The best thing to do for someone who’s grieving
Julia Samuel MBE would like us all to discuss the day we die long before it happens.
As a grief psychotherapist, she has spent 25 years working with bereaved families.
“The more we find ways of talking about death… before we die, the less guilt we have, the less regret we have and the more opportunities we have to actually have the kind of death that will be peaceful and painless,” she told me.
Julia has a calming voice that instantly puts you at ease. She’s candid and straight-talking too, choosing not to use words like “loss” or “passed away” when talking about death.
“I much prefer using the terms that help us face the reality of it because everything we do to deny the reality of it keeps us a little bit stuck.”
Explaining death to a child
The same truth applies when speaking to children about death, according to Julia, who is also Founder Patron of the charity Child Bereavement UK.
“What they don’t know they make up,” she explained - and that could be even more frightening.
If you thought telling a child that ‘Mummy’s gone to heaven’ is enough, Julia disagrees.
“Heaven could be a hamburger joint down the road,” she told me.
While our instinct might be to protect children from pain and perhaps keep them away from a funeral, Julia believes that could lead to anger later in life when the now-adult child looks back and potentially feels they never really knew what happened when their mother/father/sibling died.
Instead, Julia suggests a child should be able to see the body of his or her dead relative.
“What I say to children is that, ‘your mum or dad… looks like they’re asleep but they’re not asleep because they’ve died and their body doesn’t work anymore and if you touch them they’re cold, they don’t feel anything.’”
Coping after your child dies
When a couple experiences the death of their child it “creates a lot of difficulty” within the relationship because they grieve differently, according to Julia.
“Men tend to want to get on and be ok. They go back to work quickly. If they’ve had a child die they want to have another child.”
“Women tend to be loss-oriented so they emote and grieve and kind of obsess… about every piece of the jigsaw of what led up to the death, what happened, what happened afterwards.”
“He may dread going home because he sees a wet rag who never stops crying.”
And at the same time, “she may think he’s a selfish bastard who doesn’t feel anything.”
Among Julia’s tips for coping with the pain of grief, exercise features highly.
This is especially helpful for men, who might benefit from going for a run, for example, because they can often feel the pain of bereavement in their chest or in their legs, she explained.
According to Julia, for a couple to support each other, he could do well to be patient with her, while she can regularly check in with him to see how he’s feeling.
“As a couple, walking and talking is really good. Walking side by side where you can have silence, where you can say what you feel, where you’re not eyeballing each other.”
When a family member is dying
A scenario that many people have endured is the tragic discovery that a family member has a terminal illness.
Julia’s advice is to talk about it frankly so that everybody knows the same truth, because if you choose to keep secrets then “you keep yourself isolated and disconnected and then that’s a very lonely way to die.”
She told me: “If I was diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow, I would sit my whole family down and we’d tell each other, and we’d kind of talk about all the what ifs. We’d cry together. We would be as honest with each other as we can bear to be.”
This is essential, as Julia explained: “The biggest derailer of grief is regrets; is not having those conversations or regretting having a fight.”
How to resolve the unresolved
Julia told me that research has found 15% of psychological disorders come from unresolved grief.
The word ‘unresolved’ can mean “when it’s too hot to touch,” Julia explained.
She suggested you can work to resolve your grief by talking, journalling, writing songs or seeing a therapist.
“It is eventually kind of recognising how you feel and that you find a way of having a relationship with the person who’s died,” she said.
“The love never dies. It may be that you wear their bracelet that’s a touchstone to memory or you cook their favourite spaghetti Bolognese, or you go for a walk where they always walked.”
No one, certainly not Julia, pretends that any of this is easy.
“People now in the twenty first century want a fast track app that can get them through the pain.
“That isn’t what grief is, grief has it’s own pace… it’s messy, it’s chaotic and it doesn’t really care what you want.”
If you know someone who’s grieving
Firstly, acknowledge it, Julia advised, and don’t be afraid that you’ll be reminding them of their grief.
“You’re never going to be reminding them - that person is always very present in the bereaved person’s mind.”
“The best thing you can do is listen.”
And stay in touch. Julia said that after three months, people tend to go back to their lives and leave you to it.
“That’s actually often when the real pain kicks in, when the sort of denial is unfrozen.”
“Be the one that shows up and takes them for a walk.”
When someone you love dies
If you find yourself in the devastating position of being told that a loved one has died, Julia recommended that you first be “self-compassionate” and tell yourself to trust in yourself.
You could say in your head: “This is going to be really difficult, it’s going to be very painful, but if I support myself I will find a way of adjusting. I will find a way of living through it,” Julia suggested.
“And get out and get some exercise because that really helps you feel different,” she added.
I deeply recommend you watch Julia’s interview in HealthHackers episode 27 in full, where she also opens up about her mother’s death (a week before the launch of her book about grief) and the death of her close friend Princess Diana. Julia is now godmother to William and Catherine’s son Prince George - Diana’s grandson.
I’ll end this article with a final piece of advice from Julia: “Love each other while we can.”
Read more about Julia and see useful help resources on her website.