Why do we mourn public figures?

Psychology experts say it’s normal to grieve someone you’ve never met. By Katie Wright.

Katie Wright
Tuesday 13 September 2022 13:38 BST
A woman lays flowers in remembrance of the Queen outside Buckingham Palace (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
A woman lays flowers in remembrance of the Queen outside Buckingham Palace (Kirsty O’Connor/PA) (PA Wire)

One of the most common reactions when the Queen’s death was announced was that of surprise – many members of the public hadn’t anticipated how moved they would feel by an event that we knew would happen eventually.

Now, tens of thousands of people have flocked to St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, where the late Queen is lying in state, and many more are expected to visit her coffin in London before her state funeral on September 19.

Members of the public file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Wire)

Most of the mourners passing through Westminster Hall won’t have a personal connection to the Queen, so why do we grieve someone we’ve never met?

“Although we may not have met these public figures before their passing, they potentially would have been part of our growing up and our personal history, making them familiar figures,” notes psychotherapist and BACP accredited counsellor Jackie Rogers.

The event could also trigger painful memories, says Bianca Neumann, head of bereavement at Sue Ryder (sueryder.org): “Someone dying in the public eye can also remind us of a previous bereavement we’ve experienced, and this public outpouring can sometimes bring our own feelings of grief to the surface again.”

Flowers outside Buckingham Palace, London, following the death of Queen Elizabeth II (James Manning/PA)

There may also be an element of collective emotion, as opposed to the private mourning of a close relative.

“When grieving close family or friends, it’s not so public, whereas with a public figure, it is seen on the news and in the media,” Rogers explains.

“Because of this, you often see other people mourning, so it’s understandable to feel some sort of empathy with that as well.”

Visitors place flowers at Buckingham Palace (Zac Goodwin/PA)

On the other hand, whereas being upset over the death of a loved one is seen as normal, when a famous person dies, there are always some commentators who don’t understand the ‘fuss’ being made.

“There could be more judgment from ourselves, or others berating ourselves for feeling upset, when we have not met or personally know them,” says Rogers.

That doesn’t mean these feelings are less relevant, so it’s important to be mindful that some people may be more impacted by the loss than others, she adds: “Be respectful and kind. Do not tell them how they should or should not be feeling. Grief is a complex emotion and affects us all differently.”

The motherly monarch

(Neil Hall/PA) (PA Archive)

In the case of Queen Elizabeth II specifically, she was a figure of stoicism and duty for more than 70 years of her reign.

“She will have been present throughout many moments and milestones, and so her death may be leading some of us to reflect both on her life and our own,” says Neumann.

“There is comfort in the feeling of a stable ground around us, and the Queen dying means that many people will be experiencing a sense of instability, at a time where things feel very uncertain.”

As the head of the royal family, the late Queen held a special place in many people’s hearts, Rogers says: “For many, the Queen has been a ‘constant’, a ‘mother’ or ‘grandmother’ figure. [Her] passing can trigger emotions in people who have lost their own mum or grandparent, be it recently or many years ago.”

Embrace your emotions

A bunch of flowers with a written message at the gates of Hillsborough Castle (Brian Lawless/PA)

Whether it’s a close family member or public figure who has died, the first step to coping with grief is to let your emotions out.

“Allow that sadness,” says Rogers. ” Do not tell yourself you do not have the right to feel sad because you did not know [the Queen].”

If you do bottle up your feelings, it could lead to what’s called ‘disenfranchised grief’.

“This is when the person who is grieving is denied the chance to openly grieve their loss,” Neumann explains. “This could lead to feelings of shame, guilt, low mood, anger, frustration and sadness.”

You may wish to pay your respects to the late Queen, either publicly or privately.

Roger suggests: “There are condolence books in various settings around the country which you could write in, reflecting on your own memories regarding the Queen and what she meant to you.”

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the constant news and social media coverage leading up to the funeral, it may help to take a self-care break or spend time with friends or family.

“It is important you look after yourself emotionally and reach out to people who will support you,” says Rogers. “Do not be afraid to contact your GP or a counsellor if you are struggling.”

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