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Julia Samuel on Changing How We Think About Grief

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Julia Samuel is a psychotherapist who has spent more than twenty-five years helping people grieve the loss of loved ones. She is the UK’s leading grief expert, author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviving, and godmother to Prince George. She believes that when we face our fears—the death of someone we love, our own death, or being with bereaved friends—we are better able to cope with them. Here she shares her perspective on why we fear grief and pain and how we can talk about them openly.

Q: Why does grief sometimes come in waves?

We’re wired to protect ourselves so we're not faced with reality all at once. We adjust to it bit by bit. Imagine walking into a room and seeing or smelling something that reminds you of the person who’s died. In that moment, you are acutely aware that they are not coming back. The pain forces you to face reality, its harshness and its brutality. The process of grieving is moving in and out of these moments.

Q: Why do people have a hard time talking to loved ones about death?

People who've been given a fatal diagnosis may only have weeks, months, or years to live. But often nobody around them, not even their partners or close friends, will talk to them about the fact that they're going to die. They have this kind of magical thinking: “If I acknowledge that you're going to die, I'm going to hasten your death. So if I don't think about it, then good things will happen.” But the truth is that talking about death can be cathartic. When you start the conversation and take time to listen, it can help your loved one find the words for what they’re feeling. They can have a good cry and then sometimes feel lighter. So it doesn't drag them back; it helps them move through what they’re feeling. We're all going to die. We're all going to know people who die. The more we accept that and talk about it, the more we’ll be able to connect authentically with our loved ones during those hard times.

Q: What can help people who are grieving the loss of a loved one?

The thing that helps most when people are suffering is the love of others. When we lose love, we seek it. But we don’t all receive love in the same way. You can get clues for how your loved one receives love by paying attention to how they give love. Often, we offer connection in the same way that we want to receive it. For example, maybe you have a friend who always finds a helpful book or sends you an inspirational quote when you’re having a tough time. She might also appreciate the same things if the roles were reversed. If you pay attention to the way your loved one connects with you, it can give you clues for how best to connect with them in return.

Q: If a child goes through a great loss, how can we help them become more resilient?

Those closest to the grieving child know their needs best. But in general, children need as much truth and information as adults—just in age-appropriate language. Parents love their children, and their instinct is to protect them. But children may experience this as exclusion. They may make up what they don’t know, and what they make up can be limitless and terrifying. So the truth, however difficult it is, is better than a lie or nothing at all. Children's grief is like jumping in and out of puddles. They can be very sad one minute and very happy the next. You need to give them opportunities to be both. You can set aside specific times to talk about the loved one they’ve lost. It may help to create a memory jar or memory book. In other moments, though, they will likely want to have fun with their friends, play sports, or make crafts. Above all, children need to know that they're loved. They need to be comforted. They need structure. They need to experience some things that feel familiar after something so unfamiliar and chaotic has happened.

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