What will we learn from the period of mourning for the Queen

In the strange, wild days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when heaps of flowers rotted in their plastic outside town halls across the country and the Daily Mail vowed never again to print a paparazzi photo, Gallup conducted a poll to ask Britons to quantify just how upset they were. Half of all respondents – and almost three in five women – said they were just as sad as if a personal friend had died.

Some effects were more disturbing. Suicide rates in England and Wales – particularly among young women – were found to be 17% higher in the first month after her funeral; in the first week, rates of self-harm rose by 44%. One study three weeks after Diana died identified symptoms of post-traumatic stress in 28% of respondents. Some were unmoved, or dismissed the reaction as mawkish collective madness, but for a great many, this sadness was real.

How will we look back on this period of mourning for Elizabeth II? Among the crowds gathered in London and Edinburgh this week were a team of researchers from the University of St Andrews, investigating the supposedly unified nation, grieving as one.

Diana’s violent death was very different to the quiet slipping away of a carefully attended to 96-year-old. But the meaning and effects of this curious week of vast crowds, black posters on ship windows and a queue with its own YouTube channel and social media accounts are equally complex, and may also be surprising.

A woman cries next to flowers and messages for Queen Elizabeth II at the Green Park memorial, near Buckingham Palace, in London.
A woman cries next to flowers and messages for Queen Elizabeth II at the Green Park memorial, near Buckingham Palace, in London. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

“[One of the questions] that we want to get at is: why do people go along to these things?” says Stephen Reicher, a professor at the university’s school of psychology and neuroscience. “Everyone is saying all these people are there to show their respect for the Queen, etc. But people are there for multiple reasons.”

Some are undoubtedly feeling real grief, perhaps mindful also of lost loved ones of their own. Not for nothing is the queue currently snaking along the South Bank being marshalled not only by security and first aid teams but chaplains and staff from the Samaritans.

“Some of the people who are looking very tearful are grieving for the loss of the Queen, but they may also be finding that they’ve got feelings emerging for something they don’t even fully understand, which might relate to a loss that occurred some years ago,” says Marc Hekster, a consultant clinical psychologist specialising in trauma and grief.

“This is an opportunity for people to experience loss together. Hence what these people are saying as they are standing in the queue – they have brought their tents, their umbrellas and their lunch, and they’re standing there comforting each other. It’s the comfort of knowing that you’re not alone.”

Anti-monarchy protesters outside the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday
Anti-monarchy protesters outside the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday. Photograph: Joao Daniel Pereira/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Live News.

There is also shock, even at the passing of a 96-year-old, notes Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce, a senior lecturer at the University of York and the founder of a research project into cultural responses to death. “The Queen has been a consistent and central cultural, social and political figure for 70 years. Although we knew she would ultimately die, her demise has come as a shock. We have reached an expected ending but very rapidly.

“The Queen was over the last year becoming very frail, but she worked right up to the day before her death. That is not something many people do.”

Some feel they ought to be there, or don’t want to miss an important national moment in history. Some are simply curious. An extraordinary 5 million people logged on to the website FlightRadar24 to follow the path of the RAF jet bringing the Queen’s coffin from Edinburgh to London. Did they do so because they were overwhelmed by grief and couldn’t miss a minute? Or because something big was happening, and here was something to watch?

Meanwhile, unknown numbers have been watching the elaborate rituals from afar with detachment, alienation or anger as the excess and inequality of the monarchy is thrown into fresh relief. Even if they agree with those arguing that this is not the week to voice those concerns – and there are plenty who do not – it is important not to overlook those voices, argues Reicher.

By stressing only that the nation is “united in respect for the Queen and in respect for monarchy”, he says, “you begin to construct this hegemonic notion of community in which everybody is doing this, which means that if you don’t do it, you’re outside the community. And indeed, you’re even worse, you’re inhuman, because you’re not showing grief for the death of another person.

“You get an elision between being in the crowd, being united in respect for the Queen, to not being able to say any ill not only of the Queen but the monarchy and British society in general. So it’s a very powerful way of asserting not only a sense of national identity, but a particular meaning to national identity.”

Reicher said that looking into responses around the Queen’s death could also provide new insights into the nature of group behaviour and how it influences identity and society.

“If we understand those processes, then it gives us a greater handle on how we create the type of society which we want – how we can use and frame collective events in a way that is inclusive and diverse, that allows for dissent but without putting people beyond the pale.”