Why do we grieve when a public figure dies?

·2-min read

Why does the death of a public figure affect people so deeply?

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II's husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, last week has led to widespread mourning, with royal fans leaving flowers, messages and tributes to the 99-year-old in public places around the U.K.

But why do some people feel such intense emotion when someone they never met has died?

Professor Tony Walter, from the University of Bath, explained that the death of a famous face can trigger feelings of grief or loss previously felt for a family member or friend, or spark worries about loved ones who are still alive.

He also said that certain people's deaths can trigger different emotions from the public.

"When Princess Diana died, I am sure it raised all sorts of anxieties in families with children," Professor Walter told the BBC. "When the Queen Mother died it was more a reflection on the end of an era.

"Now, with Prince Philip, I am sure it is touching a lot of people who, like the Queen, are widowed in old age... (There can be) an almost instinctive sense of gap when someone in the public eye dies."

People often identify with public figures, and Prince Philip was widely admired for his years of devoted service to Queen Elizabeth II and the commonwealth.

Many modern celebrities are also very accessible via social media accounts, so people can develop a close connection to them and follow their lives intently.

Dr Nilufar Ahmed, from the University of Bristol, said the loss of a public figure reminds us that "we're not going to be around forever".

The social sciences lecturer also explained that it could act as a trigger for people separated because of the Covid-19 pandemic who are also missing loved ones and worrying about them.

"When we see a connection, we feel safe; it reminds us who we are. Especially in lockdown, with so much uncertainty, we are looking for any point of connection that we can make," Dr Ahmed said.

Carole Henderson, from Grief UK, told the BBC it is "entirely natural" for people to have "overwhelming and conflicting feelings... even if it feels unnatural" when it comes to the death of public figures.

She has advised people to connect with others if they are struggling and talk to someone about their feelings.