YOU WILL GRIEVE! How enforced mourning of the Queen can backfire.Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett
On September the 8th, 2022, Queen Elizabeth the Second passed away, at age 96, after 70 plus years on the throne.
At the time of writing, the UK is in the middle of a period of declared national mourning. But, as anyone who’s gone through it will tell you, grief does funny things to people. It can cloud our thinking and behaviour. When a whole nation is doing it, it leads to some baffling outcomes.
Already we’ve seen things like cycling being banned, weather going unpredicted, foodbanks closing, guests kicked out of Center Parcs, children’s football cancelled, checkouts made quieter, and delayed awareness of Guinea Pigs, all out of apparent ‘respect’ for the Queen.
However, this could all end up having the opposite effect to that presumably intended, and cause more disrespect and ill feeling toward the Queen, and her death.
Here’s the thing; grief is an incredibly emotionally draining experience, not to be taken lightly. It affects you deeply, it changes you in lasting ways. And yes, it’s entirely possible to be emotionally invested in someone you’ve never met, who doesn’t know you exist, like the Queen. So much so, you’ll be profoundly sad when they die, and want to mourn their passing. Indeed, millions of people are currently doing exactly this.
But here’s another thing about grief; it’s intensely personal, subjective. The idea that grief is universally experienced via five progressive distinct stages is a fiction resulting from repeated fictional mainstream portrayals which seriously underplay how variable and unpredictable grief can be.
How you grieve, and how you express that to the wider world via mourning, very much depends on who you are, and your connection to the deceased. Expressing your grief in a manner that works for you is a key part of effectively processing it, of coming to terms with it.
Some grieve by being more active, or by taking their mind of things, or by reflecting quietly and privately on their loss and their memories of the deceased. All are perfectly valid forms of grieving. None are compatible with the ‘We must all be openly sad and deeply respectful at all times, and not do or focus on anything else’ approach, seemingly the only one permitted right now.
Whether indirectly (via the aforementioned confusing decisions, or the blanket sombre TV coverage at the expense of anything else), or directly (via the unsettling attempts by the authorities to suppress any dissenting voices, even threatening arrest for the most innocuous things), the clear message is that only a certain ‘type’ of mourning for the Queen is acceptable.
There’s a real danger to this. First and foremost, it reduces people’s choice, and autonomy. The psychological phenomenon of reactance shows that humans instinctively don’t like losing autonomy, having their options removed. It causes discomfort, anger, stress, and more. And that’s at the best of times; when someone’s going through an intensely emotional experience like grief and mourning, it’s even more likely to cause negative reactions.
And if you still doubt whether having autonomy removed is such a big deal, remember that Britain is six years into an incredibly painful and expensive disentangling from a major international bloc, all because a majority of the population didn’t like the idea of a higher power taking away their choices. That the same population are now having their actual emotions dictated to them is an amusing irony, if nothing else.
There’s also how having to express emotions you aren’t feeling can be harmful to your wellbeing and mental health. It’s a key cause of stress and burnout in places like call centres, and explains why ‘bottling up’ your feelings can be so damaging. Insisting that people grieve in ways they don’t feel comfortable could well lead to similar outcomes. Even more so if they don’t feel like grieving at all.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with people wanting to mourn the Queen openly, publicly, and persistently. That’s totally valid. But by the same token, so is not feeling mournful, not being wracked with grief over the passing of a very privileged nonagenarian woman you’ve never met or communicated with.
However significant it may be for British society, the Queen’s passing is by no means the most important thing going on in absolutely everyone’s life right now, and imposing how people should or shouldn’t be feeling when it comes to grief can only end badly. Because everyone will have legitimate reasons for feeling how they do, whether it conforms to expectations or not.
I speak from experience here. I lost my father to COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, and had to endure the grief and trauma of it all during the height of lockdown. All the usual ways of coping with and expressing grief (traditional funerals, gathering with family, getting away from things etc.) were all denied to me. It was a horrific, traumatic time, one that’s still affecting me today. How could it not?
But one thing that made this hard time harder was the many publications, pundits, and politicians, constantly telling me that my father’s death was unimportant, or didn’t really happen, or was a small price to pay if it meant they wouldn’t have to wear a square of cloth over the lower half of their face.
I’m not special here. This was the experience of millions during the very recent (indeed, still ongoing) pandemic. And now I, and others like me, have many of those same people insisting that we must all publicly declare our intense grief and completely shut down the country, because of the loss of one 96-year-old lady. Given our recent experience, this is, I would argue, a difficult ask.
People should have the right to express their grief over the Queen’s death in any way they choose. The same rights should apply to those who don’t feel grief, or don’t want to express it. They should all have the right to choose. Heavy handed efforts to enforce a certain expression of grief and deny any alternatives can only lead to stress, anger, and resentment of the Queen and the monarchy, even where there wasn’t any before. Presumably, this is not the outcome that those demanding unthinking respect are going for.
Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University. He is @garwboy on Twitter.