The psychology of collective grief
Following the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II, many people will be grieving and feeling loss. Professor Nichola Rooney, who led the BPS’S bereavement work stream during the Covid19 pandemic, explores the concept of collective grief and national mourning.
16 September 2022
The images and footage of thousands of people lining the route of the Queen’s coffin and queuing to pay their respects have filled our TV screens and social media feeds since the death of Queen Elizabeth II. But what is the psychology behind some people coming together in collective grief, how can it help people and why do some people wish to pay their respects in a different way?
Grief is universal, it is a normal response to loss and something that all of us will experience during our lifetime. However, while there are some acknowledged similar experiences and reactions to loss, grief is unique to all of us. It is determined by our relationship with the deceased, the meaning of their loss and how it affects our life.
Those mourning the death of the Queen will all be experiencing grief differently depending on their relationship with her. Family and friends and those in close employment will obviously experience her loss on a more personal basis but for the general public, their sense of loss will be affected by whether they may have met or had any interactions with her, even their proximity to places such as Buckingham Palace, and their views on the monarchy and the potential loss of stability and leadership that she represented, especially during recent difficult times.
While many will mourn individually, what we are witnessing so clearly in the media is the expression of collective grief.
Collective grief is how we describe the reaction of a group of people (usually a nation, region or community) who experience the death of a significant figure from that nation/community or experience multiple deaths. For many people, the death of Queen Elizabeth II has been the first time grief had been so widely displayed and discussed at a national level, with the numerous events and rituals and constant media coverage.
Talking about dying is not something that we do very well in Western cultures, so this collective grief can often be difficult to deal with. It can feel overwhelming and it can also trigger feelings about our own losses and experiences of grief and exacerbate existing psychological distress.
For some people who lost loved ones during the pandemic, there may be some feelings of resentment that the death of the monarch has involved so many memorials and opportunities to express grief. During the pandemic these rituals were denied to the grieving and our unprocessed collective grief from the pandemic, has undoubtedly been touched. But for all of us, the death of Queen Elizabeth and the huge media coverage can trigger grief for loved ones who have died, no matter how long ago.
While this is a difficult time for many, there can actually be some benefits to seeing others mourn a loss in such an open way. It can give us permission to revisit our own experiences and to express our own grief again. We can find comfort through our connection to others with the same lived experience. For many in the country, who have only known life under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, there can be a feeling of connection as they are bonded by this common thread. Whether we are supporters of the monarchy or not, the Queen’s death links us together in a way that can bring comfort and a feeling of support.
So in conclusion, while grief can be expressed collectively, it is ultimately an intensely personal experience. For some, joining the crowds and the queues to show their respects will help them process their grief. Others will prefer to pay their respects and grieve alone or in other ways. As a compassionate society, we need to acknowledge and respect the differing experiences and expressions of grief as the country moves through its period of mourning.