Collective grief and why we mourn the death of people we don’t know

Medical experts share the reasons we suffer a profound loss for strangers as the world pays tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

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As condolences and tributes to Queen Elizabeth II continue to pour in from around the world, it’s clear the British monarch’s death has affected people in different ways.

From outpourings of grief on social media to quiet self-reflection as mourners lay flowers outside palaces in the UK and embassies worldwide, the death, not only of the queen, but of any well-known public figures, can lead to what is known as collective grief, whereby people come together to mourn in an act of public solidarity.

Speaking in the House of Commons, former prime minister Boris Johnson appeared to sum up the shared experience, saying: "Millions of us are trying to understand why we are feeling this deep and personal and almost familial sense of loss.

"Perhaps it’s partly because she’s always been there. A changeless human reference point in British life, so unvarying in her Pole Star radiance that we have perhaps been lulled into thinking she might be somehow eternal."

While those closest to Queen Elizabeth go through the stages of grief, people who never met the monarch are also experiencing a profound sense of loss. But why do people feel grief over the passing of someone they’ve never met?

“Collective grief happens when a group of people such as a nation or a community experience the fallout from a death,” says Dr Bahjat Balbous, psychiatrist at Euromed Clinic, Dubai.

“The passing of Queen Elizabeth and the response to her death is a stark example of collective grief. Like individual grief, there is a feeling of lack of control that comes with collective grief. We were unable to prevent the loss, and we feel powerless in its wake.”

Why do we feel sad about Queen Elizabeth’s death?

Well-wishers lay floral tributes outside Buckingham Palace. Bloomberg

“To those who had a photograph of her on top of the television, she was part of the family,” says Johanna Richmond, psychiatric therapist at Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Dubai. “And globally, the whole world knows her because when you hear ‘UK’ you think of Queen Elizabeth. People had a great admiration for her, and a lot of people identified with her because they saw her as a hard worker.”

Stability and continuity are natural human desires, creating a need to seek out things we find familiar as cultural or emotional touchstones.

For those who feel they have “grown up” with the queen, whether as their head of state, as an image on the banknotes in their wallet, or simply someone they read about in the news every so often, she was a constant, something familiar and largely unchanging in a world that moves fast.

“When a public death occurs and is in the news, it can trigger feelings about our own experiences and deaths that we have personally experienced,” says Balbous. “Hearing about death can also be deeply upsetting even if we haven’t lost anyone close to us, as it reminds us about our own mortality and the mortality of those we love.”

Psychologist Aisling Prendergast says: “It is very common and understandable to feel grief and sorrow for somebody we have never met. When a public figure has been part of the collective narrative, the containment and holding of a system and they have been present during every significant event and celebration for a whole country and commonwealth, it makes sense to feel the loss of her presence."

Is it strange to mourn the loss of someone you don’t know?

Being in the public eye means a lot of people not only know your name and recognise you, but they also feel as if they know you personally.

“When we talk about collective grief, we often mistakenly think we need to know the person, but when it comes to someone like the queen, she was a part of many people’s lives without ever having met them,” says Balbous. “Having reigned for 70 years, the queen was central to life not only in the UK, but she was also globally known and all her public appearances triggered endless coverage in the media all over the world.

"She was a fixture of stability in a world often best described as chaotic, and her death in what for many are turbulent times will incur sadness all over the world."

Grief can also occur because of what famous people represented to individuals.

When a public figure’s life has spanned decades, mourners think about their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents who lived through those times, in this case, Queen Elizabeth's reign.

“The fact that her life has been cross-generational is a link to our pasts and the historical events of the past almost 100 years,” says Balbous. “Given her advanced age and the length of her reign, for most of us, she has been a constant backdrop to our lives. Her dying is not only the end of her life, but it reflects our own passages through our lives.”

How collective grief can help the healing process

Floral tributes outside the gates to Windsor Castle. Getty Images

Although Queen Elizabeth’s death has occurred in the era of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, Princess Diana’s death in August 1997 set the modern precedent for public displays of grief in the UK.

Laying flowers, leaving messages and lighting candles outside of royal palaces gives mourners a chance to channel and focus their grief, to say goodbye and share their emotions with others who feel the same.

“Knowing others around you are feeling sad can give you ‘permission’ to grieve and think about your personal experiences,” says Balbous. “Seek out people who are like you. Connect with others who are feeling like you and give yourself permission to know this event means something to you.

"There will be many rituals that will follow in the days to come that can provide comfort too, such as memorial services.”

Prendergast says: "Grieving the loss of somebody we have never met can be described as 'disenfranchised grief'. The first key step that people can take is to acknowledge their feeling.

"It is important to remember that this emotion will take the time it needs to acknowledge the significance she held in people’s lives. In Queen Elizabeth’s own words: 'Grief is the price we pay for love'."

Updated: September 10, 2022, 4:32 AM