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Grief Works: A compassionate guide to life, death and surviving

A portrait of author Julia Samuel and the front cover of her book, Grief Works

“We understand ourselves through stories,” says Julia Samuel, who has become the custodian of thousands of life histories through her 25 years of working with bereaved families.

“That was the purpose of the book. We need to talk about this death thing and grief thing, before it happens.”

Julia’s first book, Grief Works, has become a Sunday Times bestseller, and she uses first-hand accounts of bereavement, grief and surviving loss, to help us understand these things better.

The book, which has been praised for its warmth and compassion, is not simply a welcome companion for those who have experienced a loss. It also lays the groundwork to prepare everyone for death, to support friends and even allow grief to become part of a healing process.

“We are all going to be bereaved and are all going to die,” says Julia, a grief psychotherapist who works for the NHS and in private practice and is founder patron of the charity Child Bereavement UK. “I’d like us to talk, before we know it’s going to happen.

“Up to Victorian times, death was very much a part of life,” she explains. “Sex, on the other hand, was taboo and never talked about. In the 20th century, that reversed.”

detail from Julia Samuel's Grief Works book jacket

Stories are one of three ways Julia explores the theory that grief 'works'. Another is psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s concept that grief is hard work and so painful to labour through, that we instinctively step away from it. The final foundation stone is that grief works as a healing process, if you have the support in place to allow it to do so.

“One of the most common images of grief is an iceberg, with two thirds of it underneath the surface,” says Julia. “The third that people see is what people respond to, but the two thirds underneath is not acknowledged.

“We need to support ourselves to communicate about that, and to acknowledge the pain. Pain is the agent of change. It’s the paradox.”

Julia was brought up in a family that didn’t talk about death. Her late father James and mother Pauline – who died aged 90 in February – grew up during the second World War and had lost their own parents and other close family members by their mid-twenties.

“There was a photo of each of them and a single line about them,” she says.

“My uncle Tony – ‘He was musical.’ I don’t know how they died.”

Only when Julia was a practising psychologist in her 40s, did her mother reveal that in fact Tony had been killed during the war at Arnhem. As a schoolgirl, she’d been called out of a cookery class, had the news broken to her and returned to her lesson.

“She never cried, never told anyone and never spoke about it again,” says Julia. “But when she spoke to me about it decades later, it was as if it had happened yesterday.

Julia Samuel signing copies of her book at Waterstones in Exeter

Julia Samuel recently talked about Grief Works at a book signing held at Waterstones in Exeter

“Mum’s life was complicated in many ways,” reflects Julia. “You can force yourself to forget, but it doesn’t mean you adjust. You lock and become quite brittle.

“A lot of grieving people self-attack, because you can’t shout at God, or the person who’s died. So they turn in on themselves.

“Pain sits here,” she adds, clutching a knotted fist to her breastbone. “You have to find a way of processing it. And a new loss will always bring back previous losses.

"There’s a fault line and new losses will always bring you back to the same place. If you shut down your pain, you shut down your open-heartedness and find you can become short-tempered, angry, anxious and bleak.”

detail from Julia Samuel's Grief Works book jacket

Julia stresses the value of support from friends and family members when someone is bereaved. “People who are loved when someone they love has died, do so much better,” she says.

“Some people send out distress signals like anger, but those who stick with it, make a difference.”

The first thing that Julia asks her clients to do, is to tell her about the person who has died.

“You need to find a way of internalising them, whether you believe they are in heaven or live on in your heart,” she explains.

She also asks people to bring to bring touchstones – physical mementos and a loved one’s personal belongings – that can help them to open up about their loss.

For one client, Cheryl, a scarf worn by her late mother helped her open up about things they had shied away from talking about when her mum was nearing the end of her life.

Very often, says Julia, we talk hopefully of the future, of taking holidays we know in our hearts will never happen, but leave death unspoken and things we want to say, unsaid.

“People often retreat from each other when someone is dying,” she says. “And there can be so many regrets. Cheryl had felt disconnected from her mum, but as she spoke, she unconsciously picked up her mum’s scarf and smelled it.”

Cheryl’s emotional response, recalls Julia, was visceral. “From there – she opened up. She grieved for what she had lost, but was acknowledging what she had.

“When someone dies, it can feel like a hole in your life. When you accommodate a loss, you build your life around the hole. It’s never about not having that feeling of loss – you don’t ‘get over’ it.”

detail from Julia Samuel's Grief Works book jacket

Recently, Prince Harry described how shutting down his emotions after his mother Diana’s death impacted in his life, until he sought counselling in his late 20s. His brother Prince William also revealed that almost 20 years on from their mother’s death, he still lived with the shock.

Julia, who was a close friend of Diana’s and is godmother to William’s son Prince George, said the Princes’ frank conversations reflected a younger generation that’s more candid about the emotional challenges faced by everyone in life.

“We are changing and it’s being led by the young,” she says.

“Prince Harry is a great role model, particularly for young men. Facebook pages and memorial pages are also very connecting and helpful. There are young people who are dying and have vlogs and blogs. The young, like Prince Harry, are changing our views on death.”

detail from Julia Samuel's Grief Works book jacket

While a stiff upper lip can be a coping mechanism that helps us survive our working day, or manage to go grocery shopping, it’s important to afford our grief some release, even if we find it difficult to talk.

For some people, says Julia, playing the piano, gardening or writing a journal can be a release if it is a way of processing thoughts about a loved one, rather than a distraction from them. But she says that the ‘feel-good’ chemical dopamine, which is released by the brain when we do any form of exercise, can give the bereaved a break from their pain.

Grief, she explains, is a dual process, which we move in and out of. For Julia, kick-boxing helps her look after her own wellbeing, admitting that it can be difficult to withdraw from the emotional side of her work. “I have to be emotionally involved,” she explains.

“I’ve been doing kick-boxing every week for 20 years and my instructor can’t believe how much I want to kill him. I also run and have a supervisor I debrief to. I watch happy films like Mama Mia, things with happy endings, jolly stuff.

“For me, writing Grief Works was also therapeutic. I’m the holder of so many stories and getting that out was really helpful. I gave the book to Mum just before she died. I think she was pleased.”

Grief Works, Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, by Julia Samuel is published by Penguin Life books (£14.99)

If you or a loved one need grief support, our Help & Resources pages have details of bereavement charities and organisations that can help.

Making grief work

  • Get family members to write memories on post-it notes to read around the table at the weekend

  • Go for a walk, with the express intention of talking about the person who died. Plan in a visit to a pub or cafe where you can finish your journey and relax.

  • Try not to feel guilty if you ‘recover’ quickly from a parent or other loved one’s death. Many people begin grieving for loved ones while they are still alive and dying.

  • Make a time for remembering your loved one part of a structured day that also includes exercise, chores and regular sleep times.

  • Focus on the place in your body where you can feel your grief is knotted. Breathe deeply and imagine what that place looks and feels like and follow where that picture takes you.

  • If you can’t find the words, say ‘I’m sorry.’ Don’t avoid someone who’s been bereaved because you can’t find a magical expression.

  • Be supportive, listen – and be sensitive. Don’t overshare the good things happening in your life when a bereaved friend needs your support.

  • Stick with it. There may be times you feel pushed away by someone who is grieving. Be there for them.

  • Keep in regular touch with friends and relatives who may be lonely, as time passes. Significant dates such as birthdays and anniversaries are also good times to send messages with love.