During the Queen’s funeral, the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us that the royal family is a family like any other, plunged into mourning like we all are at various times. The difference, Justin Welby said, was that King and his relatives have had to grieve “in the brightest spotlight”.
Seeing King Charles III and his family involved in so much pageantry – filmed and beamed around the world for days – got me thinking about the very public ways that I’ve mourned a parent of my own for the past two months. I lost my dear dad in July. He was stolen by the universe too young, aged 63, after he grappled with pancreatic cancer: a cruel and indiscriminate disease.
I’ve not managed to organise processions through the centre of London for him, nor were we able to book a funeral at Westminster Abbey. But I’ve still found myself putting on little "performances" of a sort. Long speech at Dad’s funeral? Relished it. Writing newspaper obituaries? Sign me up. Two days ago, I helped to open a new art exhibition that we organised in his honour in Kent.
Grief is proving to be a learning process that’s full of surprises. (I should say it’s also an awful, gut-wrenching rollercoaster.) Something you get told very soon after a bereavement is that grief is very personal, and that everyone’s response to death is different. That it’s OK to cry loads or not at all; OK to surround yourself with friends or to curl up in a ball (I’ve done both). You’re basically urged to do whatever it takes to haul your body through the sorrow.
I know others who mourn in a much more private way. I expected to be the same. I always assumed I would retreat into a little cave of despair if a loved one died too young. Instead, I’ve ended up giving my grief a very public airing.
It seems to be important to me to not just reflect on my late father, but to shout about him. This must prove the old adage that it can be helpful to vent things. I recently discovered Griefcast: a podcast hosted by Cariad Lloyd in which comedians and other public figures open up about their experiences of death. Jimmy Carr and Alan Davies are among those who’ve spoken movingly.
It can be achingly difficult to discuss loss, let alone in front of a microphone – but I imagine those interviewees have found the process to be cathartic, too. As for me, others might cringe at all my hunger for attention. So, how to explain it? Well, being demonstrative can feel like an honourable thing to do. Some of those who queued for hours to see the Queen lying in state described their feelings of civic responsibility, quipping that this was their “line of duty”.
And sometimes it just seems proper to mourn a person according to the way they lived. My dad was an architect and artist, who was often "on show" thanks to his paintings, books and many prominent buildings. He has a very public legacy thanks to his work for universities and schools, hospitals, libraries, and even a visitor reception centre for the houses of parliament.
But I’ve also discovered a shadow side of me that selfishly just wants to shove my grief down the throats of others. If you’ve built your world around someone, it just feels offensive if people carry on as normal when that person is gone.
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“Stop all the clocks,” wrote WH Auden at the start of Funeral Blues, a poem I first encountered in a moving scene from one of Dad’s favourite films, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Its verses may resonate with anyone who’s lost someone and desperately wants to pause the spinning of the world afterwards. The mourner in the poem wants dogs to be prevented from barking and aeroplanes to write out the words “he is dead” in the sky.
Official plans for what would happen after the Queen died were leaked years before she passed away. I can remember the reaction to a 2017 Guardian report which suggested the country would effectively grind to a halt. After Dad died, I wanted my own personal Operation London Bridge.
Something that unites us all – whether we’re royalty or regular folk – is that we all need our emotions to be acknowledged. The nation (and much of the world) has recently come to understand that simple truth all over again. We can’t turn back clocks – but perhaps, for 10 days or just 10 minutes, we can reasonably demand that they be stopped.