Why do we grieve for people we don’t know

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN’s work is being shown The conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. Content is produced solely by The Conversation.


The death of Queen Elizabeth II has prompted public displays of grief around the world, from public gatherings at Buckingham Palace in London, to condolences from world leaders, to people who have reflected on social media.

Of course, most who mourn or acknowledge the Queen’s death have never met her.

So is this outpouring of grief for someone we don’t know any different than grieving someone we were close to?

There are some similarities and some notable differences. A row is also brewing over how to remember the Queen, which could complicate the grieving process.

To mourn someone is to reflect on the connection and attachment we had to them in our lives, which does not physically exist.

Although the Queen is not part of our family, many of us have “grown up” with her.

During its 70-year reign, it has been a part of our lives, our grandparents’, our parents’ and now our lives. Think of these as a link between generations. We, collectively and generation after generation, feel as if we “know” him.

Globally, we have also been preparing for his loss. His advanced age, health problems and plans for what will happen after his death have received a lot of media coverage.

So this “familiar” means that the kind of grief we’re seeing now can be very similar to having someone in our lives, then losing them.

READ MORE: In 1953, ‘crazy queens’ American women looked to Queen Elizabeth II as their inspiration, and the sentiment never went away

But the grief of a public figure we don’t know, such as the Queen, can be very different.

We miss the close connection with that individual. Many do not have personal anecdotes or shared individual experiences. We don’t have these interconnected memories to think about. Since that person is not available, it is difficult to create a picture of who that person really was and what they want to tell us.

Rather than reflecting on an individual relationship with a loved one, after the death of a public figure, we draw on community experiences for a type of collective mourning that shapes the way we share our grief online.

READ MORE: A brief history of royal funerals and why this one was different

Since most of us did not know the Queen personally, our perception of her – her attributes, her personality – is not based on facts.

For example, how an individual can remember depends on their age, their political views or whether their lives have been shaped by colonialism.

READ MORE: How Elizabeth I’s death was communicated in ballads and proclamations

The media play a key role in grieving.

Real-time updates and constant coverage, as we’ve seen around the Queen’s death, means we’re ready for news of her passing. Then came the news.

But that front-row seat to the unfolding of events and the subsequent outpouring of public outrage can result for some.

For people who have lost a loved one, whether recently or even years ago, this extensive media coverage can trigger memories of what happened when their relative or friend died.

Covid restrictions may have removed the ability to provide end-of-life care or attend a funeral in person.

READ MORE: Most Americans today choose cremation. This is why there are fewer and fewer burials

So this 24-hour news cycle, and keeping up to date with every step of the Queen’s illness and now death, can make up for the losses we’ve experienced. We have to be gentle with these varied reactions.

So a row over how to remember is playing out on social media – in the UK, the Commonwealth and more widely. This conflict can also complicate grief when people share different reactions to their death.

It raises questions about whether we are allowed to grieve, or who can express their grief, or whether we even agree that mourning is appropriate.

We have to make room for these different reactions to his loss.