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Bookworm Festival Pulse: Grief Works: a Conversation with Julia Samuel

Julia Samuel is a psychotherapist from the UK who sits before an image of her book, titled “Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving.” The title, which someone in the crowd draws attention to later, symbolizes a central tenant of Samuel’s philosophy, which is that grief is a natural process. If we allow it the time and space it requires, it will, in fact, work to make us better.

The audience are a mix of men and women of all ages who, when asked if they have lost someone recently, nearly all raise their hands in affirmation. Samuel herself is a petite woman with a wisp of powdery blond hair across her forehead and the sort of calming disposition you might expect from a psychotherapist, which seeps through her voice when she takes the microphone.

The first question from the moderator, Wendy Tang, is why she began this work, and Samuel’s answer is a relatable one: she was drawn to it by her parents who experienced great loss in their lives and never spoke about it. She says about this that grief is generational; many of the older generations didn’t feel they had the luxury to grieve, since many of them grew up in times of war or upheaval. But what we don’t say, she tells us, can have an even greater impact on us than what we do say, because if you block out grief, you might succeed in blocking out your capacity to feel pain, but you will also block out your ability to feel joy.

When she is asked by an audience member why it is not better to just choose to feel good, and therefore reject pain, she tells us that she can understand the logic of this, but that “as human beings, we can’t apply logic to an emotional system.” If we keep grief at bay it will come back when we least expect it, and it will be out of our control when it happens. “When people come into my office and go through the process of telling me what they’re feeling,” she explains, “it’s a bit like laying an egg.” They leave feeling lighter, because they have allowed themselves to process their feelings.

The word “grief,” she tells us, comes from a Latin word that means ‘to be robbed,’ and this feels right when she says it, because losing someone we love feels very much like being robbed of that relationship. The degree of pain we feel, she tells us, will be equal to the level of importance and love we had for the person. This equivalency of investment and love for loss and pain remains true for the death of pets and unborn children, although grieving for a pet or an unborn child can be difficult, because it is often not respected or understood by those around us as carrying the same weight.

When I ask her if it is the same process for someone who has experience rejection from their families, and therefore a great loss, she tells me that grieving for someone who is gone is a straightforward process: we can create rituals, wear jewelry or pieces of clothing that make us feel close to that person. We can celebrate that person’s life and hold farewell ceremonies that pave a path towards acceptance; they are gone, and that will not change. With rejection, on the other hand, we will always retain the hope that something might one day be different.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice she gives is in answer to an inquiry about what we should do to help those we love who are grieving; should we actively encourage them to share their grief? Or wait for them to share naturally?

Samuel says it’s important to acknowledge their loss, and say you are sorry. Let them know that you are there for them, then ask them what they need. “Do you need me to distract you? Take you to a movie? Listen to your stories?” Don’t try to read their mind, just ask, then be present.

By the end of the of the session Samuel has fielded an astounding array of questions from the audience that spanned a wide field of traumas and tragedies, from sexual abuse and suicide to genetic disease. Afterwards, I am struck by how an audience of strangers who I might pass by every day on the street has so quickly revealed their humanity. We forget, in our isolation, that the human experience is shared, in both its splendor and its grief. I am reminded of Julia’s assurance that the best thing we can do for one another, when the time arises, is to listen.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China
BLF Volunteer, 2019
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

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