September 9, 2022

Opinion: This is what it’s like to race against time to be with a loved one

We now know that after a historic 70-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II died yesterday afternoon at Balmoral castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland – the place she was once said to be “never happier” than when visiting. But earlier that day, after the news broke that the monarch was “under medical supervision”, all eyes turned to one thing: her family.

Both Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were said to be travelling up to Scotland. So too, Prince Andrew and the Princess Royal. Prince William also made the journey, with Prince Harry said to be on his way with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, before it was confirmed that she would stay in London. Much attention on social media was paid to how long it was taking Harry to get there and when exactly he might arrive.

For me, seeing this play out in the newsroom yesterday, I could think of only one thing: “The call”.

“The call” comes in two forms when you have a loved one who is seriously ill: they’re either on their way out, or they’ve sadly passed on. Neither is remotely pleasant to receive. Your stomach acid rises, the blood drains from your face and a lump forms in your throat. Tears silently stream down your cheeks.

Even if the writing was on the wall, there is still no way to prepare for such news – it is virtually impossible to gear yourself up to withstand such monumental loss. Frantically, you pull together a few personal items, forgetting essentials like your toothbrush or your keys, as you scrabble out the door and research the quickest route to their bedside with shaking hands. The whole time, your mind tries to figure out how you will adjust; how you could possibly live without them.

Many of us have experienced that unparalleled sensation, the race against the clock, your body going into autopilot – and if you haven’t, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Even if it is too late to have that final moment with someone you love, the sense of urgency doesn’t falter. You nervously tap your fingers, look out of the train window and hope the stranger next to you hasn’t noticed you’re sobbing, as sad melodies bleed out of your headphones. Nothing in the world could be more important than making that trip.

As her family members, coming from all directions, sprinted to Balmoral – watched by millions of us glued to our TV screens – it conjured up images and feelings of my own losses from over the years. My first encounter was as a teenager, holding my grandfather’s hand as he slipped away. Years later, as I sat on the sofa half-watching TV with my sister, my phone vibrated and I knew it was the hospital telling me my dad was gone. Then, during the pandemic, I rushed to get back home to see my auntie, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to enter the ward.

There’s something to be said about that journey – that sacred pilgrimage to honour the dead. Even though there is nothing left to do (or perhaps because there is nothing left to do) you still clutch at what propels you forward. You feel a duty to carry out one last honourable act.

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Royalist or not, love and death unites us all. The raw human emotion laid bare; the excruciating pain of knowing nothing will ever be the same. While it is unlikely the public will be privy to such moments – one cannot help but think of young William and Harry trailing behind the coffin of their late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, unable to demonstrate their hurt – we can be sure of what is happening behind the scenes: grieving. It is always raw and always personal.

Just like us, they will be mourning. Just like us, they will be thinking about the next steps and will be facing the colossal wave of admin that comes with death. If anything, they – especially King Charles III – face the enormity of stepping up for the nation; of filling the Queen’s shoes and providing consistency for the British public at a time of great upheaval.

Most of all, they will, like any of us, no doubt be reflecting on their relationship with the late Queen – their mother, their grandmother, their great-grandmother – and may well experience all the usual emotions associated with grief: sadness, love, respect, regret for not spending more time together. It is a deeply private grief played out on the public stage.

Differences aside, there is one thing that can connect us to the royal family at this time: empathy.

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