I thought I had nothing to say about Queen Elizabeth’s death that would be relevant to spiritual care, but then social media got ahold of it and—like almost all controversial things—it became a rorschach for broader grievances.
1. It’s OK to feel relief when somebody dies.
When people with complicated histories die, there’s an inevitable wave of grief, grief-shaming, relief, and relief-shaming.
I used to be a big proponent of relief-shaming, scolding people for celebrating death in any context. I even called out my friends for being too glib about the execution of Osama bin Laden. The death of a person who has done wrong precludes the possibility of that person ever publicly repenting, of ever doing anything to make up for the harm they’ve caused. It feels like a collective failure when a person makes it to the end of their life without living up to that possibility.
John Donne’s poem “No Man is an Island” sums up my thinking on the matter:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
Over the past few years I’ve done less scolding and more listening, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that decent people—the only people I’m likely to reach with these kinds of ridiculous idealistic appeals—already don’t celebrate someone’s death unless they have an emotional reason to, and it does no harm for them 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’s wrong to scold those it harmed, or people who are feeling acute solidarity with those it harmed, for feeling relief in this situation, making light of it, or otherwise behaving in a way the mainstream press might not find appealing. By the same token…
2. It’s OK to grieve for anybody.
Grief is messy and complicated.
People routinely grieve their abusers, and this grief is not toxic or wrong; it’s not some kind of permission for the abuse, or a betrayal of others abused by the person being grieved. Grief is sacred and none of us arrive in it from a place of rational argument.
Over the course of your life you will grieve many people you don’t expect to grieve, or think you don’t have the right to grieve. That grief is still sacred. Honor it and give yourself space to process it.
3. It doesn’t generally make sense to judge somebody by how we think they’re reacting to someone’s death, period.
We’ve all seen by now, I’m sure, the British social media response to Meghan Markle’s alleged “smirk” (i.e., ordinary non-performative resting expression) at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
Putting aside for a moment the sad and obviously racist undertones in this whole business, grief is such a universally relatable emotion that we’re all going to be tempted in moments like this to police other people for signs of inauthentic grief—just so we’re not tempted to identify with what they’re going through.
We don’t like to believe we’re as much like our real or imagined enemies as we are because if their humanity ever completely sunk in, we wouldn’t be able to hate them anymore. Recognizing the existential vulnerability you share with your enemies will change your life. Let yourself do it.
4. Presence and attention are special gifts.
The main reason Queen Elizabeth is the subject of such a massive global outpouring of grief is very likely because she was simply present as queen for 70 years, and present as a symbol of the future in Britain during the existential threat that was World War II.
Chaplaincy is often called a ministry of presence. If you ever doubt the value of chaplaincy, if you ever think mere presence doesn’t affect people, the past week should resolve that question for you. Queen Elizabeth was visibly present and attentive for a long time, and she was especially visibly present and attentive during a grave long-term national crisis. There’s immense power, immense potential to do good, just in that.
5. Everything ends.
There are already thinkpieces on King Charles making the rounds.
However you feel about the death of Queen Elizabeth, her successors aren’t immortal either; however you feel about the history of what she 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 reflect on how we’re living, and the sorts of legacies we want to leave behind in our own little empires.