Coping with grief in response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II

Following the sad news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, as a country we have entered a period of collective mourning. The formal protocols of public mourning are an outward expression of the inner grief and deep loss that is felt by many across the country. Emotional Wellbeing National Lead Gosia Bowling explains the stages and impact of grief, as well as how we can support ourselves and others during a bereavement.

For many of us Queen Elizabeth II has been a constant presence throughout our lives, across multiple generations. She has provided a sense of stability and continuity, which has spanned many events and enormous societal change during our shared history.

As Head of State she has represented our national identity, as well as providing a sense of unity and pride for our country. As well as being a public figure, more personally she has simply been a much-loved mother, grandmother and great grandmother, representing love, duty and devotion – not only to her family, but to our country.

In light of her death, as a society many of us are experiencing a ‘collective grief’, in which not only do we go through our own personal experience of loss, but we also feel in tune and connected to the experience of grief of those around us.

Coping with grief and loss

Coping with the loss of someone important to us can be one of life’s biggest challenges, and one that we will all face at some point. It often involves strong feelings of sadness or distress, especially in response to a significant loss.

Grief impacts everyone in different ways and gives rise to varied reactions and needs. Loss is as personal to each of us as our unique relationship with the person, and meaningful to us in different ways.

There are many myths surrounding grief and loss, as well as misunderstandings about the impact of bereavement. People often:

  • underestimate the impact and intensity of grief
  • don’t recognise how long it lasts
  • aren't aware of how unique it is for the individual
  • don’t understand the varied symptoms of grief.

Stages of grief

While grief can manifest in many different ways that are unique to each individual experience, there can be some patterns that are commonly shared:

In the beginning

At the start it's common to experience a period of shock or disbelief, with emotions that can be intense or numb.

Early stages

After a period, these initial feelings can change in intensity, and shock often gives way to other symptoms and emotions, which include:

  • extreme fatigue
  • indecisiveness
  • lack of motivation
  • anger
  • insecurity.

Later stages

Later in the process, people can experience depression, indifference and often a loss of identity, which in turn can cause further difficulties.

In the end

Finally, there is a stage of acceptance, where people begin to come to terms with what has happened.

Impact of grief

A wide and confusing range of emotions and physical symptoms may be experienced after a loss. Grief can impact body, mind and emotions in unexpected and overwhelming ways.

Not everyone experiences all of these changes and they can come together or at different times. People will often describe feeling intense waves of emotion, which can be highly debilitating.

Physical changes

These can include:

  • physical pain
  • respiratory issues
  • skin problems
  • irregular heartbeat
  • sleep disturbance.

Mood changes

These can include:

  • anxiety
  • irritability or anger
  • crying spells
  • low mood
  • feeling of guilt
  • flashbacks or nightmares.

Grief often results in people withdrawing from others or society at a time when they would most benefit from support, especially where the experience is prolonged and there is a perceived expectation that they should ‘be over it by now’.

While grief is a very natural and healthy reaction to loss, it can also lead to a downward spiral, impacting on our ability to function at home and work, as well as in our relationships. People can neglect themselves or use unhelpful coping strategies such as drinking or taking medications.

Supporting yourself

While it's impossible to experience the loss of a loved one without grief and pain, there are some things you can do that can help you come to terms with the transition, and eventually find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.

It can help to:

  • make sure you acknowledge your pain
  • understand that your grieving process will be unique to you
  • know that grief can trigger many different, unexpected and overwhelming emotions
  • reach out for support from people who care about you
  • take time for self-care to support yourself emotionally and physically
  • try to maintain your hobbies and interests – these can be comforting and provide stability
  • be prepared for ‘grief triggers’, and plan for dates such as anniversaries or birthdays so you have support around you at these times
  • reach out for professional support if you find your symptoms difficult to manage or are unable to cope.

Supporting others

It can be difficult to know what to say or do when trying to support someone going through a bereavement. Often because people aren't sure what to say, or are worried about upsetting someone or making things worse, they end up not saying anything at all. This can leave a person feeling further isolated.

If you want to support someone following a loss, here are some helpful things you can do:

1. Acknowledge the loss

It's really important that you acknowledge the loss and say something. If you aren't sure what to say, keep it simple.

Saying something like “I’m sorry to hear that you mother died. If it would help to talk about it I’m here.” Even a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is much better than not saying anything.

If it’s difficult to talk to the person face to face, an email or text is fine as it lets the person know you care.

2. Listen

Simply listening can be a really valuable way of offering support. You don't need to be an expert or have all the answers, but if someone approaches you or chooses to confide in you, be there for them.

Bereaved people can have a strong desire to talk about the person who has died, and it can be very comforting to do so. You don’t have to ‘fix’ anything.

Remember that when listening, crying is a normal and healthy reaction, so it's important to let this happen. Offering tissues is more helpful than trying to stop someone.

3. Offer practical help

If you want to be supportive offering practical help can make a huge difference. This goes further than saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do”.

Think of practical ways you might be able to help. This could include helping to cook a meal, looking after children, or even helping with funeral arrangements, depending on your relationship.

Remember that a bereaved person is often exhausted, and grateful for such help and support.

4. Be informed

It can help if you read more around the subject of grief and loss, and how it can impact people.

There are lots of books and online resources that can help you develop a more in-depth understanding of the issues.

Last updated Tuesday 13 September 2022

First published on Monday 12 September 2022