Grief Works by Julia Samuel – a review

The most important – and hopefully impactful – thing about this book’s publication is the sentence “research studies show that unresolved grief is at the root of 15% of psychiatric referrals” and the publicity that fact and problem is getting due to numerous and favourable reviews.  It’s not the pain of grief – it’s the things people do to avoid the pain of grief that causes the most damage.

The very next sentence is “The fear that surrounds death and grief is largely caused by the lack of knowledge, and the aim of this book is to address this fear and to replace it with confidence“.  So we are on the same page, Julia Samuel and I, as that’s a major aim and common effect of my workshops.

Ignorance and fear are at the root of so many strong emotions and problematic and damaging attitudes as a result – racism, homophobia, and the strange culture around death that is slowly improving yet still persists.  Informed confidence often leads to understanding and kindness and lord knows, we need more of that in the world.

Those of you who have already done my ‘death and the only beauty that lasts’ workshop will know that I recommend a number of books in a category I call ‘grief, loss and other painful emotions’, and that the workshop session on that area is often the longest.  It’s a truly fascinating and huge issue and something we all experience, in big ways with death, and in numerous little ways every day.

It’s vital to teach ourselves and children how to deal with painful emotions. True, death avoidance plays a major part in making the grief process difficult, but this is in the wider context of how we deal with all painful emotions. There are a variety of tools to help us, everyone is different as to what works best for them.  Julia Samuels is a grief therapist so that’s her main experience (25 years of it) and tool.

‘Grief Works:’ (I like the double entendre in the title) ‘Stories of Life, Death and Surviving’ will be joining my list of recommended reading in this area.  It’s non-prescriptive and open-minded.  After a short introduction and section on ‘Understanding Grief’, her book is structured around three stories of bereavement and grief in five sections defined by the relationship ie, when a partner dies, a parent, a sibling, a child, and facing our own death, and each section is followed by reflections. The penultimate chapter is about what helps us to grieve and survive successfully, with a few final pages on the historical context of death and dying in the UK.

“Grief is an intensely personal, contradictory, chaotic and unpredictable process…”, Samuel writes. “The process is in the movement – the back and forth – between the loss and restoration…Alternating ‘letting go’ with ‘holding on’ is something we need to learn to live with…we need to become more familiar with what’s going on inside us; we must learn to recognise our feelings and motivations, and genuinely get to know ourselves…the deeper understanding of ourselves that we have gained will, in time, feel like growth.”

Amen to that and yet it’s not a simple happy ending. Samuel makes clear that resolution is not always straightforward or even possible, as I expect many of us know. Plus another part of our task is more universal than personal ie is to “find a way of living with a reality that we don’t want to be true…grief eschews avoidance and requires endurance, and forces us to accept that there are some things in this world that simply cannot be fixed”.  And so, “onwards!”

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