When the Queen died, some were struck by feelings so strong they described it as like losing a family member. For many it was a chance to reflect on the losses in their own lives. The public mass mourning has reminded all of us of the disruptive and disorientating influence of grief.
Research shows that grief is a unique kind of loss that leaves a void in our lives. In many cases, it can also trigger new beginnings, including a different, yet enduring relationship with the person we lost. In many ways, we are never the same after being touched by grief.
A recent study we conducted, based on 80 in-depth interviews, revealed that losing someone with whom we have been deeply intertwined equates to losing a part of ourselves and forces a change of identity.
We also explored the power of grief in another interview-based study. The results showed grief can upend our lives no matter our age. It doesn’t get easier to lose people as we near the end of life and still prompts the kinds of existential crises that make people question their sense of meaning and purpose.
Philosopher Thomas Attig argues that grief can be so powerful we have to “relearn the world”. The impact of grief challenges the meaning of our lives and our sense of who we are.
The right words
People often reach for metaphors to explain their experience of grief. They say things such as “Grief is like being extremely homesick, knowing your home no longer exists,” or “Grief is a fog that hides the world and makes every sound seem distant.”
These analogies point to an experience that disconnects people from and shatters the world as they once knew it. Research has outlined the importance of listening out for these emblems when supporting a bereaved person and reworking them in constructive ways.
Not long ago, we both lost loved ones. Chao lost his grandmother in summer, Sam lost his father in spring. He also faced the end of a long-term relationship in the summer, which can also be described as a grief experience as outlined by psychologist, Ginette Paris, in her work on heartbreak, mourning, and loss).
Through his grandmother, Chao lost a safe haven, where he always felt loved, supported, and understood.
As Sam waded through his grief, a friend asked him if he knew how a caterpillar transitions into a butterfly. Once cocooned, she told him, it digests itself, breaking down into a sort of soup. Within the “soup”, specialised cells called imaginal discs survive, and find their way to the right places, eventually forming wings and other core structures. Out of the soup, the butterfly emerges.
“Right now, you are the soup,” Sam’s friend told him. According to Ginette Paris, grief similarly breaks us down and forces us to take an “evolutionary leap”.
Death is not the end of our relationship with the person we lost, and is often the beginning of our grief, but how long does grief last? The answer varies considerably from person to person. The fact that psychological researchers use terms like “complicated grief”, is evidence enough that for some people, acute grief gains a foothold and can be chronically debilitating over long periods of time.
A connected issue is the “continuing bonds” that we establish with our late loved ones and embed into our everyday lives. For example, for Chao, the frequent reminders of cherished moments with his grandmother – through family chats, while watching TV, or when spotting an older person on the street – highlight that we do not leave our long-standing relationships with loved ones behind.
In some circumstances, we may create spaces where they remain part of our lives. When Sam’s father died, he felt compelled to name a star after him, so that he might symbolically always be “up there in the night sky.” Studies show the relationship between continuing bonds and grief is complex.
Because it pushes us to adapt and change. As captured in C.S. Lewis’s writing about his daily struggles after losing his wife, grief also has a transformational dimension. Our future selves are inspired and propelled by our loss and grief.
In her book “The Cue for Passion”, Professor Gail Holst-Warhaft paints a dynamic picture of the grieving process in different groups of bereaved people. These include mothers of “disappeared” children in Argentine civil unrests, American families of victims of the Vietnam War, and gay people who lost their partner to AIDS.
Palpable in these experiences is not only the adoption of traditional rituals to process sorrow but also the transformation of grief into political reform.
The Queen’s death has given us a unique opportunity to reflect on grief. For some, the pain of losing a loved one may remain vivid or acute for longer periods of time. For others, the feeling of being connected to a loved one may be so interwoven into their everyday lives that they grieve at the same time they engage with and even sense their loved one by their side.
Despite how differently we mourn and how uniquely grief can affect us all, at the heart of our grief is a desire to love, to remember, and ultimately, as author Nora McInerny said in her Ted Talk, to “move forward with it”.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.