Unexpected grief: 7 reasons we might feel the loss of someone we never knew

In the days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it was no surprise that tens of thousands of people around the UK chose to pay their respects, including those that joined what became affectionately known as The Queue, to see our longest serving monarch lying-in-state. What was surprising for some, was the feeling of ‘unexpected grief’ described by those who didn’t identify as royalists at all.

In The Times, Kat Lay’s piece ran with the headline “Grief takes non-royalists by surprise” describing that “Even ardent republicans have reported becoming unexpectedly emotional after the news of the Queen’s death”.

The outpouring of grief will be familiar to those of us old enough to remember the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. The displays of public emotion were seen around the world, despite millions of mourners acknowledging they’d never met her.

If you ask people where they were when they heard the news of a celebrity’s death, they may well be able to recall exactly what they were doing.

Albeit not with the same enormity or ceremony, when I deliver workshops on bereavement awareness, guests often acknowledge similar feelings when other well-known public figures died, like singer/song-writers Freddie Mercury, Prince and David Bowie. In fact, if you ask people where they were when they heard the news of a celebrity’s death (especially one they liked), they may well be able to recall exactly what they were doing.

Read: The loneliness of grief and why I think we need to talk about it

So why is it that people feel the effects of the death of a person they’ve never met, and possibly one they may have no connection with at all? There could be a few reasons, here’s some suggestions:

1. Permission to grieve. On the death of a high profile figure, and especially when we see others mourning too, it may give us freedom to grieve for those we’ve loved and lost personally, especially if our grief had gone ‘underground’, resting underneath awareness. I explain in my book Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal, the number of losses we experience during our life can accumulate, especially if we’re not given permission to grieve at the time.

Disenfranchised grief is when parts of society don’t recognise our reason for grieving. This has already been seen across social media since the Queen’s death, with some deriding those paying their respects, or suggesting there are “more important” things to focus on, the implication being people should stop feeling what they feel. Whether we agree with their point or not, disenfranchised grief creates problems. It forces people to hide their sense of loss or it shows up in other ways, either internally as a physical illness – sometimes known as inhibited grief – or externally in unhealthy expressions of anger. All grief is valid, and allowing people to feel what they feel is healthier than them feeling forced to ignore it or express it in ways that don’t help anyone.

The loneliness of grief can be a devastating reality for many, particularly when they feel unheard or unseen in their pain, or when people say unhelpful things like “I know exactly how you feel”. Whilst we can share a common experience of grief, how it affects each of us individually can paradoxically be quite unique. We therefore do need to feel safe enough to feel what we feel.

2. Belonging. On that note, belonging and connection are important to us humans, so seeing other people feeling similar can help us feel like we’re not alone, and also like we’re part of something that matters. One man said he joined The Queue as an individual and left “with a family”. Many people also stated that this was an important moment that they may not see again in their lifetime, and so being part of that history meant something – they found that in itself emotional, and prompted a mixture of feelings. I explain in Answers in The Dark that grief can be all the emotions but also none of them (and, despite popular commentary, we don’t really grieve in ‘stages’). It therefore makes sense that some could feel sadness, confusion and numb at the same time, and all for different reasons.

3. Memories. The death of someone famous can tap in to memories of another time and place. The new Prince of Wales said “Doing the walk (behind his grandmother’s coffin as they moved her to Westminster) was challenging, because it “brought back a few memories”, most likely referring to himself as a 15 year old boy in the public procession when his mother died.

In a similar way, you may remember the Queen coming to visit your home town during a time when someone you cared about was alive. In the example of a celebrity, memories of David Bowie in concert may surface, if you went with someone who’s since died, just as a new movie about him is due to be released. These are examples of how current events can ‘re-activate’ feelings of grief. Grief doesn’t have a timeline – it’s a process, not a to-do list – so there is no expiry date on your feelings. That said, those feelings can surprise you when they rise to the surface seemingly out of nowhere.

4. Symbolism. For many people, the Queen may have symbolised something, perhaps their heritage or a connection to the past. People in the military and other statutory services, who literally signed up for a life of service as Crown Servants, may carry a feeling of loss. Even if they never met her, their sense of duty means something, and the Queen as their figure head provides a sense of purpose.

Her death could also be a symbol which acts to exacerbate fears (see also 7.) of losing someone we love (like our own mum or grandma), known as anticipatory grief. This was echoed by many young people in the crowds who brought flowers to the Royal Palaces to pay their respects, when interviewed said “it’s made me think of my gran”. We may have a heightened awareness of what it means to lose something or someone that matters.

5. Overwhelm. Even though to some extent the Queen’s death was inevitable sooner rather than later, many people said it came as a shock. The new Prince of Wales himself said (on meeting the crowds on 15/9/22, featured on Sky News) “You think you’ve prepared yourself for this, but I’m not that prepared.”. The pandemic may have also impacted how we experience grief today. The speed with which COVID-19 appeared as we found ourselves in lockdown alongside the many different ways we experienced loss: from the death of loved ones to being made redundant or the breakdown of a relationship. I explain in Answers In The Dark that even a child leaving home to go to University can be a tipping point in grief, because loss looks like many things; it doesn’t just belong to death. It could be some of what we’ve seen since the Queen died is a vast feeling of overwhelm – “too much, too quickly”.

6. Missed opportunities. We don’t just grieve for celebrities; we can also experience loss for people we’ve never really known that weren’t famous. If you’ve ever watched the popular TV show Long Lost Family with Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, himself adopted, you’ll have seen how some of the children featured, now as adults, describe missing the biological parents they didn’t know, and upon learning they have died, are visibly upset. The same could apply for those with a strained relationship with their mother or grandmother, or whose parents weren’t who they needed them to be. The loss of connection and possibility counts; ‘what if’s or ‘if only’s can feel like missed opportunities whilst many questions remain unanswered. All important to acknowledge. This may explain why so many people, in their thousands, felt they couldn’t miss the Queen lying-in-state, to some extent a palpable fear of missing out, but also a real sense of loss for what might have been had they met her at another time in their life.

7. Loss of the familiar. The Queen was the only monarch many have ever known, and upon her death was repeatedly described by members of the public as a “constant” in their lives providing “stability and security”, and “steadying the ship” during the pandemic with those famous words “We will meet again”.

For those who have never known anything different, who had not contemplated life without her, who are already concerned about the cost of living, or struggle with change in general (particularly after a global pandemic), these may well feel like challenging times. This may have been exacerbated when many are already feeling the pain of loss in other ways, as some stating their feelings about the relevancy of the monarchy, others feel like they’ve already lost enough; the thought of losing the monarchy for some would feel like a bridge too far. Even so, some may well be asking questions about what life will be like now under a new King, himself with a past played out in the public eye, and how the change will affect them personally. The death of someone famous can also bring the subject of our own mortality sharply in to focus in what are already unsettled and uncertain times.

Many people are grieving for lots of reasons – it’s not a competition, there’s is no hierarchy in grief; it all counts.

These are just some ideas about why we might grieve for someone we’ve never known, but it’s important to say that however we feel, it matters as is how we express it. Many people are grieving since the death of the Queen for lots of reasons – it’s not a competition and there’s is no hierarchy in grief; it all counts.

May we navigate the coming weeks and months with an empathy and compassion for one another – however we may be grieving, or what for – in the knowledge that, in the end, we may all just be trying to heal.

Answers In The Dark: Grief, Dreams and How Sleep Can Help You Heal is available on Amazon and Hive.

© Delphi Ellis 2022

Published by Delphi Ellis

Therapeutic counsellor, well-being trainer and author working with grief and mental health, helping people get their sparkle back. Explores dreams on telly. Avid tea drinker. © Delphi Ellis - Helping You Sparkle™ 2006 - 21

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