Collective grief at the end of an age

Many of us are feeling a deep sense of loss as we mourn the passing not just of the Queen, but also the age she represented. Others of us feel more conflicted. Will this lead to new them-and-us dynamics? Or is the potential there for national renewal – and what might unlock it, if so?

By Alex Evans and Ivor Williams — 18th Sep · 9 min read

It was the week in Britain when everything happened at once. The Queen’s death. A new King. A new Prime Minister. Our largest ever peacetime fiscal intervention. All as the cost of living crisis became steadily more acute.

Lots of us, even republicans, are surprised by the emotions we’re feeling. We’re mourning the death not only of a person with whom we’ve all grown up, but also an era, as Scottish writer Grant Morrison reflected:

“That was the second Elizabethan age. We had the explosion of creativity that gave us The Beatles, and Brit rock and British artists and British writers. And I think it’s just really weird: that’s the end of that now. It’s like the Shakespearian age is over. Except it’s now.”

Whatever our feelings, it’s a powerful moment for reflecting and taking stock. None of us will experience another moment like it.

Moments of grand loss can play havoc with our subconscious, triggering deep existential anxiety as they remind us not only of our individual mortality, but also the transience of institutions, of ways of life, or even (amid the heatwaves or wildfires) the fragility of life on our planet.

Many of us want to come together to grieve. 

Think of the collective, often spontaneous mourning that can follow events like the passing of beloved musicians or other Royals; shocks like the Manchester bombing; or the Covid-19 pandemic. In the same way, the Queen’s passing has become a participatory moment – for the thousands queuing to pay their last respects, or the millions who will watch her funeral. 

But grief can be complicated – more so, perhaps, than any other human experience. 

For many of us, the death of the Queen reopens complicated feelings about our role in British society – feelings that may be overdue for a reckoning, for as David Olusoga puts it

“It is perhaps testimony to the enormous respect in which Elizabeth II was held that the coming wave of challenge and reassessment was partially postponed until after her passing.” 

Many of the Queen’s subjects disagree with the very idea of monarchy, or feel she embodied the British class system. Many in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland would prefer to be outside the British state. Many in Commonwealth “realms” from Canada and Jamaica to Australia and New Zealand would prefer not to have a British monarch (a step Barbados took last year). 

Now, our national myths are in flux as we contest how Elizabeth and her reign will be remembered – and what should happen next as one era ends and another begins.

For many of us, this is a time to celebrate positive things we like to see in our national identity – from a sense of British greatness and influence around the world, to the Queen’s sense of duty and service or her gentle humour.

For others of us, though, it’s a moment to confront the things many of us prefer not to see in ourselves (our “shadow”, as Carl Jung would have put it), like the dark sides of British colonialism and imperialism.

How might these tensions play out in the coming days and weeks? 

One possibility: our polarised times become more so. Already, some are incensed by what they see as disrespect attempts to ‘call out’ the Queen’s legacy (like the Teen Vogue piece entitled “Celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s death isn’t disrespectful, colonialism is”). Others are furious about what they see as attempts to shut down vital debates through the silencing of dissenting voices. 

It’s easy to see how such dynamics could self-amplify. Britain has plenty of recent experience of so-called ‘culture wars’. There are also all too many examples of how populist leaders can take advantage of collective loss to foment grievance and use it to build power.

But there’s also the potential for a more hopeful scenario, in which the passing of the Queen and her age launches a deep process of renewal for the country. What could that look like?

To begin with, we might recognise that we’re all grieving differently, and for different aspects of loss – and that this is completely normal. 

When a family member dies, we all experience it differently. We may feel despair, anger, numbness, relief. Any grief counsellor would emphasise that no single response is right, and that everyone’s emotional response is valid. 

Second, we could try to be kind to each other, in spite of our differences and strength of feeling. 

Difficult emotions have a way of coming out of the woodwork at liminal moments, and the one we’re in right now is as liminal as they come. There’s nothing to lose, and much to gain, by being as gentle and patient with each other as we can.

But third, we need to recognise that in the longer run, renewal entails steering into difficult emotions and conversations, not sweeping them under the carpet. 

At Larger Us, we talk a lot about ‘courageous conversations’, and how bridging divides is not about papering over our differences in the name of ‘civility’, but instead about how deep curiosity can lead us into encounter with ‘the Other’.

So what might that entail in this context?

InThis Too Shall Pass (pdf), an essay on collective grief that we co-wrote with Casper ter Kuile in 2020, we looked at the myths our forebears have used to make sense of moments of deep loss, and suggested that those myths invite us to ask three deep questions – of ourselves and of each other – as we make sense of our past, present and future. 

First, what is being revealed? During the pandemic, for instance, we were shown who the real key workers are in our economy, the vulnerabilities that come with our global interdependence, the racism that endures in our society, and our deep need for connection and capacity for mutual aid. What might be being revealed now?

Second, what needs to be healed? Where wounds, injustices or imbalances have been exposed, what might it take to bring things back into balance and make us whole? Many of our oldest myths stress the idea of atonement and self-sacrifice as profoundly necessary in such moments. What might that entail today?

And third, what might be trying to be born? Even when healing happens after a shock or loss, things don’t just go back to how they were before. Instead, as the psychological idea of post-traumatic growth underlines, we come back changed – but also more resilient, with new capacities, possibilities, and appreciation for life; alive in the present rather than overwhelmed by the past. What new possibilities might we discover in ourselves today, and where might they lead us?

Grief is painful, but it’s vital we recognise the need to honour it and allow it to unfold in its own time. Trying to avoid it or close it down just makes things worse. But if we can grieve well, and do it together, then we may find – as our ancestors before us have found – that grief has its gifts to offer us all.

Alex Evans is the founder and executive director of Larger Us. Ivor Williams leads on end-of-life care at Imperial College’s Helix Centre

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