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Grieving the Loss of People We Don’t Even Know

Immediately after officials announced that Queen Elizabeth II had died, social media was flooded with a lot of feelings. The 96-year-old monarch ruled for 70 historic years and her presence was felt globally. The moment the news of her death broke, the crowd that had gathered outside of Buckingham Palace experienced a clear and collective moment of shock. And then came the tears.

Regardless of how you feel about Queen Elizabeth specifically (and there is a lot of valid criticism of the monarchy), you’ve probably felt a similar sense of loss after a beloved celebrity died. The phenomenon of grieving someone you’ve never met isn’t unique. From big name politicians to athletes to musicians, losing a person—or even the idea of someone—who meant a lot to you can be really tragic and lead to feelings of disbelief, anxiety, sadness, and even anger, depending on the circumstances.

For the record, this is totally normal, Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at NYU Langone Health and cohost of the Mind in View podcast, tells SELF. “Grief, at its core, is about a loss,” she says. “Even when something as simple as a TV show ends, you can feel a loss. Those feelings can be exacerbated if it’s a person—even if you’ve never met them.”

Let’s go back to Queen Elizabeth II as an example: The sheer fact that she was queen for so long probably plays a role in the magnitude of everyone’s reactions, Shannon O’Neill, PhD, a psychologist at Mount Sinai in New York, tells SELF. “For decades, the queen was invited into our homes through the media and likely feels familiar,” she says. “She may have been a constant, ever-present variable within one’s life. Once removed, it can feel as if something or someone is missing.”

You can apply this line of thinking to basically anyone who you followed frequently and admired in some way; think about recent public figures whose deaths made similar headlines, like Betty White, Alex Trebek, Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, and so many others who were loved by loyal fans.

One thing they also have in common is that they could be considered a calming presence to many people, trauma and loss expert Gina Frieden, PhD, assistant professor of human development counseling at Vanderbilt Peabody College in Nashville, tells SELF. You may also find comfort in seeing a person you idolize have very human experiences—say by persevering through their own challenges, whether it was succeeding in a racist society or coping with a cancer diagnosis. Above all, these losses can also be a “sobering” reminder of your own mortality, Gallagher adds.

So what can your emotions tell you in these moments? “Grief is a very human experience, and it signals the ability to register the impact of loss,” Arianna Galligher, LISW-S, associate director of the STAR Trauma Recovery Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.

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