Why do celebrity deaths sometimes make us so sad? Psychologists answer us

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked countless tributes and a lot of emotion. Sometimes the disappearance of personalities, which we do not know personally, affects us almost as if we had lost a loved one. Psychologists explain why.

The death of Elizabeth II, on September 8, 2022, greatly moved the British. Some gave vent to their grief by going to pay their respects, sometimes shedding tears, despite not knowing the Queen personally. The mourning is the psychological reaction to loss recalls Hélène Romano, psychotherapist specializing in the question of trauma, and author of numerous books on the subject. A mourning really felt by anonymous when a personality dies, and this, for several reasons.

1. Identify with fame

After reading all the books, watching all the movies and documentaries about a celebrity, some people may feel like they know them better than anyone. And sometimes consider it as an integral part of their lives, just like a loved one. “We speak of projective identification, explains Hélène Romano. For example, Johnny Halliday put his life on display a lot and could therefore give the impression to his fans that they knew him. But he didn’t know them back. » A one-way socio-affective relationship.

Some people even build their identity on public figures. They talk like them, dress like them, model their lives on them. “With the loss of the star, it is a part of the identity of the fan which must then be repaired and rearranged. If finding a psychological balance takes place without real difficulty for most, the rearrangement of one’s self can become a real ordeal, long and painful, for some fans whose personal identity is strongly associated with the star. analysis Didier Courbet, professor of communication sciences at the University of Aix-Marseille and co-author in 2012, with Marie-Pierre Fourquet-Courbet, of the scientific article How do fans react to the celebrity’s death? after the death of Michael Jackson, in the Huffington Post.

Read also: The emotion caused by the death of Queen Elizabeth II in five figures

2. Associate it with moments in his life

A romantic encounter, friendship, family memories, happy events… The sadness felt when faced with the disappearance of a celebrity can also be due to nostalgia for the highlights of their life to which they refer. “What we have experienced through this personality plays a huge role”, explains Sabrina Philippe, clinical psychologist in Paris and author.

An opinion shared by Didier Courbet, professor of Communication Sciences at the University of Aix-Marseille. “His death therefore revives the fear of losing what [la personne] associated with him: for example a part of his happy adolescence, happy personal memories or the loved one himself, he wrote in the Huffington Post in 2016. Some fans who are excessively attached to their past can have great difficulty managing this nostalgic revival and this breach in connection with their own past which opens up. »

When it comes to Elizabeth II, countless Britons can associate her with their personal lives, as the sovereign has accompanied the history of the 20the century and the beginning of the 21ste. “It signifies the end of an era: 70 years of history, and suddenly, nothing. Share with her everything she stands for and it will increase the pain », adds Hélène Romano, author of the book Accompanying grief in a traumatic situation: 10 clinical contextsreleased in 2015. The Queen was a bit “everyone’s grandmother” she summarizes.

Hélène Romano also hypothesizes about the pain felt by some French people: “Perhaps there is some kind of unconscious guilt for beheading our king. Some French people are very attached to the royal family [britannique] and it is paradoxical. Look, when Gorbachev died [le 30 août 2022], there was not so much pain in society and yet he was an emblematic figure. »

3. The reminiscence of a bereavement of a loved one

Through the death of a celebrity, we can also relive the death of a member of our family, a friend. “It can challenge us in our intimacy”, says Michel Lejoyeux, professor of psychiatry at Paris Cité University. If we take the example of the death of the queen, Elizabeth II, it can refer to the death of our own grandmother, of our mother…

“It can become an expiatory support, the grief that a person has can be that of past bereavements that they have not expressed”, adds Hélène Romano. Sometimes the period doesn’t help. The queen’s death comes in an anxiety-provoking period of post-pandemic, war in Ukraine and economic insecurity.

A woman who came to pay her respects to Elizabeth II cries outside the British Consulate General in Hong Kong, China, September 12, 2022. (Photo: Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

4. A social license to grief

Usually, we hide our sadness in public. Society does not like mourning. “It’s stupid, but for a wedding, an employee has the right to four days off. For the death of a loved one, it’s three days, wonders Hélène Romano. This shows the place that mourning has in our society. »

On the other hand, faced with the disappearance of a famous person, we have the right to be publicly sad. “because everyone is talking about it”. Grief is collective. The death of a celebrity is also “a way of accessing the mentalization of death in this society which tends to deny it”, according to Michel Lejoyeux, author of the book In good health with Montaigne.

Read also: Appear in tears, the new trend that is a hit on social networks

5. Media influence

The media deal with the disappearance of Elizabeth II from all angles: the subject is omnipresent in the news. And the brain is sensitive to this influence, explains Michel Lejoyeux. “Repeating the same information to us all day makes it important. There is an effect of self-fabrication by the news”, he remarks. Especially since the human is a basic worried being, “He waits for someone to give him a topic to worry about”.

A person who has lost nothing may, due to the bereavement tone, feel sad. “Some people are more concerned about the disappearance [de la reine] that by her daily life, they did not think especially of her before. »

the storytelling, the fact of staging a story, also plays a role according to psychologist Sabrina Philippe. Every society needs reference people, close to a myth, around whom a whole decorum is built. Regarding Queen Elizabeth II, notes Michel Joyeux, her death “represents the archetype of the honorable narrative”.

Why do celebrity deaths sometimes make us so sad? Psychologists answer us – Ouest-France evening edition – 09/13/2022