Voices: I have surprised myself by how upset I am over the Queen. Anyone else?

·5-min read

For quite a long time I was dreading the death of the Queen. This was for two reasons – neither especially honourable.

First, as a journalist, there was the inevitable amount of work it would entail. Writing about royalty is a harder gig than most in the trade because Buckingham Palace says so little and you don’t know what bits that seep out of the family and the staff you can believe: witness the way that Nicholas Witchell and Huw Edwards spent about five hours talking about a six-word statement from the palace about the Queen being “under medical supervision” and “comfortable”. You end up discussing why you don’t know what’s going on.

Witness, too, the sheer volume of “content”. An awful lot of the features and commentary that are out there now – and very fine, insightful and inspiring it is – obviously had to be planned and pre-written, and indeed periodically revised as the Queen carried on. Obituaries written in 1980 or 2000 weren’t much use. But there are also pieces that have to be written “in the moment”, under pressure.

Second, I wasn’t sure I could take the national outpouring of grief, which I fully expected to exceed the scale of the collective mourning after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This may yet happen, though there seems a more sedate air about things this time round. People, I assumed, would go mad.

What I wasn’t expecting is how upset I’d get. Tears! I kept telling myself that this was ridiculous, that it was completely bonkers. I beat myself up. In my internal dialogue, I reminded myself in brutal terms that I’d never met the Queen, that the nearest I’d ever come to her was being about a hundred yards away at a crowded Buckingham Palace garden party, and that all I’d seen was the top of a primrose-yellow hat (which is why she wore those bright colours, I believe). That was it.

I reiterated that she’d had an excellent innings, a life lived to the full, and we all have to go some time. She was a nice old lady – a typical countrywoman, by all accounts – but (I self-emphasised) Her Majesty had very little in common with most of us. For some folk, she was a symbol of privilege and a feudal hangover. Stop it, Sean, I said. Pull yourself together.

None of it worked, and I’m still a bit triggered – much more so than when Diana went, which was clearly not expected, and she was about my age. The Queen, though? I now see why there is some comfort in this national, common shared experience of mourning. It’s not rational, but I suppose it doesn’t have to be. The Queen was fond of saying that “grief is the price we pay for love” – but if you don’t know someone, how can that be?

There’s an interesting Twitter thread and TikTok video by Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, a grief expert, that explains how something like this can prove triggering. It could press a personal grief “button” when you least expect it. Her idea is that personal grief is a rubber ball bouncing around in a box: the box is your life and at the top of the box is a red button. When your bereavement is fresh, the ball is very big and so hits the button all the time, triggering pain. Over time, the ball gets smaller and hits the button less often – but when it does, the pain is just as intense. This makes sense.

She tweeted: “Starting to see tweets from people who are finding themselves surprised at their own emotional response to the news today. You may be one of them. Please don’t panic – we’ll be seeing more and more of this in coming days and weeks, and it’s to be expected.”

Indeed it is. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ve stopped telling myself off because I can see that it’s just a way of coping with the renewed pain of the loss of someone close (actually close). Some will be triggered, others not.

To my mind, you need a kind of tolerance about grief, and that also works the other way – there’s no need to criticise or get upset about people who don’t much care about the Queen’s passing.

I’d even say the same about those who “celebrate” it, on political grounds, because they feel a shared hurt from British imperialism and all the cruelty it carried with it. For them, a trigger was pulled as well when the news came through. I think they’re misguided, but that’s their right.

So, if you do look on at the crowds leaving flowers for someone they didn’t know, or wailing, or praying to a god they might not believe in because of the death of a stranger, leave them to it. I don’t feel the urge to do that, personally, but if it helps you deal with news of the Queen’s passing, then it’s fine. Each to their own.