The sadness of royal deaths stirs nations to reflect on their place in history

Queen Elizabeth’s death is another reminder of how sorrowful this year has been

Members of the UK military take part during an early morning rehearsal for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London, ahead of her funeral. PA
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How will you remember 2022? There is still more than a quarter of the year to go and yet the course of these 12 months now appear to have been set. To borrow the title of author Ian Ridley’s moving 2020 book about grief and loss, the “breath of sadness” has descended on our times.

Much of the world’s gaze is sharply focused today on the mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II, the long-reigning UK monarch who died last week. The collective and near-global sense of loss is palpable. She proved to be a universal presence for so many people. Her absence is keenly felt.

Her death arrived at a time of great consequence and catastrophe in the world: floods and wildfires have accelerated urgent discussion of climate change this year, simmering conflicts and rising cost-of-living crises have dominated headlines and prompted concerns about where and when it will all end. The years-long pandemic, a fixture in our lives since the earliest days of the 2020s, finally looks to be moving towards its conclusion. As it does so, there is a profound awareness of the social, personal and economic consequences it has left behind. Sorrow, suffering and sadness are running themes of our times.

In this context, it is perhaps no surprise that Queen Elizabeth’s death has prompted such deep reflections and so many meaningful statements from all walks of life, whether that be the streets of suburbia or the corridors of power.

On Wednesday, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, praised the queen’s stoicism and steadfastness and lauded her ability to speak to “the heart of her nation and the soul of the whole world”. Writing in these pages this week, Mansoor Abulhoul, UAE ambassador to the UK, also noted that “for Emiratis she represented the very best of British identity and character”. The tributes from all over the world will keep flowing.

Her death arrived at a time of great consequence and catastrophe in the world

Every day we also learn more about the impact Queen Elizabeth had upon people. Watching mourners begin to file past the queen’s coffin on Wednesday, is akin to seeing a nation at an inflection point. As The National reported, “some people stopped and bowed, others blew kisses or sobbed” as they made their way through Westminster Hall. The queue of people in London wishing to pay their respects stretched for several kilometres by Thursday morning.

The nature of modern digital society also means the sense of loss and grief sustains itself, fed by rolling news coverage and round-the-clock images of stillness and sadness. It also serves to bind populations together across social and cultural divides.

Grief, even for those who we may have only known as a public figure, has a habit of creeping up on every one of us. While we may think we are prepared for loss, in the actual moment of realisation we find out that we may be completely unprepared. The Elizabethan era in the UK had a sense of permanence about it that was shattered last week. It is hard to prepare for that future when the present seems somehow immutable.

As the mourning period continues in the UK and the nation prepares for her funeral on Monday, another process has also been at play, the accession of King Charles III. There is a collective sense of looking back and stepping forward at the same time.

The UAE experienced a similar sequence of events earlier in the summer, following the death of Sheikh Khalifa in May and the election of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed as the nation’s third president. Those days in May were marked by the same formula of profound sadness and loss mixed with an acknowledgement of the sudden arrival of a new era.

This is the moment that the UK finds itself in now. That is also the strange thing about grief. The mix of emotions that it can visit upon any one of us can seem overwhelming. US President Joe Biden, who will travel to the UK for the funeral when up to a million people are expected to line London’s streets in sombre silence, added his tributes to the queen earlier this week, praising her enduring dignity and constancy.

Part of Mr Biden’s story is tinged with tragedy. At the start of the period when he served as a senator 50 years ago, his wife Neila and daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash. Speaking years later to broadcaster David Frost about the trauma of that event and how he had processed it, he said that “you never forget, but in time the memory brings a smile to your lips rather than a tear to your eye”.

That is the journey the UK has embarked upon. For now though, the breath of sadness has settled upon it and, more broadly, upon the year itself.

Published: September 16, 2022, 4:00 AM