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How can one death discombobulate us all?

18 Sep 2022 | Written by By Peter Slee

Photograph of many bouquets of flowers laid respectfully against the gates to Buckingham Palace

A close relative in his 70s told me he has been in tears while watching the television coverage of our transition from the reign of Queen Elizabeth II to that of King Charles III.

My children, more than 30 years younger than myself, have also spoken about their sense of loss – that things have changed.

How can the death of one 96 year old woman in Scotland have such a profound effect on so many of us?

Of course, the Queen was not just “any woman,” but was the person who, for the past 70 years, has been the Head of State of our nation and other countries across the world. Sir John Major speaks of her “great wealth of knowledge” and describes how “she was always interested in the impact of government policy on ordinary people in her nation.”

Some deaths do affect large numbers of people; those unexpected such as J. F. Kennedy or the Queen’s own daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, rocked us, certainly. Even those more expected deaths such as of Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela or – in my case – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, may have affected us more deeply than we could have expected. However, this particular death will have touched many of us in ways that, perhaps, we were not expecting.

So why should this be and how are we to deal with the sense of loss or grief that we are feeling?

It is important to recognise that other people’s deaths often do have an impact on us – and often our reactions may take us by surprise.

Many of you will be familiar with this verse, written some 400 years ago:

 

No man is an island entire of itself; 

[…]

any man’s death diminishes me, 

because I am involved in mankind. 

And therefore never send to know for whom 

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

(John Donne: MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

 

The sentiment expressed here is a bleak reminder of our own mortality – that we will, one day, each come to the end of our life on earth. 

I find that, as I grow older – nearing the end of my seventh decade – thoughts of death and dying come more readily to the fore. This is not to say that I spend my time in morbid contemplation of my end, but others’ deaths do cause me to pause and reflect.

Such contemplation, however, is probably not the main response from many of us in light of the Queen’s passing.

What we need to consider, whilst reflecting upon our own or others’ emotional response, is the fact that the Queen has been a constant presence in our lives. It is remarkable how much we rely on certain fixed points to provide us with stability and security.

The loss of our monarch is a major disruption to the status quo. While the new king may have gone to great lengths in his speeches to emphasise his respect for the queen’s approach and to talk about continuity, we are still discombobulated by her death.

So how should we respond to this? Is there anything we can do to offset our unsettled feelings?

Most importantly, as with any emotional distress, is the need to acknowledge its presence. How often do we say “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something not quite right”?

It may well be that you’ve been feeling a bit “out of sorts” following the announcement of Her Majesty’s death, but you may not understand why. Perhaps having lost such a stable presence in our lives has caused this.

Also, it may be helpful to reflect on your own memories that have been stirred by the event itself, as well as by the subsequent wall-to-wall retelling of Queen Elizabeth II’s life.

Her death may have reminded us of other deaths that were meaningful to us: my own father died on 9th September, some 16 years ago. Spending time recalling those people who meant so much to us can stir emotions, but are also vital as a way of recognising those important milestones in our lives.

You may also be calling to mind your own encounters with Her Majesty – I was about 10 years old when I stood on the pavement in my hometown, waving a small flag as she drove past on her way to open a new secondary school. My wife and daughter recall having tea and cake in her back garden, although not being privileged enough to actually meet the monarch at a Royal Garden Party.

One of the most helpful actions you can take  in this time of uncertainty may be to simply talk to others; to your family, your neighbours and friends, to anyone who will listen. Sharing memories is, I have found, a very powerful antidote to melancholia and distress; in the telling and the listening we so often find a strength and peace – as though by “putting it out there” we have released ourselves from the grip of sadness and despair.

 

If you would like to have a safe place in which to talk, consider joining me at our Guided Support Group on Wednesday 21st September at 11.00am.  


Peter Slee has recently retired from a senior position with a charitable care provider in a chaplaincy role. Peter has also held positions of responsibility as a Baptist minister, and a retail manager, in varied contexts. Retirement, which came sooner than expected, has given him the opportunity to develop his photographic and artistic inclinations (landscape photography, lino-printing and dabbling in acrylic painting). His 3 grandchildren also bring him great joy. 

Peter is one our pastoral specialists at The Joy Club, alongside Caroline Dobinson, who run our ‘Listening Ear’ support group sessions. You can find out more about these meetings here

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