Grief Proves to Be Itself the Medicine

Dealing with the Loss of Beloved Monarch Under the World’s Gaze Shows How Unity is Possible
Hundreds of thousands of floral tributes came flooding in, creating an astonishing floral array laid out across Green Park opposite The Queen’s London home. (Photo by Luisa Markides)

Death can elicit unusual responses. It can surprise us, transfix us, divide us, or unite us. The death of Queen Elizabeth II - a much-loved, much-admired, incredibly long-reigning monarch who served as sovereign of 32 states - certainly elicited a response, one felt at an individual, communal, national, and international level. In many ways, it was seismic. That four billion people are estimated to have watched her funeral this week - more than half the world’s entire population – shows how in both life and death, the woman once known as ‘Lilibet’ was huge.

Now that Elizabeth II has finally been laid to rest and the Royal Family has entered its period of mourning, there is time to take stock. Arguably, it behoves the viewing public a moment to reduce this world event down to its most basic, personal, ground level analysis: that this was ultimately a family having lost a beloved family member.

On the pillow, their grief will be just like anyone else’s, yet in the public eye, as they are so often, it is prostrate and highly visible, with the pomp and ceremony. Ogling all this has been thousands upon thousands of well-wishers, lining routes and pews, queuing overnight for days to pay their respects to a woman they likely never met.

Let’s rewind. It is just over two weeks ago that the sorrowful news was announced at around 18.30 GMT on 8 September 2022: The Queen, aged 96, had died.

At 06:02am on the day of her funeral the final members of the public pay their respects at the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's orb and sceptre, lying in state on the catafalque in Westminster Hall, at the Palace of Westminster, London. Picture date: Monday September 19, 2022. Yui Mok/Pool via REUTERS

Records flowed from her like smiles. She was the longest reigning monarch in almost 1,000 years of British history. Hers was the longest recorded reign of any female head of state anywhere, ever. It was the second longest reign of any sovereign ever, of either sex. Superlatives upon superlatives. And she was loved, too. Most publics tire of their leaders, yet her later-year approval ratings regularly hit 90 percent. She seemed everlasting and was incredibly popular for it.

As Head of the Commonwealth, The Queen was the head of far more states than just the United Kingdom, yet to those outside the UK she was often known as the ‘Queen of England’, making it interesting, ironic, and apt that she should die in Scotland, at Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, the private home of the British monarch ever since it was first bought for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852. She loved Scotland and Scotland (largely) loved her. It was a poorly guarded secret that this apolitical sovereign sincerely hoped that Alba remained in Albion.

The cause of her death is not known, nor does it matter. In the end and at the end she was able to close her eyes for eternity, in peace, and without suffering, something all of us would like to say of our loved ones. Death, as we know, is dealt with not by the dead but by the living, and upon hearing the news, many found comfort and solace in the idea that The Queen was now reunited with her husband Prince Philip, who died a year earlier and to whom she was married for 73 years.

It seems exaggerated to say that the past two weeks have changed UK history, but it is true, especially when you consider that The Queen was history. She embodied it, represented it, drew lessons from it, and cited it with quietly private effect. World leaders valued and hung off her every word, not just the 15 British prime ministers who served under her but visiting heads of state, too, including several American presidents. To them, The Queen’s “pearls” were of wisdom, not jewellery.

Following her death, national changes have been many and immediate. For one, the national anthem now calls for God to “save the King”, when for more than 70 years Brits have urged God to “save the Queen”. For many, the change will take time to get used to. Most Britons are under the age of 70, so by definition, most have known no other monarch. It has seemed, at times, that she would go on forever – immortal. Yet the rules apply to all: there is no holding on to life, no matter who you are.

Hundreds of thousands of floral tributes came flooding in, creating an astonishing floral array laid out across Green Park opposite The Queen’s London home. (Photo by Luisa Markides)

For reams of people from Britain and abroad, there was no holding on to their grief either. Thousands flocked to Buckingham Palace in the minutes and hours after news of The Queen’s death broke. Taxis formed an impromptu line of honour. Some came with camping gear and stayed overnight. Some stayed for ten days, through all weathers, until the funeral. It was less of a ‘response’ from the Great British public, more of an outpouring.

Hundreds of thousands of floral tributes came flooding in, creating an astonishing floral array laid out across Green Park opposite The Queen’s London home. This scene was repeated outside all her homes – not just at Balmoral, but at Sandringham in Norfolk, and of course at Windsor, where she was this week laid to rest. In the sea of cards and bouquets, several Paddington Bears and marmalade sandwiches were left in a nod to Her Majesty’s TV appearance alongside the fictional Peruvian character from children’s literature, aired for her Jubilee earlier this year.

Her family issued statements: from her son, King Charles III, and his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort; from her grandson, William, and his wife Kate, now the Prince and Princess of Wales; from her other grandson, Harry, and his wife Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; from her daughter, Anne, the Princess Royal; and from her sons, Edward, the Earl of Wessex, and Andrew, the Duke of York.

William’s comments seemed to strike a particular chord. He said The Queen “was by my side at my happiest moments and by my side during the saddest days of my life”. He added: “I knew this day would come, but it will be some time before the reality of life without Grannie will truly feel real.”

King Charles III and his family follow the gun carriage carrying his late mother the Queen Elizabeth II to her funeral at Westminster Abbey, Westminster. London, United Kingdom - 19/09/2022. Joshua Bratt/Pool via REUTERS

After all the individual statements, with Royals saying their things in their way, they all got in line and did things together as a family, first holding vigil in Westminster Hall as The Queen lay in-state, then marching together through London and later Windsor in memorable, choreographed, televised processions behind The Queen’s coffin on the day of her funeral.

Preceding all that, in the days following The Queen’s death, Charles’s new role saw him embark on a lightning tour of the UK. He had been in Scotland when The Queen died. From there he flew to London to hold his first audience with the British prime minister (Liz Truss, who was also new in the job). He then addressed the nation in his first speech as king, during which he referred to his mother’s “promise of lifelong service” made 70 years ago, of which he said: “I renew [this] to you all today.”

In the speech, he positioned himself as a king of all. “In the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths. The institutions of the state have changed in turn. Whatever may be your background or beliefs, I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect, and love.”

The next day, Saturday, he underwent the official proclamation process, involving the Accession Council, then on Monday he flew back to Edinburgh to meet Scottish politicians and receive a Motion of Condolence, as The Queen’s Coffin lay in St Giles’ Cathedral in the Scottish capital, for Scots to pay their respects.

On Tuesday, The Queen’s body made the long and final journey from Scotland to London via the Royal Air Force. Anne, the Princess Royal, accompanied her body through the rain, arriving at Buckingham Palace late in the evening. The Queen’s coffin was laid in the Palace’s Bow Room while the King and Queen Consort flew to North Ireland to view an exhibition about the late monarch and meet the province’s politicians, before heading back to their London home, Clarence House.

On Wednesday, The Queen left Buckingham Palace for the last time, her coffin travelling by gun carriage and in silence to Westminster Hall, where Elizabeth II then lay in-state for four days. The Coffin was followed on foot by Charles, Anne, Edward, Andrew, William, and Harry. William later said it “brought back memories” of him walking behind his mother’s coffin through London in 1997.

For four days, from the moment The Queen’s coffin was placed on a catafalque and made accessible to the public in London, an incredible 250,000 people queued for up to 26 hours to spend just a few seconds stood in front of the late monarch. Many felt they owed it to her. When, for several hours, officials tried to temporarily stop people from joining what affectionately became known as ‘The Queue’, all it did was create ‘a queue for The Queue’. Friendships were made as people stood in line overnight in cold autumnal temperatures. In some cases, love was even found.

 

Pictured in the Procession are members of the Royal Marine Band on the Mall, September 19, 2022. The UK Armed Forces have played a part in the procession for Her Majesty The Queen’s funeral and committal service today, in London and Windsor. REUTERS

On Thursday, the King continued his four-corners foray, visiting Wales to meet politicians, before flying back to London to stand in military uniform in front of his late mother’s coffin alongside his three siblings. On Friday, he received representatives of the 15 Commonwealth Realms, where he is now Head of State. On Saturday, he undertook political engagements, and on Sunday, he hosted a State Reception at Buckingham Palace for around 200 heads of state and royalty.

As a mark of respect for The Queen, these world leaders were banned from using helicopters or their own cars but were instead escorted to the Royal Reception by bus from a London hospital (President Biden was granted an exemption, arriving via ‘The Beast’ - an armoured vehicle used by all recent White House occupants). Charles, meanwhile, issued another statement. He and Camilla had been “moved beyond measure by everyone who took the trouble to come and pay their respect to the lifelong service of my dear mother,” he said.

Finally, the big day arrived, designated a national holiday in the UK. Around mid-morning, streets emptied, people heading home to watch events unfold on the TV. Among the first, The Queen’s coffin was brought out and laid on a 100-year-old gun carriage, to be pulled by-hand by around 140 serving members of Philip’s beloved Royal Navy, through the streets of central London, towards the venue for the State Funeral - nearby Westminster Abby. Elizabeth knew it well. It was where she was crowned, and where she and Philip had tied the knot.

 

The funeral was followed by a period of two minutes’ silence, in which the nation stood still, a gesture observed immaculately by millions. (Photo by Luisa Markides)

The funeral came to an end just before midday. This was followed by a period of two minutes’ silence, in which the nation stood still, a gesture observed immaculately by millions. The coffin was then drawn on the gun carriage in a walking procession from Westminster Abby to Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, with senior Royals walking behind, amidst a glittering array of military uniforms from the UK and abroad.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route, both for the procession and to see the hearse travel by car out of London towards Windsor. As it passed, crowds clapped and cheered, threw flowers, took photos, waved Union Jack flags. Some cried. All remembered a monarch they held in genuine affection.

 

Around 3pm, The Queen’s coffin arrived at Windsor, where the walking procession continued up Windsor Castle’s Long Walk, before entering St George’s Chapel for a further service in front of around 800 guests, an altogether less formal affair consisting mainly of friends and former staff. That evening, there was a private family service. Elizabeth II was laid to rest alongside Philip, her mother, her father (King George VI), and her sister Margaret. And that, after ten days and 70 years, was that.

The country woke up again on Tuesday morning and was told to get on with it. At the same time, the Royal Family disappeared from view for a week, in part to recover from what even ardent critics will admit was an exhausting schedule.

The Queen had died. The country – nay, the world – had come to a stop to doff its hat, bow its head, and remember a remarkable woman on whose 25-year-old head the Crown had been placed all those years ago, upon the sudden death of her father. The world, the UK, and the monarchy may all now be much changed from what they were in the year of Elizabeth’s coronation, but her dedication to duty and service throughout her seven-decade reign has remained resolutely unchanged.

Britain's King Charles follows the gun carriage carrying his late mother the Queen Elizabeth after her funeral at Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, United Kingdom September 19, 2022. Joshua Bratt/Pool via REUTERS

It is the living who must deal with death, and like any other family, the Royal Family – now led by King Charles - will now need to find a way to fill the void left by someone who was both so towering and so deeply loved.

Death can indeed elicit unusual responses. Elizabeth II’s death elicited a response of unity – not just from an often-fractious Royal Family, but from a kingdom and a Commonwealth not always known for being on the same page. Watching her funeral on Monday, it felt for once – if only for once - that the UK and the world had finally come together in peace, and with one aim: to bid farewell to an extraordinary Queen who was a role model for so many - and loved beyond boundaries.


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