The death of a figure as well-known as the Queen might not have the same impact as losing a loved one, but it’s not unusual to mourn their loss.
We likely won't ever consider what effect the death of a public figure will have on us, until it happens. But, it can be devastating. We may even go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).
"How people react to a famous person dying can be very different and vary from person to person," says Patrick Clark, senior counsellor at St Ann's Hospice in Manchester. "Sometimes people can be very affected by the death of a famous person even if they didn't know them personally.”
So how can losing someone you never knew have such an emotional impact on us?
“Although you've never known them, you can project on them all the memories and the versions of yourself,” explained leading psychotherapist and author Julia Samuel. “What you are, in fact, speaking for is the memory of yourself in relation to this public figure, what they mean to you."
Just because you might not have met the person in real life, it doesn’t mean that grieving their loss isn’t valid.
“The important thing is that there is no right or wrong response and we should respect that everyone will feel differently,” explains Bianca Neumann, head of bereavement at Sue Ryder Charity.
Their music or characters may have been present throughout our lives, and after a while, we feel as though they’ll be around for the entirety of it.
And sometimes we gravitate towards certain celebrities because we resonate or form personal attachments to them, or associate some of our biggest life moments to them or their work.
“That might be because they remind them of someone they know, or it might be the reason why they died brings up memories or associations for them,” Clark adds.
“Celebrities and public figures represent something in our lives or a certain part of our lives. They might represent our dreams or fantasies, or the kind of cool version of ourselves,” says Samuel. “They represent a creativity and fantasy that is a very important part of our identity.”
Clark also adds that the more we see the person, the more likely we are to grieve. “If you are used to seeing them on your TV every day it can feel very personal,” he says.
Neumann agrees, saying, “Often, when a well-known person dies, there is extensive media coverage and this can sometimes act as a constant reminder of their death.”
Samuel confirms that grieving public figures is completely normal. “This is your loss that you feel for this person and the relationship that you've had.”
Ways to cope:
Feel the feelings. You might experience the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Each stage plays a different role in our well-being so it’s important to embrace every emotion.
Reach out to your loved ones. “If you are grieving the death of someone well-known, reach out to friends and family. Sometimes, the amount of media coverage can be hard to take, so it might help to switch off your social media channels or the news, so that you can process your own grief,” Neumann suggests.
Attend a vigil or memorial. “Grief is isolating and lonely, and when you share it with a community who feels the same as you… that can be incredibly healing and powerful,” says Samuel. “Rituals really help because they make something that feels invisible, physical.”
Write about your feelings. “If the person who died has a social media account, it may help to send a message to pass on your condolences and this may also bring comfort to the friends and family who are also grieving,” says Neumann recommended.
Remember you’re not alone. If you or a loved one are struggling, counselling and support groups can help you cope. Contact Sue Ryder charity for free bereavement support.