About a death
Last week, an old lady died. Her passing has been dominating the headlines for days, and tens of millions of people around the world took notice and were moved to respond. Why is the death of someone we never met and who doesn’t know us such a momentous event?
The decease of Queen Elizabeth II, aged 96 and in less than perfect health, was hardly a great surprise. If anything, it was the fact that she was still alive at such an advanced age that was unusual. Nonetheless, her death triggered a remarkable reaction in millions of people, not just her subjects in the UK and the commonwealth countries where she was the head of state, but across the planet. Why do people feel grief, not only when a close loved one dies, but also when it concerns someone we have never met? And why do they subsequently do things in response that seem to have no material or instrumental purpose?
Grief when someone dies is associated with the notion of , the psychological connectedness between humans, developed by British psychologist John Bowlby (in particular the attachment between parents and children). Once again, evolution plays a part: children need their parents to care for them until they can look after themselves; parents need their children to survive and prosper so they can pass on their own genes. When they get unexpectedly and involuntarily separated, both tend to get very upset. The emotional response at a (temporary) loss makes good sense: it triggers action to rectify the situation. Small children will make big noises to attract (their parents’) attention, parents will panic and go searching for them (and call the emergency services). It may also encourage action to avoid undesired separation in the future.
But that does not explain why, as adults, we experience the same emotion when the person we are so attached to dies, and we know they will most definitely not return. It is pointless to try and find someone whom we know has died or to entice them to find us, and to avoid the actions that led to the definitive separation of death. Still, the emotion of grief is very much with us. If it really was maladaptive, it would have been bred out of us…