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Grief says nothing about the person we are grieving

At a time of national mourning, we are naturally drawn to consider the nature of grief.

It can be confusing when intense feelings are stirred by the death of someone with whom we had no direct personal relationship. For me, I’ve been surprised by the feeling of anger. This contrasts with my whole-hearted participation in the outpouring of grief when Diana, Princess of Wales, died suddenly in 1997. I laid flowers at the gates of Kensington Palace, wept openly and joined thousands of others in Hyde Park to watch her funeral on big screens.

At the time of Diana’s death, I was working as a nurse in Spencer House where Diana herself had performed the opening ceremony. It was the family unit of the Mildmay Hospital in London, purpose built for families affected by HIV and AIDS. I was on night duty when the shocking news broke. I still recall that sense of unbelief. Many of the women sleeping around me were young women, like Diana, who would leave children behind them when they died. Unlike Diana, they expected to die young - the symptoms of their disease already outwitting the medical treatment available. Some had met the Princess when she had celebrated the unit’s opening; none had expected her to die before them.

Once the dreadful truth was confirmed, my colleague and I went from bed to bed, whispering the news so that none of the women would come upon it alone. There was a tremendous sense of loss. Some cried for themselves, represented in Diana, unfairly taken from her children while they were still children. Some cried for friends who had already died. Some cried for the plight of women who are harshly treated — many of the women that night had fled violence and rape and encountered cruel bureaucracy in establishment offices. For each of us, the death of Diana, triggered a panoply of emotions that arose out of our own circumstances in relation to hers. And this is true of all grief — it is specific to the relationship in which it arises, and given that every relationship is unique, every experience of grief is unique.

Since Diana’s death, I have spent many happy hours with my daughter, born since that fateful night, in the Diana Playground in Hyde Park or by the Diana Fountain. The memorials to a young mother, gentle reminders that life is fragile, and that time with our children and loved ones, fleeting.

Since Diana’s death, I have also experienced abuse in relationships and, more devastatingly, the perversity of the family courts and police systems that, in my case and many others, end up supporting the interest of abusers and placing women and children even more directly in harm’s way. The reverberations of this experience still manifests in my life as panic attacks over the simplest things like opening a letter — the body-mind still caught in the emotional loop triggered by the letters I received regularly from solicitors informing me of the next awful turn in the proceedings, fearful that one of these letters would notify me that my daughter had been removed from my custody. This impacts how I feel about the Queen.

I wrote this age 11

I grew up listening to the Queen’s speech at Christmas and I have fond memories of the street party that marked the Silver Jubilee, and of going to the railway station to wave at the train that was escorting Prince Charles and Princess Diana to their honeymoon destination. A distant family friend was one of the Royal butlers so, as a child, I felt as if I had privileged contact with the Royal family, even though he shared no secrets and we only met him at Christmas in my aunty’s house. I met the Queen herself at an inner-city youth club where I volunteered during my twenties. I had charge of a group of unruly youngsters at an enamelling station set up to show the Queen some of the craft activities that we did. The Royal entourage was late, something started burning, the children began to dispute loudly about the Poll Tax, mistakenly believing they were about to meet Margaret Thatcher — the play of politics and royal patronage so far from their day-to-day lives. And then the Queen was there, small and smiling — as unaware of what these children’s lives were like, as they were of hers.

I encountered this year’s Jubilee with detachment, coming as it did so shortly after the whole debacle with Prince Andrew. I felt viscerally angry that the Queen put her hand in her pocket to help her wayward son avoid court proceedings. The combination of power, sexual abuse and the law stuck in my craw and I loathed the Queen for her apparent complicity.

I felt a bit guilty that I prevented my daughters experience the simple pleasure of a community Jubilee party that I had had as a child, but my heart was just not in it and the dissonance too great. That too is a loss - the loss of the expression of shared values in community. And now, with the death of Queen Elizabeth, I’m experiencing that loss again. I can’t be bothered with the endless media coverage, I don’t care about the lying in state, or the laying of flowers or whether her grandsons greet mourners together. I’m disquieted by this detachment. It doesn’t feel right to be angry or feel so heartless. I’m finding it helpful to remember the Grief Recovery Method’s definition — that grief is the conflicting feelings that arise in response to loss. That’s why grief feels so discombobulating.

Relationships are, by their nature, mixed up affairs - never black or white. So my happy Queen memories from childhood sit alongside my negative Queen thoughts of adulthood. Neither make her either a saint or a devil. In fact, none of my thoughts or feelings say anything at all about the Queen herself. They say something about me and my relationship with her, or with what she represents to me.

It’s helpful to recognise this when we’re caught up in the throes of national mourning, surprised by the feelings that surface within us. Letting these feelings arise without judgement and noticing if there’s anything that needs forgiveness is the path of peace. Can I forgive her for not being the female figurehead I wanted in the face of court proceedings and sexual abuse? I’ll sit with it. Even just allowing for the possibility of forgiveness brings relief. It brings me back into my business and the things that I can control, namely my thoughts. And allows Elizabeth to be herself, a human being who lived the life she lived and met death with dignity and grace.

Rest in Peace, Elizabeth. And may we too find peace, however our grief manifests itself.

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Oh Rachel, this really spoke to me.

I too have struggled with my feelings around the death of the Queen, albeit for different reasons than you.

As soon as we suspected that Queen Elizabeth was imminently dying I had to switch into Chaplain mode and provide support for the residents at my care home. Many of them are a similar age to the Queen and felt as though they had "known her" all their lives.

On the day of the Queen's funeral I was in work offering prayers with the residents and hosting a funeral tea for them after they watched the funeral either collectively or on their rooms.

I was left with an immense feeling that I had missed…

Rachel Gwilym
Rachel Gwilym

You point to a few really important things here, Emma. It can be easy to gloss over our own needs when we're busy taking care of other grievers – this can happen when we have jobs serving people who are grieving as you have, or within a family when a death occurs and everyone else's needs seem to come first. Sometimes children might be encouraged to 'be strong for your mum' after their father has died, for example. The idea of 'being strong for others' is one of our cultural myths about grief. By recognising your own grief, as you have done, both for the Queen herself and for the lost experience of shared mourning, you are taking care of…

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