As I came out of the service station toilets, my boyfriend had a serious look on his face. “Caroline Flack has died,” he said, breaking the news gently. I was in shock and largely silent as we got back in the car and drove home. My phone started to ping as my group chats filled with messages — all of us lamenting the news.
The presenter’s death has hit us all surprisingly hard. One friend sent me an essay on why she felt upset, and another was in tears about it earlier this week, telling me she felt “ridiculous” because she didn’t even know her.
But it feels like we did know her. Caroline Flack graced our television screens most nights during the summer months as we avidly watched Love Island, our favourite guilty pleasure show. For years, we have been used to her being streamed into our living rooms, and her candid posts on Instagram.
“I find my self grieving for someone I didn’t know personally but it’s intense,” one user posted about Flack on the grief forum whatsyourgrief.com. “We feel we know [celebrities] because we get to see them entertain us and we end up knowing a lot about them though social media”.
People typically grieve celebrities because they connect to their work, according to Litsa Williams, grief therapist and co-founder of whatsyourgrief.com. “We can feel deep connections to the lives and works of celebrities,” she says. “We bring celebrities into our homes through their music, movies, books, and television. They’ve made our families laugh and cry.”
When a celebrity passes away it can also remind us of our own loved ones who have died or a stage of our lives we are no longer in, according to Andy Langford, Chief Operating Officer at UK-based bereavement charity, Cruse Bereavement Care. When Carrie Fisher died, for instance, he says many shared on social media their memories of the first Star Wars film, and grieved that loss too. We also grieve for celebrities because “we relate to them,” Langford says. A celebrity death can hit you hard — “particularly if someone who’s died is in the same sort of life situation or same phase of life as you,” he says. If they are the same age as you, have similar interests or you both have a young family, for instance, you can particularly relate to them and feel their loss. In the case of Caroline Flack, one of my friends who works in television has been particularly affected by her death.
“People will of course see themselves in their shoes and relate to them really closely,” Langford explains. The advent of social media has “only intensified these feelings of connection,” according to Williams. Previously, we only caught glimpses of celebrities’ lives through occasional interviews, but social media gives us a more intimate look at their lives.
This might play a part in why so many of us are struggling to come to terms with Flack’s death, according to Langford. “Caroline is a good example of someone who’s posted a lot of content on social media that’s personal.”
If you have been receiving this content every day, and perhaps liking and commenting on posts, then “you’ve got a sense of relationship and if that’s not there anymore, that can [cause] grief”.
Enjoying a celebrity’s new posts could be “part of your daily routine”, Langford says, so you are likely to feel bereft when that is no longer the case — especially when your timeline is instead full of posts commemorating the person who has died.
A person grieving the loss of someone they never met will largely benefit from the same advice as someone grieving a face-to-face connection, Langford says. “It’s particularly important to take time for yourself and gather your thoughts and work out what you need. So for some people, they’ll want to spend some time alone grieving, and for others they’ll want to be with people,” Langford says. Having a support network is particularly important, he adds.
Yet Williams believes that virtual grief is different to bereavement for someone you have met in real life. “The grief of these celebrity deaths is not the same as the death of a loved one; our grief is not the same as that of their family and friends,” she says. “But as we reflect and adjust to the loss of this person and their work, we experience our own type of grief reaction — one that we often didn’t expect.”
The family of Caroline Flack have released an unpublished Instagram post that the star wrote in the days before her death, in which she said that within 24 hours her whole world and future had been swept from under her feet.