Why We Still Grieve For Someone We Didn’t Know

Caroline Flack’s death has led to a sense of loss, even for those who had never met her. We asked therapists why ‘celebrity grieving’ is so intense.

As the news of Caroline Flack’s tragic death by suicide sinks in, those who knew her continue to share touching tributes and outpourings of grief. Just last night, Love Island aired an emotional message from the show’s narrator, Iain Stirling. “You were a true friend,” he said. “I’m going to miss you, Caz.”

But social media is also awash with messages from devastated fans who acknowledge that although they never met Caroline – and cannot begin to imagine how her loved ones are feeling – they feel a sense of personal loss.

“You may very well feel sad for the pain of people who truly did know that person,” says psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, “but you, too, now have an emptiness, or an ending, which needs to be acknowledged or mourned.”

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When a person in the public eye dies, there’s often a moment of shared, collective grief, says counsellor and psychotherapist Nora Allali-Carling. “To name but a few, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and David Bowie [have sparked this response],” she says.

Signs of grieving for a celebrity can vary, but it’s usually grounded in a feeling of shock or disbelief, she explains. This can be followed by obsessively watching, reading and listening to the news of the death and their life.

Floral tributes placed outside Caroline Flack's home in North London.
Dominic Lipinski - PA Images via Getty Images
Floral tributes placed outside Caroline Flack's home in North London.

We can grieve for people we don’t know particularly well – or at all – because it’s possible to still feel a bond to them, explains Beresford. If you’re drawn to an actor in a movie, you follow someone’s sporting career, or you interact with a person’s social media feed, they become part of your “internal village”, she explains, “the tribe you construct in your psyche”.

“You have created an emotional relationship with that person, even if one doesn’t exist in the flesh,” continues Beresford. “When they die, you have a genuine loss to your inner tribe.”

Within this “inner tribe”, we often place celebrities we admire on a pedestal, adds grief and trauma counselling psychologist Dr Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell. “We hold them up as people who represent our ideals, our values, our dreams, aspirations, desires and intentions,” she says.

Our grief may intensify around celebrities who have been in our lives for a long time, says Allali-Carling. Some viewers will have watched Caroline Flack since childhood, for example – she started out on children’s show TMi in 2007 before moving to primetime shows like The X Factor and Love Island.

“We may have felt connected to them, watching them grow, change, develop in their art form and it is relatable,” says Allali-Carling. ”[Their death] can also represent us losing a part of our past, a part that was connected to that form of entertainment. This intensifies the feelings of loss.”

The way a celebrity dies can impact our grief, too. The therapists agree “the shock and suddenness of suicide” is likely to affect those reading the news. These deaths may also serve as a reminder of our own fragility, or emphasise loss in our lives.

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The first stage of processing your grief for a celebrity is to acknowledge your feelings and understand they are valid, all three therapists tell HuffPost UK. “Give yourself permission to be sad, to grieve, to feel what is going on for you,” says Allali-Carling. “Allow yourself time to come back to yourself.”

Try and find a way to express what you’re feeling. Paidoussis-Mitchell says for some, this could be journalling. For others, it may be having time to cry or visiting a loved one’s grave.

“It is really important to also appreciate that whilst grief is a personal journey it is also a collective affair,” she adds. “So reaching out to friends and family to share the impact of the loss is important.

“In sharing we can be validated, held, empathised with and supported. Going through any distress alone is never the answer.”

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.