As an occupational psychologist I find it fascinating to notice how the reactions to the Referendum Brexit vote – admittedly from a Remain-ian’s perspective – are a perfect example of the commonly observed stages of bereavement originally described by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book “On Death and Dying”.
In some quarters, we saw denial, in a kind of “business as usual” mentality – this false confidence is for many, a highly adaptive response that enables them to cope but it is also a false dawn as it is often closely followed by a state of shock – the emotion that many of us can closely relate to in the Brexit scenario, even in some of those who actually voted to Leave.
Now we are seeing the anger: not least amongst the Labour party; against the Conservative Party for holding the Referendum; against innocent immigrants, etc.
Then comes bargaining. Whilst it may be self-evident that a period of negotiation is now essential to carve out a new agreement with the EU, psychologically we believe that if we can change this or that, our grief and pain might lessen. Thus for example we hear Lord Heseltine and others encouraging a further vote on any negotiated agreement with the EU; still others clamouring for a re-run of the Referendum. Bargaining is often accompanied by guilt – “what if we had never had a referendum”; “what if I had campaigned a little harder”. The media are heaping pressure on Remain leaders to confess to regret over the decision to hold a Referendum in the first place. We are seeing the term “Regrexit” to refer to voters who are reportedly regretting their decision to vote Leave as the consequences start to sink in.
After bargaining comes depression and despair: the situation looks and feels overwhelming, people feel numb, paralysed, unsure what to do next. This stage is only just beginning and looks likely to last for some time, as is typical in a bereavement reaction.
Britain will eventually lift itself out of this trough to enter the stage of acceptance, in which we can start to see and accept a new reality and a different future. This will depend largely on the nature of the negotiated agreement with the EU and partly on our own mindset – will we be able to “keep calm and carry on” as the British are known to do? However the course of grief cannot be rushed. Whilst two years is the time scale typically cited to “recover” from a bereavement, in truth there is no fixed time scale. It simply has to run its course. Emollient words from our politicians will do little to smooth away the profound emotions that many of us are experiencing, just as it is difficult to counsel someone in the immediate throes of grief. But as long as this grief exists, we will need a great deal of support and unity from our politicians and responsible reporting from our media.
I am of course writing this from the perspective of a despondent Remain-ian who regards the outcome as a bereavement rather than a new dawn for Britain. But whilst politics and the world may change continually, human psychological responses remain largely predictable.