Death, grief and a pilgrimage

“We are all just passing through. Our purpose here is to learn, grow and love. And then we return home.” Queen Elizabeth II

I wonder what we are learning at the moment now that the Queen who said these words is no longer with us. What has her death taught us?

I hope it has taught us that it is ok to talk about death and to take time to  grieve, to express our sadness. When my mother died thirty years ago, very suddenly in her late fifties I know people avoided me, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t sure how long I was ‘allowed’ to be sad. So I didn’t show my sadness, my loss. I had started a new course, a Masters at university and told no one what had happened on that first day of term, when I couldn’t come in. I couldn’t deal with my upset being triggered by the sympathy of strangers. The effort of containing or swallowing grief was exhausting. I am still paying for that today.

If nothing else I think the past week has shown us how much we human beings need rituals, community and a sense of belonging to something bigger than our individual selves. This is particularly acute at a time of great loss or disaster but I think it is true always.

In past times that something bigger was always God and religion  provided the rituals through which life’s great events from birth to death were mediated. Some people’s reaction when receiving news of the Queen’s death has been to go to a church. Last week lots of churches put on impromptu services and many people who were not regular church goers went, to be among others and to hear comforting words and music.  But it is no longer part of the fabric of most lives, nor is church an automatic go-to in times of difficulty as it used to be.

However we, as humans, haven’t changed nor have our emotions, and we still need to do something to acknowledge and process our loss.

The recognition of that at times like this, whether conscious or unconscious moves us to act. The language used by those interviewed who have queued for hours to either catch a glimpse of her coffin as it went on its journey, or to walk past her at the lying-in-state at Westminster Palace, conveys the compulsion many of us feel when someone important has died or a tragedy has occurred. It jolts us out of our everyday. “I had to do something.” “I felt compelled to come, I don’t know why.”

People will be mourning the late Queen or mourning the loss of a loved one through the Queen’s death. We are drawn to do something to help alleviate our loss. We want to expunge the shock, make sense of the loss, go on a journey, and be in the company of other mourners, to have a shared experience particularly if it involves some hardship.  I haven’t yet heard anyone or any commentator used the language of religion or spirituality to describe their or others feelings and thoughts. But the queuing to see the late Queen’s coffin is a pilgrimage.

The Queen’s amazing life, duty and service was driven by her faith. The erosion of that faith of this country, the Christian faith, has left a chasm in the nation’s understanding of life and death. Some people have complained that ten days of mourning is too much yet when Queen Victoria died it was one year. We have lost many of the rituals around death. We don’t talk about it much. In fact we avoid it. We try to fend it off as long as possible as if to succumb to death is a failure. Our Queen almost seemed to defy it. We then try to discard grief quickly as if it was a nasty cold. Our fast paced lives do not have much time for prolonged sadness and contemplation – we must not stop.

Mourning rituals allow this space. They are put in place in so many religions so that we don’t have to think, we just know what we must do. For many, given the opportunity to do so, they went on a pilgrimage to see our late Queen’s lying-in-state. Perhaps we have learned that feeling off kilter, out of sorts and unsettled is all part of the human condition, of grief and that death is very much a part of life.  

For Christians, and the Queen, death is not the end. She has returned home.