Julia Samuel specialises in helping people cope when a loved one dies. Joanna Moorhead finds out how we can stop feeling awkward and uncertain about death – and why we should talk honestly about grief
Phil and Annette were on their way to the mortuary when Julia Samuel phoned. Their daughter Amber, aged four, had drowned in a swimming pool, and they were going to see her body. Not many people would have called them at that moment; not many people would have dared to encroach on such raw and traumatic grief. But Julia, a friend of a friend of the couple, is a psychotherapist who specialises in dealing with loss. She knows that, when people are in the throes of overwhelming grief, sharing the pain is the only thing that can make even the tiniest difference.
But being a grief professional does not endow special powers. When Phil answered the phone, Julia would have liked to be able to say something that would make it all better. But she knew nothing could do that, so she said the only thing she could. “I am terribly sorry to hear that your daughter, Amber, has died; I’m sorry that such a devastating thing has happened to you. How can I help?”
Twenty-five years as a grief psychotherapist has taught Julia a great deal about the human condition – because when you focus on grief you focus on life, and loss exposes everything that matters about a person and their strengths and weaknesses. When someone dies, it reveals the faultlines in the bereaved family, even the deepest, most hidden ones. If you know about loss, you know about family, and about love, survival, resilience and strength. If you know about loss, you know about life.
But there is a paradox at the centre of loss, and it is this. Grief is the most intense pain there is, and we will do anything to avoid pain. So we run away from it; we run away from our own grief, and we run away from others’ grief.
And yet, says Julia, running away from it means we will never recover from it. Embracing it, moving through its agony, and allowing ourselves to just be while it washes over us, is the only way to survive it; because we have to feel the worst of it in order to let it change us, and then we can start to find out who we are going to be in the wake of it.
This is the message at the heart of Julia’s new book, Grief Works. “If you ignore grief and push it down, you can live and you can even function, but you will live a very narrow emotional life because you are using so much emotional energy to cope,” she says when we meet.
“Everything in your psyche will be squashed down, and that means small things can trigger a much bigger kind of effect. The fact is, you have to do the work of grieving. You have to let it run its course. Pain is the agent of change; pain is what allows you to change, it’s what enables you to reach a new reality.”
Her book traces the journeys of many of the bereaved people she has walked alongside; she describes how she has wept and mourned with them. “I let clients know that what they’re saying has an impact on me: I tell them when I feel shocked or sad or upset,” she says.
“I talk about our relationship: the relationship I have with them is in service of them. I say what I feel when I think it’s useful to share it.”
One of the many moving stories in her book is that of Bill and Sally, whose 13-year-old son, Matthew, died of a rare virus. Sally tells Julia that losing her son has made her, too, feel dead. She no longer has any expectations of life; she does not want to go on living. “I said quite plainly that, although she was giving up on herself, I refused to; I would fight for her. I held the whisper hidden somewhere within her that said, ‘I want to live’.”
Julia, in her 50s, a mother of four grownup children and a grandmother of four, is slight, vivacious and fun: time with her feels charged with life, and you can’t help feeling that must be helpful for those clients who, like Sally, have lost sight of the joy of being alive. Julia is as interested in asking questions as in answering them; and her questions to me surround something that I have experienced but she never has, which is a traumatic loss.
There are two sorts of loss, says Julia: expected loss and traumatic loss. And perhaps strangely, for one in her profession, her own losses have all been expected ones. Her father died, but he was 87 (“I was sad and I grieved, but it was not a traumatic loss”); her interest in bereavement sprang from her involvement with the charity Birthright, now Wellbeing of Women, which made her aware of the pain of losing a baby, although she wonders whether she was unconsciously influenced by the fact that her parents had lost three parents and three siblings by the time they were 25. “Everything seemed OK, but now when I think back I’m aware of some unresolved grief.”
Almost her only personal experience of a shocking, out-of-nowhere, loss was that of the figure whose death brought loss closer to millions, and perhaps even changed how the British deal with it: Julia was a close friend of Princess Diana, a connection that was echoed when she was asked by William and Kate to be a godmother to Prince George in 2013. That is, she says, a very joyful role – lots of fun, and the chance to enjoy the little boy as he grows up – but she doesn’t want to say much about it or about Diana, save that she agrees that her death did make a difference to the nation’s approach to grief.
So, too, she says, did other major shifts of history, especially the first and second world wars. “Our parents, the parents of people of my generation, were the generation that couldn’t afford to grieve. They were parented by survivors of the first world war: they simply had to survive, whereas we have the luxury of being able to deal with it differently.”
Having said that, and despite the public outpouring of grief after Diana’s death, she doesn’t think most people are sufficiently aware of the impact a traumatic bereavement has, the ripples it leaves or how long they persist. As someone who experienced a traumatic loss at the age of nine, when my three-year-old sister was killed in a road accident, I have to agree with her analysis. It is 44 years since that death, and the shockwaves still reverberate in my family: everyone is different because of it, and the next generation has been touched by it in ways that are too subtle for them to fully understand.
How traumatic losses shape the future of a family is a subject of great interest to Julia; so, too is the way men and women deal with loss differently. Men, she says, tend to want to move on, to make plans, to focus on new horizons. Women, on the other hand, want to spend more time remembering the person who has died; they want to immerse themselves in the pain. But the fact is, she says, that each can learn from the other. “You have to do both things: you have to have time when you grieve, and time when you have a break from the grief. You can create circumstances where you grieve, and circumstances where you move on; so men and women can help one another. He can help her go for a walk to the park or to a gallery, and she can help him talk about how he feels and express some of his loss.”
The problems set in when one individual fails to understand the pattern of grief in the other; they think of them as selfish or that they don’t care enough, but it isn’t about that – it’s about different ways of coping. Grieving is an intensely individual and usually incredibly lonely experience, which can make it a particularly difficult time in a family, where a group of people will be going through something sparked by the same event, but is in each case very different.
The way to cope, says Julia, is to be open in communicating how you are feeling to others in your family. “The families that fare best are able to share their feelings openly. Death disrupts the complex and finely tuned balance in a family, so everything has to be reorganised – and being open helps with that process.”
At the beginning, and this is especially true of a traumatic loss, the grief is all-consuming: but over time, says Julia, you find you are starting to live again. The mistake some make, though, is believing they can go back to being the way they were.
“Some people say, ‘This isn’t going to change us.’ But that’s not how it is: and it’s when you recognise that bereavement is a life-shattering experience, and that you have to grieve and rebuild, that you can move on positively into a new phase of life.
“You don’t forget the person who’s gone; you can never do that, and you should not worry that you’re going to. But you fold them, and their loss, into the new person you become; and maybe that, in the end, is the greatest tribute any of us can make to anyone who has died.”
Eight ways that family and friends can help
Listening. Be a friend who is prepared to give their time, to listen and to acknowledge the extent of your friend’s loss. Listening is the key. Bear witness, and allow your friend to be upset, to be confused and contradictory, or to say nothing at all. Every time they tell their story once more, or are allowed to say how important the person who has died was, the burden of carrying their pain on their own is incrementally a little lighter.
It’s not about you. Follow the mourner’s lead: they may not want to talk about their grief right now, or even with you. It is good to say something to acknowledge their loss, but then let them have the control they need (they had none over the death), to choose to talk or not. If they ask you to come and be with them, and want to talk openly to you, go. If they truly do not want you to visit, and do not want to deal with it at that particular time, don’t force it on them. Don’t confuse your need to speak or call or be in contact, with your friend’s need.
Acknowledgment. Death isn’t catching, but those who are bereaved might think so, judging by the fear they see in other people’s eyes. People are frightened about whether to come forward, about what to say, about saying the wrong thing – so, in the end, they say nothing. All of that comes from a belief that whatever you say should make things better, that you should have enough wisdom to make the pain more bearable. But you can’t. Nor do you need to. Being kind enough to dare to acknowledge them and their situation is good enough.
Offering to be there if they need you, suggesting that they should be the one to ring you, is probably asking too much of your friend at this time. It is better if you take the initiative and make contact, and then follow their lead: they may want to see or speak with you – or not. Often, people don’t make contact because they feel they don’t know the bereaved person well enough. If you are erring one way or the other, better to err on the side of making contact.
Practical help. Doing practical things is often what really makes a difference. Don’t say, “Let me know if I can help”; actually do something helpful. At the beginning of a bereavement, there may be a lot of people around, so bringing food may be the best thing you can do. Taking food around for longer than the initial crisis is rare, and therefore particularly appreciated.
Honesty. Be honest. Honesty is comforting and easy to deal with. There is a direct cleanness to honesty that cuts through much of the complex messiness of grief, and this can come as an enormous relief to people.
Also, be honest about what you actually can do rather than covering up because you feel guilty about what you can’t. Be specific: say, “I’m going to come round for half an hour” or “I’ll come on Tuesday”; don’t say, “I’ll come whenever you want, tell me, and I’ll be there”, and then find you can’t deliver on that offer.
Be sensitive. While being honest is important, so is being sensitive. Promiscuous honesty is not a good idea. Be aware of showing too openly that your life is trotting along happily, as that can feel like rubbing their nose in your happiness.
Be in it for the long haul. Try to remember to make contact and be supportive after everyone else has gone. Usually three months following the death, people get back to their lives, as they should. But it is by no means over for the person who is bereaved. Sending a text or popping by can be hugely supportive.
Writing. Letters, cards, texts or emails: it doesn’t matter what you write – all are extremely helpful. It is better, however, to say that you don’t want a reply, because some people simply can’t respond. And it is never too late to send them. It is a welcome surprise to receive a card much later, because it is when everyone else has forgotten and your friend is still grieving.
When you do write, try to make it personal and avoid tired cliches such as, “She’s had a good innings” or “Better to have loved and lost”, because they are trite and in some way diminish the personal importance of this very loved person who has died.
You don’t need to go into long explanations of why the person has died or theological explorations about death; just be loving and personal, warm and acknowledging.
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