This is what the experts want you to know about collective grief

Photo credit: imamember - Getty Images
Photo credit: imamember - Getty Images

They were already there in their hundreds by the time the news was announced – the Union Jack lowering to half mast, causing an emotional rendition of God Save the Queen to begin. Within hours, the crowd had multiplied into the thousands as tearful mourners flocked to Buckingham Palace to collectively grieve the passing of the Queen.

Public displays of affection are supposedly an incredibly ‘un-British’ phenomenon, and yet here were people weeping outside the Palace for the loss of their monarch. This news shouldn’t have come as a surprise – the Queen had been absent from several events in recent months owing to ill health – and yet the overriding sentiment was one of shock.

Many of the mourners explained that they ‘simply couldn’t believe she was gone’. After all, only months earlier we had celebrated her Platinum Jubilee – 70 years on the throne. No wonder people had become accustomed to having her as a stable, consistent influence in their lives.

But her death marks a period of change for the nation, just one more destabilising factor in an already turbulent year filled with war, political upheaval, climate anxiety and economic crisis.

‘As a society, I think we’re feeling quite atomised,’ says Dr Denise Turner, Senior Lecturer in loss and change at the University of Chichester. ‘We’ve experienced an enormous quantity of losses in recent years and, unfortunately, for many people, the death of the Queen will create further feelings of destabilisation.’

Indeed, more than simply a moment in history, the death of the monarch could signal a significant shift in the national psyche – and its mental health. One study printed in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that the number of suicides in England and Wales increased 17.4% in the month following Princess Diana’s funeral, with women aged 25-44 years old disproportionately affected.

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And with viewing figures for the Queen’s funeral expected to eclipse that of Princess Diana’s, which was watched by 2.5 billion people worldwide, the impact of the monarch’s death on our mental wellbeing is anticipated to be significant. ­­

So, what do we actually know about collective grief, and what’s the best way to cope with it?

What is collective grief?

‘Collective grief is when we share a loss broadly and communally, rather than individually,’ says grief specialist and founder of, David Kessler. This shared grief can occur for a number of reasons, such as the loss of a public figure, the consequences of natural disasters or the aftermath of a terrorist attack. For example, in recent years, we’ve experienced collective grief here in the UK after tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing.

During the pandemic, many of us also felt a collective grief, not only for the loss of loved ones to Covid-19, but also for the loss of our freedom and life as we knew it. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II is set to evoke a similar duality of grief, mourning the passing of a well-loved monarch but also a recognisable figurehead who has been a constant in many of our lives.

Is it possible to mourn someone we’ve never met?

Absolutely, according to Kessler. ‘Grief is ultimately about connection, so it doesn’t have to be about in-person interaction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a celebrity, a member of the royal family, a politician – all you need to feel is a connection with that person.’

However, there’s also the possibility that the grief experienced for a public figure is symptomatic of an underlying change in identity for the person experiencing the loss, whether they met the deceased or not.

‘We chart our own lives through significant moments in history – we remember where we were when a heard that particular person died, for example,’ says Turner. And when we lose that anchoring figure in our own personal narrative? It can be emotionally destabilising, she adds.

Add into the equation that we’re also living through an already emotionally charged time, a mood resulting from the emotional aftermath of the pandemic, and the looming environmental, political and economic crises ahead. ‘One major issue we’re seeing at the moment is disenfranchised grief,’ says Dr Paquita de Zulueta, a therapist who specialises in trauma.

‘This is grief which comes from a loss that is not acknowledged or given public recognition. We have a lot of disenfranchised grief in this country following the pandemic, where people weren’t allowed to properly grieve the loss of a loved one because of Covid restrictions, which created an accumulation of pain and suffering.’

While for some this can result in resentment at the death of the monarch receiving the kind of memorial others were refused, the collective grief arising from a nation mourning together can also provide an outlet for unacknowledged grief, she says, along with a sense of unity in a shared bereavement which was previously missing from the pandemic experience of loss.

Why do we feel collective grief for the Queen?

A sentence you’re likely to hear a lot right now: ‘I didn’t expect to feel so upset.’ But there’s good reason why you might feel more affected by the news than you anticipated, whether you consider yourself a royalist or not.

For starters, the Queen’s presence has subconsciously been part of daily life for 70 years – every time we post a letter, she’s on the stamp. Every time we hand over cash, she on our money. We’d even see her beamed into our front rooms on Christmas Day when she delivered her speech.

‘Whatever people’s opinion of the monarchy, the Queen reigned for 70 years, so she’s been a really important symbolic figure in our lives,’ explains Turner. Consequently, her brand has permeated our lives and our rituals. ‘On some level, people feel like they have met her and shared something with her,’ she continues. The result? That feeling of connection which Kessler says is key to grief.

What’s more, seeing the death of a well-loved figure can be triggering. ‘Significant deaths bring back memories of other losses and bereavements, so quite often when people are mourning it can be triggering of residual emotions of grief,’ says Turner.

However, a bereavement can evoke anticipatory grief too, she adds, heightening our awareness of the possibility of losing loved ones in the not-so-distant future. ‘We start to think, if it can happen to the Queen, it can happen to anyone.’

How do we experience collective grief?

‘Grief is a universal response, meaning that all human beings are capable of feeling it,’ says neuropsychologist Dr Rachel Taylor. ‘It is the brain and the body’s automatic response to the shock of loss.’

And when we receive the news that a loved one has passed? ‘News of a death is the extreme version of loss, and this stimulates the central nervous system to activate the flight, fight and/or freeze response to manage the perceived threat,’ explains Taylor. ‘This response originates in the amygdala, the emotional processing centre of the brain.’

Grief also contributes to surges in the stress hormone cortisol which can hinder restful sleep, leading to chronic stress and an increased likelihood of illness, adds Taylor. ‘Emotions of grief can often feel overwhelming, as the regulation of emotions becomes increasingly harder with an excess of stress hormones in our bodies.’

However, all the experts WH spoke to were keen to point out that grief is a natural response to loss, so while it might feel painful, it isn’t something you necessarily need to medicalise. Instead, they say, the most important thing to do is give yourself time to heal.

How can we deal with these feelings of grief?

Find a way to mark your loss. ‘Grief is always unique to the person that’s bereaved and to their relationship with the person that’s died,’ says Turner. ‘So, finding a way to honour that connection is important.’ There are obviously no set rules on the best way to do this, however, laying flowers, attending a memorial, sharing stories and writing letters to lost loved ones are all ways in which you could articulate your grief.

Keep change minimal. ‘The brain does not like change,’ says Taylor, ‘so seek solace and comfort in areas of life that are predictable and certain. Observing nature’s seasons and cycles can be useful as a reminder that spring always follows winter, and life always follows death.’

Find your tribe, says Kessler. ‘Not everyone will understand and experience collective grief, and their comments can be invalidating, so seek out and speak to others who feel the same way as you do to get the support you need.’

Respect feelings of grief. Regardless of whether they are your own or someone else’s, understand that these emotions are valid. ‘Know these feelings are real and normal,’ says Kessler. ‘Give yourself permission to talk about them, it’s part of the natural grieving process.’

Ask for support if you’re struggling. Organisations such as CRUSE, Marie Curie and the The Good Grief Trust all have advice centres that can help provide support if you’re struggling with loss.

Finally, take comfort in knowing that these emotions come from a place of feeling. As the Queen famously said herself, “grief is the price we pay for love”. Collective grief, at least, allows us the experience of sharing our emotions with others who understand our pain.

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