Three lessons in grief: we’re never prepared for death; another person’s grief can reignite the pain of our own previous loss; grief is a natural response to losing someone we have loved.

It was a day when there was no other news. Without exception, all the newspapers, including (perhaps even especially) the Racing Post, had the image of one person and expressed one sentiment on their front pages. Yet among all the pictures of Her Majesty, and all the tributes paid to her well-lived life, one cover stood out for its simple, direct relevance. The image was recent, the words the late Queen’s own: ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’.

Her pitch-perfect message of condolence, paid to those grieving loved ones killed in the attack on the World Trade Centre, on September 11, 2001, encapsulate a painful truth about life, love and loss. The more we love, the more we will grieve the one we have lost.

Queen Elizabeth herself knew the visceral ache of personal loss. The premature loss of her father, King George VI, aged 56; the loss of her mother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002; and most painfully, the loss, not 18 months ago, of Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years. Her Majesty understood from lived experience the price we all pay for love is the grief we must bear in its loss.

She also understood from lived experience the impact a death can have on a family. Her own grandchildren have spoken openly about how the unexpected and untimely death of their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, impacted their lives and how they valued the support of their family, including their grandmother.

Her Majesty knew about both expected and unexpected loss. But the fact is that nothing prepares us for the loss we experience in death. As a 96-year-old, whose health had for some time been reported as a cause of concern, her family knew, indeed, we all knew, that she was reaching the end of her long life. Still, when it came, her death took us by surprise.

In the pictures of Her Majesty appointing Liz Truss as her fifteenth prime minister, the Queen looked frail but healthy. She smiled warmly as she reached to shake Ms Truss’ hand. But two days later, the news was of her family rushing to be at her side as she was kept ‘under medical supervision’. And when it came, we heard the news in some disbelief. One person said, ‘I didn’t think this day would ever happen.’

The Queen’s death is undoubtedly a moment in our national story; it is also one family’s very particular sadness. Those of us who have experienced loss can empathise with this family in their loss, but we may also find Her Majesty’s death triggers memories of our own previous losses. Faced with the pain of another family’s grief, we may very likely find ourselves feeling once more the pain of our own significant loss, whether that was days, months or even years ago.

This is natural and even to be expected because the fact is we don’t ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from grief, we learn to live with it. In other words, grief continues to live with us, and meeting the grief of another person often reignites a grief we imagined we had left behind. Such is our capacity for empathy.

This capacity for empathy, which was so evident during the pandemic and has been so lacking in our recent national politics, was expressed by the Queen in her message of condolence to those affected by the attacks in New York and Washington. Her words then, that ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’, were both an expression of love, reaching out from one nation to another, and an empathic insight into our common humanity.