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What Our Complex Responses to Queen Elizabeth II’s Death Say About Mental Health

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

This article also discusses the effects of colonialism and racial trauma.

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest reigning monarch, has passed away at Balmoral Castle, her summer residence in Scotland. She was 96.

As a British citizen residing in Northern Ireland, I feel obliged to comment on what is undoubtedly history in the making. The queen served for 70 years, making her monarchy somewhat of a cultural constant. People have grown old knowing only of Queen Elizabeth II, so to say this is a monumental change for British society and Britons further afield is an understatement.

In the hours following her death, I began to notice certain trends in responses that ultimately speak to our mental health on both societal and individual levels. Make no mistake: whatever your experience and perspective on the monarchy, these are all valid. We all view the world through the lens of our individual experiences, including when a figure as divisive as the queen passes away.

So, here’s how you, or someone you know, may have responded to news of the monarch’s death.

1. Collective Fear of Change After Queen Elizabeth II’s Death

We continue to live through a turbulent period of history. We’re riding out the collective grief of the COVID-19 pandemic that claimed the lives of 6.51 million people worldwide. Climate change is escalating, and just this year, Russia invaded Ukraine, displacing 7.1 million people. So, when something (or someone), that has been viewed as a constant, changes amid so much recent change, we’re bound to react.

I’ve spoken with a few friends who feel uneasy at Elizabeth’s death, telling me how she has “always been there” and how strange it feels that she’s gone. No matter how you feel about the queen’s death, I’m certain many can relate to this visceral response. She’s been there, the head of state for the Commonwealth, for 70 years — longer than most people’s lifetimes thus far. Amid widespread change, we often look for something that has always been there — a continuum or touchstone that makes us feel safe and grounded. For some, that “something” is now gone.

2. Genuine Grief After Queen Elizabeth II’s Death

We’re no strangers to feeling genuine grief at the death of a person we didn’t know personally. I grieved Robin Williams. I grieved Chester Bennington. It’s natural, I believe, to grieve somebody you love and admire even when they weren’t a physical presence in your life.

Meanwhile, such a public death can make one examine one’s mortality. I’ve spoken with some people who are feeling the queen’s death so deeply as it’s reminiscent of their loved ones’ passing. This, too, is natural. We are empathic creatures, after all, hardwired to understand the emotions of others as keenly as we do our own. Seeing society grieve has a profound effect on us.

3. The Complex Responses From BIPOC Communities After Queen Elizabeth II’s Death

The history of the British monarchy and the Commonwealth is one of invasion, subjugation, and colonialism. As a white writer, it isn’t my place to speak about this. However, it’s important to note that our cultural biases obscure the valid viewpoints of those whose countries and cultures were affected by colonialism at the hands of the British Empire, and an apology was never made to those people whose ancestors were affected.

However, this opinion piece in the New York Times is more than worth the read. We will also come back to this in my final point, below.

4. Feeling Apathy or Disgust at the Public Response to the Queen’s Death and Her Controversies

This may be a tough pill for some Royalists to swallow, but Queen Elizabeth II was not without her scandals and controversies which must be considered. Recently, for instance, Queen Elizabeth II reportedly paid £2 million ($2.7 million) to help Prince Andrew’s settlement in the civil sexual assault case with Virginia Giuffre, a case that was connected to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. He continues to receive taxpayer-funded security despite being stripped of his royal duties. I have spoken with survivors who feel betrayed by the queen’s financial support for a man who refused to stand trial in a sexual assault case against him.

The scandals continue. Despite an estimated net worth of $600 million, Queen Elizabeth II reportedly asked for a poverty grant meant for schools and hospitals to heat her palaces. Amid austerity-ravaged Britain, she said in a speech that Britain should “live within its means.” Under her watch, Buckingham Palace banned ethnic minorities from office roles. She used the controversial “Queen’s consent” parliamentary mechanism to press legislators to amend laws to benefit her, such as hiding her private wealth. She used the same mechanism to secretly lobby Scottish ministers to allow her and her estate to escape Green energy laws that would require her to dramatically cut carbon emissions and reduce fuel poverty.

And, perhaps most shockingly, Buckingham Palace barred police from searching the queen’s estates for looted artifacts. The “Queen’s consent” mechanism was reportedly used to alter the 2017 Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Act which was created to preserve important cultural heritage in war zones, but which also made the buying and selling of artifacts a criminal offense punishable by up to seven years in prison. In turn, this would give police the ability to search premises suspected of being used to store these artifacts. However, a draft of the bill was carefully phrased to read: “Separately, we wish to ensure that the powers of part 4 of the bill are not exercisable in relation to Her Majesty’s private estates.” The royal family has a history of acquiring looted artifacts, including the British Crown Jewels with its 11 emeralds, 17 sapphires, 269 pearls, and 2,868 diamonds.

So, when considering the public response to Queen Elizabeth II’s death, we must also consider the history of the British Empire, how colonialism continues to affect people around the globe, and how many would call for the abolition of the monarchy entirely. We cannot separate colonialism from the racial trauma that continues for so many people, such as American Indian and Indigenous peoples, and the links between colonialism and slavery.

Queen Elizabeth II’s death is a monumental moment in history, but we mustn’t overlook the multitude of ways it can affect people’s mental health. From uncertainty and grief to anger at colonialism and privilege, we must weigh it together and meet each other in the middle as human beings capable of respectful discourse. So long as harm is intended for none, all opinions are valid.

Photo via Foreign Office/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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