The Real Pain of Imagined Loss

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The announcement earlier this week of the engagement of Prince Harry and his partner Meghan Markle will be met with the inevitable frenzy of interest and speculation. How did he propose? What does the ring look like? Who will make her dress? This is the response we have come to expect with news of the personal life of someone in the public eye. Yet, mingled in amongst the conjecture and voyeurism will be other emotional responses; genuine joy and, for some, a curious, unexpected and somewhat embarrassing sadness. An untethered sense of loss. So, what’s going on?

To understand why complete strangers might feel sad about a prince falling in love and marrying we have to consider the nature of fantasy in our psychological lives. We are all familiar with the fantasy worlds of children in which is it common for them to create novel languages and invisible friends. Children regularly cast themselves in varied and varying roles as they experiment with emotions and relationships. As we grow we do not completely abandon these fantasy lives. Whether we rebrand these fantasies as goals (images or visualisations that we work towards turning into reality) or keep them as pleasant daydreams, the capacity to transport ourselves to another place or life remains an available tool in our emotional armory.

And it is a tool, often one that can save lives. This is what is known as the ‘Sustaining Fantasy’ and it can be the one thing that keeps the spirit going in adversity. For example, it is not uncommon for a child who experiences ongoing trauma at home to imagine that they have been the victim of a kidnap plot and that the cruel people that they live with are criminal impostors. Their ‘real parents’, who are, invariably, wealthy and kind, are out there in the world desperately seeking their lost child. You can see how holding on to this belief is a powerful coping mechanism in the face of helplessness. It can help a child hold on to the hope of their life, one day, being better. The sustaining fantasy can be a reason to not give up.

As adults we, hopefully, have access to more means to rescue ourselves from difficult situations. However, at times of high stress, sadness, dissatisfaction, disappointment or even boredom we can reignite our fantasy lives. Whether that’s imagining yourself in a different job, having great wealth, winning a Nobel or casually bumping into and marrying a bachelor prince…

For the people who have employed Harry (or any prominent person) as a character in their playful daydream or sustaining fantasy, the reality of his engagement presents them with a loss. I spoke in my podcast about grief about how abstract losses (the loss of hopes, dreams, expectations) are powerful and significant, and the sustaining fantasy falls in to this category. That real-world person is no longer a suitable character in our story and the fantasy has to be relinquished, and with it goes the pleasure, distraction or comfort it provided. This may be remedied by substituting in a new lead role (I hear Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan is still single) but it also offers the opportunity, if appropriate, for the person to address the aspect of their lives causing the dissatisfaction.