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Mourning sickness

Books | By Emily Bearn

Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel reviewed by Emily Bearn

When I saw the title of this book – Grief Works – I felt a certain resistance. In my experience, grief is extremely debilitating. But Julia Samuel, who has worked as a grief psychotherapist for 25 years, thinks it’s good for us. As she explains in her introduction, it is not ‘the pain of grief’ that most damages individuals, but ‘the things they do to avoid that pain’. So the purpose of her book is to encourage us to confront grief more boldly: ‘grief is work, extremely hard work; but, if we do the work, it can work for us by enabling us to heal.’ 

This might all sound a bit hollow. But Samuel turns out to be a remarkable writer, with plenty to back up her theory. The bulk of her book consists of case studies with her clients, whose bereavements are organised under the headings of partner, parent, sibling and child.

The examples range from a middle-aged woman who has lost a mother in old age, to a married couple whose four-year old daughter has drowned in a swimming pool. There is also a section on facing your own death, where Samuel’s clients include a 48-year-old mother with lung cancer, who has been told she has six months to live. ‘Grief,’ Samuel notes, ‘starts at the point of diagnosis.’

What is impressive is that such harrowing material should result in such a readable book. The central message is that grief takes time, and cannot be ‘fixed’: ‘Our culture is imbued with the belief that we can fix just about anything … Grief is the antithesis of this belief.’ 

Unresolved grief reportedly accounts for fifteen per cent of psychiatric referrals, and Samuel is sufficiently experienced to brush through the conventions. She dismisses popular concepts such as ‘closure’, for example (‘I don’t think we are as mechanical as that idea implies’), and she thinks that the therapeutic silence can be overrated: ‘When I’m talking to someone who has had really bad news, I often swear a lot. “It’s really fucking terrible, isn’t it?” Somehow swearing goes straight to the heart of how awful it is.’

Some of the cases that Samuel records here are awful indeed. But the pleasure of the book lies in the way she weaves in her own professional wisdom, while observing her clients with an eye as beady as Joanna Trollope’s. 

A typical chapter opens as follows: ‘I heard a warm, energised voice speaking on the stairs in a soft Irish accent … when she came through the door I saw a tall redhead with long wavy hair … She was in her late forties and strode purposefully towards me, then stopped to straighten a rug she had accidentally disturbed.’

No frown or fidget passes unexamined. When a 62 year-old widower clenches his fist during a session, Samuel ‘imagines him as a six-year-old, digging his nails into his palm’. 

She insists that the focus of the essays is ‘on the grief rather than on the therapy’. But one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the tension between Samuel’s personal and professional instincts.

‘I realised I was old when I found myself wanting to tidy him up,’ she writes about Max, a 29 year-old who, aged four, saw his mother shot dead by burglars in Colombia. ‘He brought the mother in me to the fore but I needed to remain his therapist.’ 

Samuel is never detached. She refers to being ‘haunted’ by her clients’ stories, and when talking to a professor who has recently been widowed she feels ‘emotionally enormous … as if my capacity to feel and express myself might overwhelm him’.

But, despite her conflicts, what is most affirming in this book is the extent to which Samuel’s clients can be seen to grow stronger over the course of their meetings with her – to the extent that, in the end, she makes herself redundant. 

As she puts it at the end of one case, ‘There seemed to be less and less for us to talk about.’ And there can surely be no higher recommendation for a therapist than that. 


Penguin £14.99

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This story was from July 2017 issue. Subscribe Now