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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

Grief is on the heir

My Why audio version of this blog available here.

I wrote a post last week that said there was 'grief on the air', and it struck me there are two spellings to that word and both are applicable this week. For there is grief floating on the air in the UK, but there is also grief on our heir to the throne.

We find ourselves in a time of national mourning in the UK, some like this idea, some are embracing it, some are against it and don’t see the point. The Government website has provided guidance for us on how to do this as a country. The definition it gives us is that:

National Mourning is a period of time for reflection in response to the demise of the Sovereign, or other member of the Royal Family or a very prominent person in national life. website

The guide covers a lot of areas including flags (there are set times when these are to be flown at half mast on churches, castles, royal residences and military establishments etc), events and sporting fixture changes, floral tributes and where to leave them at each of the Royal Residences up and down the UK, and where to find books of condolence.

The national mourning starts on the day our Queen died and continues until the end of the day of the State Funeral which will be held at 11am on Monday 19th September 2022. And this is likely to be an event unlike any we have seen before. Indeed most of the world's heads of state are due to be attending, leaving me wondering who's looking after the world?!

It’s probably no surprise that as the host of a podcast on grief and loss I’m fascinated, intrigued and embracing the idea of a time of mourning. It has nothing to do with being pro or anti the monarchy, it’s about it being a healthy thing to do for anyone following a death. A death which might be a person but could also be the loss of anything in our life that we loved and will miss. People might think it’s just a lot of fuss about one small woman, born into a privileged family that meant she’d become Queen, but her life wasn’t that straight forward. Her path was unlikely to lead to the throne until her uncle abdicated, leaving Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, to take it instead. This threw Elizabeth into direct succession. Then when her dad was 56 years old, he saw Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, off at the airport for their tour of Australia, via Kenya. Six days later he was found dead in his bed in Norfolk from a coronary thrombosis. His daughter immediately flew home, as Queen Elizabeth II At the age of only twenty-five years old, her father had reigned for less than 16 years. This all happened in 1952 and ever since she has been with us as Queen.

We see pictures all the time of Kings and Queens from this country. Portraits, paintings, sketches of Charles’, Henry’s, James’, William’s, George’s, Mary’s, Elizabeth’s and Anne and Victoria, all with increasing numbers after their names because no other names seem to be good enough for a bit of variety. Even though the one name that I love as a King from the year 827-839 seemingly wasn’t ever used again - bring back King Egbert, I say! So we are familiar with these faces to a degree, but it struck me this week, as I Googled (and thank you Google for your colourless logo this week, a nice touch) our Queen’s name, her face came up and I knew it. It felt different to all the other Kings and Queens. I’d seen it in person, twice. Hers was a face that appeared regularly on our TVs and in our papers, always there, always mentioned. On our coins, our stamps, our passports, in our documentation and vows and capital. To us, hers was Buckingham Palace and Windsor and Balmoral and when she lost her other half and Prince Philip died, we watched her mourn like us. Sat in black, alone because of Covid, in the church, she watched her husband leave without the send off she would have wanted to give him. Possibly the one time she could have publicly honoured him above all else, the man that was always faithfully in her shadow.

We are mourning a Queen that knows loss. Her sacrifice to live for the crown and the country instead of for herself is something people are honouring highly. This duty which would have stolen her dreams for marriage, motherhood, horse riding, fun, laughter, freedom, spare time, was upheld right up until 48 hours before she died when she was inviting our next Prime Minister to start a Government.

There is increasing speculation about how much of this she might have planned as she felt her health decline. Did she know that dying in Scotland would perhaps unite the UK again through her death? Did she know that her coffin being transported down the length of the country would allow people a send off in many places, not just through overnight queueing to see her in Westminster Hall? We will perhaps never know. But many suspect that the dignity, honour, selflessness and wisdom that she bestowed on her reign, was also carried through to her death.

And with her loss, we as a country, face loss, for with her death comes a lot of change, and as we know, all change is loss.

Some practical things include:

  • It is the end of the Elizabethan era, we move into a Carolean age now with King Charles (Carolean coming from the Latin name for Charles - Carolus)

  • Everyday objects that put her at the centre of our life will change - coins and notes, stamps, passports, uniforms carrying the military cypher, her initials on things like post boxes which had ERII on it will now change to CRIII

  • The National Anthem is now ‘God Save the King’ instead of ‘God Save the Queen’ although as a lot of people pointed out we need to acknowledge for a while that a new word will be largely used until we adjust which will be ‘God Save the Quing’.

  • The UK’s leading barristers who were previously known as Queen’s Counsel will now be King’s Counsel.

  • A familiar part of Christmas Day is the Queen’s Speech at 3pm, this will now be the King’s Speech

  • Should you meet the monarch you will say ‘Your Majesty’ on first meeting, as we did the Queen, but instead of ‘Ma’am’ (rhymes with ham) you will call the King ‘sir’ on second reference.

  • We lose stability. We don’t yet know how King Charles will want to reign, what his views are, if he’ll be liked by parliament and other governing bodies.

  • We have a monarch who is the oldest to take the throne, this means it can’t be any more than 30 years before we go through all this again.

And for those who watched this young girl thrown into the role of Queen, the person that was there to help the rebuilding after the war, to see people through the last 70 years which have involved change like no other generation will ever experience, this is a huge shift and loss. When Elizabeth became Queen there were hardly any people who could even imagine what computers would be capable of, let alone the internet and to move from that to where we are now is monumental. The generations of today can imagine what’s possible, we could imagine flying electric cars, robot house cleaners, doors that open just by recognising your face, we can see all that coming and we marvel at inventions, but back then it was impossible to even imagine, like the first time I put an iPad in front of my 90 year old Auntie. Elizabeth has navigated all that change and shown a country that it’s not to be feared, never was there a video or any vibes that inside Buckingham Palace she might be running around resisting technology, ordering war on other countries, panicking about what to do next, making decisions we knew were selfish or revengeful.

A great example of her tact in this area is a quote from Prime Minister James Callaghan (1976-1979) when he was interviewed by David Frost on the BBC:

I think the Queen understands the constitutional proprieties perfectly well and the relationship between her and all the Prime Ministers is the same, but you're asking me about the Queen's way in which she expressed herself. I once said to her about difficult problems I'd got, 'I don't really know how to handle this in the course conversation, I don't know what I should be doing, it's difficult to make up my mind, what do you think?' And the Queen looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, and said 'That's what you're paid for.' And I thought that was a perfect answer. James Callaghan

How many leaders do we know that at this point, wouldn’t have used the meeting to steer their own thoughts or agenda?

Even going through fifteen Prime Ministers, she faced loss and change at every turn. When Sir Winston Churchill retired in 1955, her first Prime Minister, she sent him a hand-written letter telling him how much she missed him and how no successor…

…will ever for me be able to hold the place of my first Prime Minister to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful. Queen Elizabeth II

Every Prime Minister has spoken so highly of their weekly time with the Queen, the one meeting that was never recorded and treated with the privacy it deserved, whether thirty minutes or two hours long.

So for generations that saw our Queen arrive as a young girl, watched her navigate years of change, loss and service, this is a huge loss to the country. Yes, one we knew was coming, but as I said in our chat about the ‘Loss of a Queen’ episode this week, the age of a person does not diminish the loss or grief. No amount of ‘they lived a good life’ has any bearing on the grief that is felt by those left behind.

It struck me, as I was watching a long silence in Westminster Hall, just after the Queen’s coffin arrived to lie in state, that in the busyness of our capital, at the very heart in fact, there was a reverence and a silence. And whatever you thought of our Queen, is there ever a reason why that’s a bad thing? For people to stop and reflect on what they’ve lost, whether the Queen or someone else they loved. It is always good to pause.

For many of us it may remind us of the loss of older people in our life - people are thinking about them or remembering them. We know this will be our loss one day or we remember the days when it was.

I have in my life a lady that’s been there since I was born, no it’s not my mother, this one is a little older than my mother, in fact she’s been alive since before my mother was born too. It’s an adopted Auntie that lived in the flat opposite my mum when she gave birth to me. Her name is Olwyn Hopkins, of Welsh descent, born in 1919 and in May this year she turned 103 years old. She’s a best friend, grandma and auntie all rolled into one. She lost her husband many years ago to cancer and never had her own children. Her husband worked for the Treasury and this connection got my ‘Auntie Olwyn’, as she’s known by all, an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party where she had tea with the Queen (and many other people). When my mum asked her about it recently, she needed a lot of prompts and the memories were just out of reach, they weren't as easy to extract from her as they used to be, and that was why unfortunately we couldn't use it for our tributes in Tuesday’s episode, but she did say this about the Queen, in her now broken sentences:

I remember her as a child during the war, she was in the land army and was always active. In fact she was on the television a lot and she was good too. On everything. I was fond of her. She was very good indeed. Always. We used to cheer in the streets. She worked hard, just being there. She was very popular. I met her at a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, she was just like you and I, walking around and talking to everyone and the waitresses. ,My husband, David, said to me ‘What if they choose us to chat to?’ I replied: ‘I can chat!’ But she didn’t, she had certain people to chat to, but not us. We were both tall so we stood back, but it was very nice because she just came down and she was smiling and waving, we could see her well, and we had a cup of tea - a tiny cup, so I said to someone; ‘I could do with two of these!’ I’ll miss her. My mother loved the Royal family and she was always watching them when they were on television. We didn’t go and see her because we lived in Portsmouth, but she was always popular. No matter what was going on, she was always there. A constant in my life, even through the war. She was good at talking to people in the street. Always. I liked her. She died so quickly, I didn’t expect her to go, although she did well, 96. She was very good. It’s a shame. Olwyn Hopkins, ‘Auntie Olwyn’

The Queen’s death reminds me of the loss of my lovely grandparents and how much Chris and I miss that generation in our life, but it also reminds me (as if I needed reminding) that Auntie Olwyn will also leave us soon. And there will be people in your life that you know you will likely outlive and they will leave a big hole when they go. A few years ago Chris & I recorded an interview with Auntie Olwyn about her life, as a gift for my mum for Christmas, and when that sad day arrives I fully intend to put her beautiful war stories together for an episode as my tribute to her.

So, the pause for reflection doesn’t need to be about those lost, it’s ok to take a moment and reflect and explore the feelings attached to those you will lose one day too. And if for no other reason, standing alongside others in silence that are grieving is one of the greatest gifts you can offer. And this week, whether the Royal family, friends, family members, colleagues or just our nation as a whole, others are grieving.

For some this loss might raise feelings of anger or resentment or confusion. Maybe you lost someone in your life that wasn’t acknowledged or grieved in the way you’d have liked, it may be hard to watch a whole country come together and grieve for someone they didn’t know when you feel your loved one deserved the same. It’s healthy to feel those feelings and work out why your response feels this way. If you have strong feelings about how others are grieving, that too is likely coming from some pain inside that you might need to acknowledge and deal with. However you’re feeling, take a moment to check in with it and ask yourself ‘why?’ You might just find you get more out of that moment than you expected, and find yourself joining with others that are taking time to grieve this week.

As for the Queen, at the heart of this country and its grief is a family. I for one am very grateful our country has a family at the core instead of one leader that stands alone, and I hadn’t fully realised that until this week. A family is more relatable, it’s more real. The dynamics are things we identify with; siblings at odds, grandchildren misbehaving, children forced into maturity and roles before their time, the mourning of a spouse left behind, the mourning of both parents having gone. So a large part of what we are respecting this week is their grief, their pain, their loss.

And right now this grief is heavily on the heir.

King Charles, heir to the throne, as he mourns the loss of his mother, the loss of a life he had known and made, the change in relationships with all around him, the way people address him, where he lives, who he speaks to, his day-to-day diary, as all this changes, he must find the time to grieve somehow in the chaos.

But I noticed he is sharing his loss, not just because he has to, as millions of others mourn his mother, but also because he’s choosing to. In his proclamation on Friday he said;

I know how deeply you, the entire nation – and I think I may say the whole world – sympathise with me in the irreparable loss we have all suffered. King Charles III

That use of the word ‘we’ was an acknowledgement that everyone feels the loss. It would have been easy to have made this loss his own, he’s entitled to, it’s his mother, but he shared it and I think that is a powerful acknowledgement of how grief and loss affect people all around us. For him to embrace that and bring us into his loss is very powerful.

So, this week I’m choosing to ignore the comments about the cost of the funeral, the past mistakes our human Queen made in her reign, the pro/anti monarchy arguments, the Royal family feuds, the views of outdated rituals. To focus on these is to miss something wonderful going on, to not put down these debates for 10 days is a disrespect to a great life, to skate past it all to move forwards is to be blinded to what is going on around you. I admire those stood in London right now in queues hours long just to walk past her coffin, I appreciate those deciding to pause life to engage with the mourning, I respect those who can see and understand the huge historic moment unfolding before us, I love those that are helping others around them in their grief whether they understand it or not, I am thankful to the 10,000 plus policemen and security people that are keeping us safe at such a vulnerable moment for our country, I treasure the memories of seeing people grieve publicly and letting down their guard to give others permission to do the same.

This weekend thousands of people are working hard to keep London safe as the news reports say they expect London to ‘be full’. The crowds arriving will out number the London Olympics, the police are asking people to be their eyes and ears, the security and terrorist threat has kicked off ‘the most complex security operation London has ever seen’, heads of state from across the world will all come to London for the funeral, the Met are borrowing police from as far away as Scotland and Northern Ireland, hundreds of millions are expected to watch on TV and as people queue 24 hours a day this week to pay their respects to Her Majesty as she lies in state they are preparing for a queue up to 10 miles long.

These are the actions of a nation that cannot be ignored, and the response to a human life in this country that cannot be equalled. And this week, I’ve found myself feeling something I don’t feel very often, especially as I found out about the wristband system and excellent queuing set up put in place to visit Westminster Hall - I found myself feeling proud to be British. Now, I’m not about to start putting up plates with the Queen’s face on it or anything, but it’s interesting how much you can learn, even about yourself, through the death in Scotland, of an elderly lady, that I didn’t know personally.

And speaking of being British, in June 2022, for the Queen’s Jubilee, as we settled down to watch the huge celebration in London on the TV, the nation was surprised and delighted to see a two minute video in the opening of the Queen having tea with Paddington Bear at Buckingham Palace. For those not familiar with Michael Bond’s character Paddington Bear, the book was originally published in 1958, early in Elizabeth’s reign and many of us grew up with him as a cherished part of our childhood. This rare clip of the Queen engaging in such a moment delighted the nation, as two beloved figures came together over a cup of tea. I’ll put a link in the blog on the website if you want to watch it. During their time the Queen revealed that she too kept a marmalade sandwich in her handbag for emergencies.

As I watched it again this week I was struck by how Paddington’s last words to her speak for all of now. As he politely removes his hat, he says:

And thank you, for everything. Paddington Bear

Oh and there has been one official request released this week through the media, which I believe our Queen would have taken great delight in. For those visiting London - please stop leaving marmalade sandwiches as tributes, they’re dangerous for wildlife.

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