I thought I had nothing to say about Queen Elizabeth’s death that would be relevant to spiritual care, but then social media took hold of this and – like almost all controversial things – it became a rorschach for larger grievances.
1. It’s normal to be relieved when someone dies.
When people with complicated stories die, there is an inevitable wave of grief, shameful grief, relief and shameful relief.
I used to be a big believer in relief shaming, chastising people for celebrating death in any setting. I even called my friends for being too casual about the execution of Osama bin Laden. The death of a person who has done wrong precludes the possibility for that person to publicly repent, to do anything to repair the harm they have caused. It feels like collective failure when a person comes to the end of their life without living up to that possibility.
Poem by John Donne “No man is an island” summarizes my thoughts on the subject:
The death of every man diminishes me,
because I am involved in humanity.
Over the past few years, I’ve done less scolding and more listening, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that honest people – the only people I’m likely to reach with those kind of ridiculous idealistic calls – already don’t. celebrate someone’s death unless they have an emotion raison to, and it does them no harm to let those emotions out of their system and a lot of harm for them to feel like they have to bottle them up.
Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-serving head of the British Empire, one of the most abusive institutions in human history. It is wrong to berate those she has hurt, or people who feel acute solidarity with those she has hurt, to feel relief in this situation, to take it lightly, or to otherwise behave in a way that the mainstream press might not find it appealing. At the same time…
2. It’s OK to cry for anyone.
Grieving is messy and complicated.
People regularly mourn their abusers, and that grief isn’t toxic or bad; it is not some kind of license for the abuse, or a betrayal of others abused by the bereaved. Grief is sacred and none of us get there from a place of rational argument.
In your lifetime, you will mourn many people that you don’t expect to mourn or that you think you have no right to mourn. This grief is still sacred. Honor it and give yourself space to process it.
3. It usually doesn’t make sense to judge someone on how we think they react to someone’s death, period.
We’ve all seen by now, I’m sure, the UK social media response to Meghan Markle’s alleged “smile” (i.e. an ordinary non-performative resting expression) at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
Putting aside for a moment the sad and blatantly racist undertones of this whole affair, grief is such a universally relatable emotion that we are all going to be tempted at times like this to watch others for signs of inauthentic grief – just so that we’ concerning not tempted to identify with what they are experiencing.
We don’t like to think we look as much like our real or imagined enemies as we do, because if their humanity went all the way down, we couldn’t hate them anymore. Recognizing the existential vulnerability you share with your enemies will change your life. Let yourself go.
4. Presence and attention are special gifts.
The main reason why Queen Elizabeth is the subject of such a global outpouring of grief is most likely because she was simply present as queen for 70 yearsand present as a symbol of the future in Britain during the existential threat that was the Second World War.
Chaplaincy is often called a ministry of presence. If you ever doubt the value of chaplaincy, if you ever think that mere presence doesn’t affect people, last week should solve that question for you. Queen Elizabeth has been visibly present and attentive for a long time, and she has been particularly visibly present and attentive during a serious and long-lasting national crisis. There is immense power, immense potential to do good, right in there.
5. Everything ends.
There are already thoughts on King Charles doing the rounds.
Whatever your opinion of Queen Elizabeth’s death, her successors aren’t immortal either. whatever your opinion of the history of what it represented, it faces an uncertain future.
Queen Elizabeth’s long reign may have given some of us a false sense of permanence. We should take this opportunity to think about how we live and what kinds of legacies we want to leave in our own little empires.