This is a guest post by Robert Sparkes.1
But her hearing was not improved as Treves wrote. The blood infection during her third pregnancy destroyed the bones in both of her ears and left her hearing permanently diminished. It has become my belief that she increased her ability to communicate through sympathy and deep empathy. Through sympathy, she could be a witness and express sadness and sorrow, but through deep empathy, she actually connected to each man’s feelings. This would explain her miraculously improved hearing. As they told their stories about how they were injured, she could follow the time emotionally, from his good health to the period of anxiety, dread and fear before a battle to the terror of killing others or watching comrades being killed and blown up. And then there was the pain of being injured, burned, losing a limb or an eye. After the battle, many would sense abandonment from those who died, the army, the hospital and society. They may have thought that those who died were freed from this burden of having to live deplorable lives with mutilated bodies. Some suffered from shell shock and frequently had night terrors. The deaths, the pain and the feelings of abandonment are examples of broken connections.2
She herself had not experienced war, but during her pregnancies, she experienced the death of a child, the great pain from a seized knee cap and infected ear bones, and the abandonment by her husband to places of prostitution, all examples of
broken connections. So how did Alexandra emotionally connect? As each man told his story, Alexandra began to connect with him following his story. Since she was deaf but with some ability with lip reading, she likely also followed his body language and his facial expressions, especially his eyes, as a way to perceive his feelings. These feelings resonated with her own feelings, which she had experienced, but the intensity came from the vets.
Empathy has been compared to walking in another’s shoes – resulting in the appreciation of another person’s view or experience. For deep empathy, I think the mental image would be as if they were walking together “holding hands”, reliving his emotional story with her.3 I have chosen this image as this is the one which she had learned from Oliver Montagu. After the death of her son Eddy in 1893, Montagu held her hand as they walked into her deceased son’s bedroom.4 She was emotionally unable to do this alone. Holding hands gave Alexandra support, a witness to her feelings of dread, someone who shared her separation pain and finally, someone who acknowledged her experience. She needed to address a mother’s pain which came from the death of her eldest child. Together through the holding of hands, they shared each other’s feelings.
Her emotions resonated with some of these veterans, but not everyone. For those who did resonate with her way of sharing feelings, they experienced her compassion, and it was deeply comforting. Here I use the word compassion to mean suffering-with. However, they were still limbless or with mutilated features. Some were blind. These broken connections could not be easily repaired, and reintegration into society remained very difficult or impossible. The problem with the damage that came from shell shock was not easily healed. Alexandra took all of this to heart and was preoccupied with it for many years.
In response, Alexandra housed veterans at the Sandringham estate and tried to hire an “empathic nurse” to help care for them. The use of the nurse was vetoed by her husband. She started the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
She wanted to personally choose the nurses who had similar skills to hers, but the military overruled. She refurbished a hospital ship for the veterans. In a fun story, she hid money in a sofa to give to a hospital.
Battiscombe commented, based on her research, that Alexandra, in her hospital visits, would speak to all patients with a genuine concern taking much longer than its scheduled time.5 She goes on to write that with Alexandra’s visits to simple soldiers and sailors, her deafness seemed no hindrance, but on formal occasions and in dealings with more sophisticated people, it reared itself into a formidable barrier.6 Many doctors and nurses in the hospital supported her work.
In 1905, Queen Alexandra, in an interview with Monsieur Richet of the French Journal Le Gaulois, spoke of the duty of Queens to educate their children about mutual love and respect and the duty to bring aid to the distressed and the unfortunate. For her, this was the best and most pleasing of careers. Speaking outside of government protocol, she as Queen spoke against the preparations for war in which her husband as King and her nephew as Emperor were actively involved.7 These were very wise and intelligent comments of someone who was historically considered by some as a dull-witted woman with little brain.
- Dr. Robert Sparkes is a retired Electrical engineer who studied, with Fr. Richard Rutherford at the University of Portland in Oregon, in the area of the Christian funeral rites from the view of Bereavement and Lament. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Mary. They both love ballroom dancing. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Robert Sparkes and Richard Rutherford, The Order of Christian Funerals: A Study in Bereavement and Lament, Worship, Vol 60, No 6, November 1986, pp. 499-510
- Propriety would have never permitted the Queen to actually hold hands with the veterans.
- Duff p.184
- Note that Bertie, the King and May, the Princess of Wales, were also highly involved in supporting the hospital system with visiting, administration and financial support.
- Battiscombe p.286
- Williamson pp. 9-10 & Duff p.226