September 12, 2022

The Mourning After: Coping with the Hangover of the Loss of a Public Figure.

On September 8th, 2022, we saw the loss of HRH Queen Elizabeth II. May she finally take peace from a duty-bound life. 

This afternoon, after hearing she was unwell, I felt a deep pull in my heart, as if she had already gone, and I cried. I’m not particularly a royalist or at all attached to many celebrities, but I have always been intrigued by the dynamics of such a public family institution.

As a psychologist, I find myself considering the implications of what this loss may be like for them—that lack of privacy. I heard how family members rushed to Balmoral to be with her, reminding me of the loss of my own grandmother, gathered around her bedside awaiting those last breaths. I felt their grief through echoes of my own. I even heard how Meghan Markle was not attending, and I made an assumption the Queen was already dead.

Aware it was an assumption and linked to my own experience of my ex-husband’s mother passing and feeling I could not attend for a multitude of reasons. Attending would have felt hypocritical to me due to falling out before her death, and I wondered about royal decision-making. In confusion, we humans want to create a narrative to bring back our sense of security. Our self-created narratives are more useful as a compass to self-awareness, rather than the surety that magnetic north can offer us about the true lay of the land. 

So the process seems to be that there is a little information, a need to make sense of things, relating what is heard to our own experiences and assumptions (maybe with awareness that dilutes a judgement). Then came the confirmation; the Queen was dead. It was real. The Queen, someone present consistently for the whole of my life, was no more on this earth.

Further tears stream down my face. I am touched by this loss. Not traumatised, but I am feeling it. Again, I state I am not a royalist, and I’m not even sure I know what one is, but in that moment, I felt attuned to the wave of global grief at the loss of this matriarchal figure, present in so many lives.

If we are high in empathy as a trait, mass feelings pulling in the same direction will change the vibration of the planet, and those sensitive to this will feel the aftershocks. Beyond pure energy, humans need consistency, a secure base, and an attachment figure. Many do not have that in their immediate family. A public figure can provide this.

Often, we can remember exactly where we were when we heard of the death of someone in the public eye that we have some form of attachment to. I recall being on my swing at my grandparents’ home when I learned of the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, when I was seven years old. I was at a spiritual fayre when I heard of the death of Princess Diana In 1997, and the old friend I was with had a bad migraine that day. But we’ve never met these people, so why are we so impacted and so saddened? Why does their passing carve a memory trace so deep that situational recall is so intense?

The death of those we are close to in our day-to-day lives can be all-consuming, as we have a gaping hole for all to see. But someone slightly removed permits the feeling of loss to a level where we can still have our executive functions of directing the brain to introspection and development of a greater self-awareness of all that is triggered within us. A great window for healing at a global level.

Maybe, the memory traces are so deep they are a place we can return to for greater growth and understanding as to why we are responding the way we are. Feelings we have in response to loss can give us clues to what is missing in our own lives. Nostalgic memories allow consideration of old hopes and dreams.

For me, the Queen passing also reminds me of a fun time in my life when I worked in newspapers on a gossip column and was exposed to royal backstories from a press perspective. A time in my 20s when I didn’t know where life may lead me, and I was curious for the future. Public figure loss can anchor us all back to younger years and what might have been. We can start to consider our own mortality and timelines. The loss is perhaps like a check position in chess. The King or self is under threat. The opposing Queen or the “might have been” is approaching any which way she can, stopping at each obstacle, reviewing with a hyper-vigilance to all perspectives, considering capture or moving on. Backwards, forwards, or zipping up the diagonal; what will be our next choice?

At each chequered moment, some sadness for the choice not made may be felt. Sadness is a good emotion. In sadness, we find empathy for the family members or the self experiencing the loss. Some public figures die peacefully and at good age, like the Queen at 96 years old. Others die traumatically and young like Elvis and Diana. We hear of their emotional struggles and can relate to their traumas bringing them closer to home.

Celebrity deaths can help us have greater empathy for mental health concerns and the trauma of others. So often, we may like to think money and fame are the antidote to suffering, but we see examples of how whatever we have, whatever we do, there’s not much difference between me and you. The human condition transcends materialism and ego-based definitions of status and success.

The collective experience of mourning gives us a sense of belonging to a community. Sharing in a fondness of another can connect us to our generation or those with similar values and likes. We often share comments like “they had a good innings” if older in death. Each time we say this we can also reflect on what this means. What is a good life? What imprint do we want to leave in the world? Do we fear our own death? We learn there is so much more than ourselves when a public figure dies.

One of my favourite songs by Lee Ann Womack, “I hope you dance,” sums this up in a single line:

“I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.”

We are small particles in a huge sea. Together we make waves; alone we drip and exist with less flow. We also learn there is inevitability in the tide going out and we are sure we leave the shore. We move from that position of check to checkmate, surrendering to all obstacles, jumping off-board and leaving the game.

That final move allowing our Queen Elizabeth the chance to be reunited with her King. Her loss gives us the opportunity to check out of any chequered journeys we may partake in, if only we take that moment of introspection that the space of her presence may bring for us all. And even for those not impacted, that in itself can feel a loss if all around you are. For these opportunities I thank the losses of life and the black and white or dark and light continuum this earth provides us. 


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