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Why do we grieve for people we don’t know

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this review are those of the author only. CNN is showcasing the work of Conversation, a partnership between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. Content is produced only by The Conversation.



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Queen Elizabeth II’s death has prompted public mourning around the world – from public gatherings at Buckingham Palace in London, and condolences from world leaders, to individuals People reflect on social media about what she means to them.

Of course, most of those grieving or acknowledging the queen’s passing will never have met her in person.

So, is the outpouring of grief over someone we don’t know any different than mourning someone we were close to?

There are some similarities and some distinct differences. There is also an emerging controversy about how the queen is memorialized, which may further complicate the grieving process.

A member of the public holds a portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II as she arrives to pay tribute at Green Park in London on September 18.

To grieve someone is a reflection of our lifelong bond and the attachment we had with them that no longer exists physically.

While the queen may not be part of our immediate family, many of us have “grown up” with her.

During her 70-year reign, she was part of our lives – part of our grandparents’ lives, our parents’ lives, and now ours. Think of these as intergenerational connections. We, in general and for generations, feel as though we “know” her.

Globally, we have also been preparing for her loss. Her advanced age, health problems and plans for what happens after her death have been the subject of much media coverage.

So this “familiarity” means that the kind of grief we’re seeing now can feel a lot like having someone in our lives, then losing them.

READ MORE: In 1953, American women ‘crazy for the Queen’ looked to Elizabeth II for inspiration, and that sentiment never faded

But grieving for a public figure we don’t know, such as the queen, can be quite different.

We are lacking a close connection with that individual. Many people do not have personal anecdotes or shared personal experiences. We don’t have those intertwined memories to ponder. Since that person is out of reach, it’s hard to create an image of who that person really is and what they mean to us.

Rather than reflect on a personal relationship with a loved one, following the death of a public figure, we rely on public experience to know a pattern of collective grief that shapes the way we are. share our pain online.

READ MORE: A Brief History of Royal Funerals and Why It’s Different

Because most of us don’t know the queen personally, our perception of her – her attributes, her personality – has no basis in fact.

For example, the way an individual might remember her could be colored by their age, their political views, or whether their life was shaped by colonialism.

READ MORE: How Elizabeth I’s death is conveyed in ballads and manifestos

Media plays an integral role in how we grieve.

Real-time updates and constant coverage, as we’ve seen around the queen’s death, mean we’re prepared for news of her passing. Then the news arrived.

But this front-row seat to the events unfolding and the public grief that ensues can be daunting for some.

For those who have lost a loved one – recently or even years ago – this media compilation can activate memories about what happened when their family member or friend died.

Covid restrictions may have robbed them of their opportunity to provide hospice care or attend funerals in person.

READ MORE: Most Americans today are opting for cremation. This is why burials are less and less popular

So this 24-hour news cycle, and step-by-step updates on the queen’s illness and now death, can trigger experiences of loss in our lives. We need to be gentle with those varied reactions.

So a debate about how she is remembered – in the UK, in the Commonwealth and wider – is being played out on social media. That noise can also complicate grief as people have different reactions to her death.

It raises the question of whether we are allowed to grieve or who can voice their pain, or even if we disagree whether grieving is appropriate.

We need to make room for all the different reactions to her loss.

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