Over the past five years the UK has experienced a number of existential shocks; Brexit, Covid-19, Ukrainian War, Cost of Living Crisis and now the sad death of our Queen Elizabeth II. Each event has followed closely on and each event has the impact of raising the issues of meaning, purpose and even survival. It is significant psychologically they follow so closely, and this is an epoch-making period of history and like all epoch-making times before, the humans living through it are tasked with making sense and meaning from it all. But before we can do that as humans, we have to count the emotional cost and allow space to feel, to heal.
Psychotherapist Noel McDermott comments: “During the pandemic we lost a huge number of people, our old, infirm vulnerable and not so vulnerable, in a very short space of time. Who will forget Sir Captain Tom? His spirit lifted us all as he walked around his garden to raise millions for our beloved NHS. Who will forget our other war veteran, Elizabeth II, bestowing a knighthood on him? But we lost so many people in such a short space of time that as a nation we have not had time to grieve and for many people the grieving processes were shockingly interrupted as they were not able to attend public mourning events such as funerals due to Covid restrictions in force. These public grieving processes allow the individual to begin to mourn their loss.”
Anthropologically mourning rituals such as burial and marking grave sites are recognised as the beginnings of human culture proper and have been recorded from Neanderthal times. Mourning rituals allow the individual to begin their grieving process and we are a nation that has had little opportunity to come to terms with our losses. As we came out of the pandemic, Russia invaded Ukraine and created the Cost-of-Living Crisis sending us into survival mode, rather than allowing us a period of time to come to make some sense of what and who we have lost.
Secondary Loss Explained
When anyone loses a person close to them and we talk to the person who experiences the loss, we empathise and if we have experienced loss that empathy is informed by our own experience. We will revisit our own losses and experiences of grieving, whether they were good or bad. In the case of Elizabeth II’s passing many are experiencing natural reawakening of previous experiences of grief and mourning and many are caught up in what is called ‘secondary loss or symbolic losses’. So, we may not experience the primary loss of a mother or grandmother as the royal family are, but we may and indeed are experiencing these other senses of loss especially the symbolic losses. Primary, secondary, and symbolic are not a hierarchy, but a way of understanding how complex the experience of loss is when it involves a person with the status and presence of the Queen, though these processes exist for all experiences of loss potentially.
Primary, secondary, and symbolic losses
Primary loss is typically referred to as a major loss and then we have the secondary and symbolic loses that occur as a result of the primary loss. So, the primary loss, for example, maybe a loss due to death so maybe the death of a spouse. A secondary loss for that person who is experiencing the loss of their spouse could be a loss of income, so, maybe that person was the primary breadwinner, and they are no longer there to work. They have also not only lost their spouse, but they have lost their financial income as well.
Symbolic losses are things more like a loss of identity. Someone who identifies as a spouse or as a husband, and then the wife dies, and then there is some question about “What is my role?” or “How do I identify?”. Also, things like the loss of a sense of future. So, maybe this spouse or a couple intended to live together, retire together, travel together, and now that is no longer a possibility, that would be what we would consider a symbolic loss. With Elizabeth II’s death for the majority of people the loss experienced is primarily on this symbolic level; the last head of state that serviced in WWII, the passing of a powerful woman, one of the last of her generation, a steadfast presence over the last 7 decades that could act as an anchor in the turbulent seas travel on and this list will grow as the humans who experience these losses begin to tell this story to each other.
The Grieving Process
Feeling the loss of symbolism and meaning at this time is s sign of your healthy psychological functioning and is an opportunity psychologically to process the losses we have been through as a nation and as individuals. That we allow ourselves to grieve by attaching to public mourning events, is the most natural and human psychological process of them all and is fundamental to human experience. It is not important if you grieve for Elizabeth II as a person, as a symbol, or you grieve for your gran who you lost during Covid. It is important that you grieve as blocking that natural process will leave you distressed long term.
These resonances from our personal losses resurfacing and producing empathy, the series of existential crises we have faced, the unprocessed grief many have from the pandemic, the impact of secondary and symbolic loss from the death of Elizabeth II may go some way to explaining why we as a nation are experiencing her loss so keenly and also may go some way to explaining why the world mourns with us too. She was not just a grandmother to the nation, but to the world in many ways and the world is looking in now and will see in the public mourning rituals of the state funeral, permission to touch upon personal grief. This indeed may be Elizabeth II’s final gift to us: permission to grieve and for sure we need to after the last 5 years.
It doesn’t matter what it is an individual is grieving, the loss of their own gran, their partner, for a child, the loss of their favourite pet etc, but public mourning has since the beginning of true human society been the vehicle that allows this process to happen. The UK’s state funeral to our iconic Queen is a gift to the world that sorely needs to let go of many losses and so do we as a nation.
Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique, mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual – www.noelcdermott.net.