – could also spark a national conversation about Britons’ sometimes awkward relationship with dying. In doing so, the experts hope, they might be better prepared for the inevitable.
“If we are to die in a way that we hope will be peaceful, comfortable, and satisfying for us, we must do what the Queen did: recognize that it will happen eventually, and make some plans for what we will.” want and don’t want,” says Kathryn Mannix, author of With the End in Mind: How to Live and Die Well.
Mannix has witnessed thousands of deaths over her 30-year career as a palliative care physician. She says it has become clear in the last two years of Elizabeth’s life that she was dying. She saw familiar patterns in the slowing down of the Queen’s usual hectic schedule and the preparations she was making.
In her final months, Elizabeth made it known that she wanted his wife Camilla to be known as the “Queen Consort” when the current King Charles III succeeded her. And she lingered to watch her grandson Prince William and his wife Kate move their family from central London to a royal country home in Windsor.
One of her very last acts as Queen was to ask Conservative Party leader Liz Truss to become her 15th and, as it turned out, last Prime Minister. This audience took place last Tuesday, September 6th. It was the first time in Elizabeth’s reign that she had been away from her official London residence, Buckingham Palace, for an appointment as Prime Minister. Instead, she stayed at Balmoral, her Scottish holiday home, and Truss traveled to her.
Duty done, the queen died two days later. Mannix was reminded of other deaths she encountered in her medical career, of people who clung to life “to hear the news that a baby was born or an exam was passed” and then “really quickly relaxed into death”.
“It’s not at all disrespectful to acknowledge that even our monarchs are mortal and that what happens at the end of people’s lives is a recognizable pattern,” says Mannix. “Maybe we can use that as an opportunity to think about knowing the pattern, being able to recognize the pattern, being able to talk to each other about the pattern – not to be afraid of it.”
The ten-day national mourning, dubbed a “time for reflection” by the government, inevitably also sees death, loss and grief figure prominently in widespread media coverage of the Queen’s life and times.
Mourning experts say the rituals of shared mourning and the mourning period – effectively an age in the swipe-and-tap era of short attention spans – are an extraordinary and important opportunity for Britons to adjust to losing a queen and gaining a queen King, and to process the emotions and fears that tremendous change sometimes brings.
For young people, “this may be the first time they’re learning about the finality of life and what that means,” says psychologist Bianca Neumann, director of grief work at Sue Ryder, a UK charity that supports terminal illness and loss offers.
“We never really look at the end of life that way unless we have to,” she says. “It would be nice as a nation if these conversations could become more mainstream.”
Psychotherapist Julia Samuel, who was a close friend of the late Princess Diana, is urging Britons to stop and process their loss. In a post on Instagram, she said, “If we just go ahead and do what we normally do, our brain isn’t getting the information to let us know that something very big has happened.”
“The job of grief is to adjust to the reality of a death,” she says. “To do that, we need to slow down our brains.”
In fairness, British conversations about death and loss have been going on for centuries. In Hamlet, Shakespeare had his famous prince muse on the human condition clutching the skull of Yorick, a court jester.
“Oh, poor Yorick! I knew him,” Hamlet mourns. “Where are your sophistry now? your gambling? Their songs?”
Britons, too, surprised themselves and the world by shedding their reputation as a tight-lipped nation with a flood of public tears over the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
“The pendulum swung from side to side,” says Adrian Furnham, professor of organizational psychology at the Norwegian Business School in London and author of Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World. ”
“It’s much more acceptable now, and in fact much healthier, to ‘let it out,'” he says. “That has changed in this country because there was a time when that was a clear sign of weakness.”
Still, Brits concede that they could be better at helping others and themselves through bereavement. Sue Ryder launched a Grief Kind campaign last year to help people find words when those around them lose loved ones.
Selman is the founding director of the Good Grief Festival, created during the COVID-19 pandemic to break taboos around dying. She hopes the Queen’s mourning will “grow a little bit more awareness and an ongoing discussion about grief and loss and our social attitude towards it.”
“You have to talk about what a good death is,” she says. “And what we can do to make sure we have the death we want.”
Follow AP stories on the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the British Royal Family at https://apnews.com/hub/queen-elizabeth-ii
John Leicester, The Associated Press