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In praise of… Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, by Julia Samuel

Almost exactly a year ago to the day, I and two colleagues and friends attended an event at the Freud Museum in London. Eminent psychotherapist Julia Samuel was going to discuss her new book This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings, in front of a packed audience.

There was a buzz in the room, and the three of us were thrilled and excited, like most of the other people there no doubt, to have the opportunity to hear and maybe meet someone we all admire as an inspiring role model. But that didn’t entirely explain the atmosphere: the news every day was reporting the spread of a virus throughout the world, with country after country responding by locking down. Julia expressed her gratitude and surprise at the turnout. It felt almost reckless to be gathering in a crowd in an indoor space, and although none of us really had any inkling what lay ahead and for how long, subconsciously we must have been fearing that normal life was about to end, for a while at least.

Several years earlier I’d been browsing in a bookshop – one of my favourite things to do in normal times – and picked up Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, Julia’s first book. At the time I’d just begun working with clients at a bereavement charity and had also recently experienced loss myself. I opened it at random and stood transfixed by its simple, beautiful prose. I bought the book and read it from cover to cover.

Each chapter features case studies of clients Julia has worked with who have experienced the death of a partner, parent, sibling, or child, (though she also acknowledges that there are other relationships in our lives which can be as close and significant, if not more so, than family ones), and is followed by chapters exploring how to face one’s own death and finally, an exploration of the work we need to do to help us to grieve and to live full lives.

You may be thinking you can hardly imagine a more distressing or depressing book, but I promise you, it’s a life-affirming one – refreshingly straight-talking and unflinchingly honest, but also loving, gentle and reassuring. And it’s full of compassion and even hope. One of its core messages is that for us to heal our grief, we need to allow ourselves to feel the pain. As the title hints, grieving is indeed work; for many of us it’s the hardest work we’ll ever do. But we can do it, and we can find peace and even joy in our lives.

Julia explains that in many parts of British society, at least, grief is taboo. Many of us understandably find it so frightening and overwhelming that we avoid bereaved people, terrified we’ll say the wrong thing. We hope they’ll do their grieving in private and we praise them for being ‘strong’. If we are bereaved ourselves we may push our distress and pain deep inside so we are easier to be around, but it’s exactly this that can damage us and prevent us from healing.

This book doesn’t just introduce us to people as they do the work of grieving. It sets out valuable and helpful ways for us to emotionally and practically support others as they do this, and how we can take care of ourselves, and ask for or seek out what we need when it’s our turn.

Since I first read this book, I’ve referred back to it many times in my work. Each time I discover new things that help me to support my clients more effectively and sensitively as they make the journey towards healing after loss. In fact, I have a confession to make. I thought I’d left any impulse to write a fan letter behind me decades ago, but I couldn’t help myself: I wrote to Julia through her publisher, eager to thank her for writing something that had helped me so much, professionally and personally. It didn’t matter that she might never even read my email and no doubt wouldn’t reply. Less than an hour after I’d clicked ‘send’, I was astonished to see a wonderfully warm and appreciative personal message from her. I’ll never forget how delighted and surprised I was to receive it.

Just a fortnight after that evening at the Freud Museum the first national lockdown was announced, and we plunged into a collective experience unlike any most of us have ever known. Many, many people have suffered loss of one kind or another and have done so in imposed isolation which has made it harder still.

At the time of writing, there are small but clear signs of spring everywhere and, the odd rainy or cold one notwithstanding, the days are gradually becoming longer, brighter and a little warmer. This seems to me to be as good an analogy of recovery from loss as any. Working with bereaved people reminds me every day that the path to healing isn’t straight and smooth and easy, but if we are supported in our work of grieving, we can reach a point where we feel we can see a meaningful future. This book puts this observation into words I warmly recommend you read when you feel ready, to help you better understand this universal part of being human.


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