It is peaceful sitting inside the duck-egg-blue walls of a room at the top of a mansion block in west London. Outside, beyond the pink blossom trees and bright spring day, a pandemic rages, financial markets are in meltdown and workers are losing their jobs.
This is where clients from all walks of life usually visit Julia Samuel, an author and psychotherapist who specialises in grief. Over the past few weeks, as coronavirus has come to dominate all our lives, they have become increasingly fretful: about their health and that of relatives and friends, as well as concerns about money.
“All the people I’m seeing are going through difficulties — they’re going through uncertainty, divorce, losing their jobs, bereavement,” she says. “They were already on an uncertain landscape and this has intensified it.”
I met Samuel before the government announced rules about social distancing and school closures. My desire to see her was spurred by her new book, This Too Shall Pass, about the difficulties of coping with change.
Drawing on her 30 years of experience as a therapist in the NHS (and in private practice) dealing with bereaved parents, it grapples with family, love, work, health and identity. I had greatly admired her 2017 debut, Grief Works, which explores bereavement in all its shapes, including the death of a parent, sibling, partner and child.
Unsurprisingly, coronavirus is inescapable over the course of our conversation. As Samuel writes, change can be terrifying and complicated, testing our deeply held beliefs. “When life sucks, we say, ‘This too shall pass,’ and hopefully it does — but here’s the hitch: when life is good, it too, inevitably, will pass. The difficult truth we must face is that only death stops life changing.”
As disquiet about the pandemic increases, I follow up over email and phone. Her mood is very different: “F**king hell, f**king hell,” she says over the line. “It’s shit. It’s got more intense.” In Samuel’s warm received pronunciation, even swearing (which she recommends as a coping mechanism) is soothing.
The upheavals caused by the virus on day-to-day life — on our social lives, work routines, schools and childcare — are causing great anxiety, she says, exacerbated by the fact that there is no “template” for dealing with a pandemic. There is a general sense, she says, that “there’s no one in charge that we know is going to sort it. There’s no saviour.” Social media is only compounding anxiety.
Rather than catastrophise about an unknown future, she recommends keeping plans on a short timeline: “Don’t project into weeks and months ahead, plan today.” New structures are important too: “We’re very habitual beings. The coffee that you buy, the route that you take, the clothes that you get, even the thoughts that you have down a particular street. You have them habitually as you get to the office. We have to create new structures and habits that give you a sense of agency and efficacy.”
Some of our usual coping mechanisms — alcohol, drugs, promiscuity or extreme busyness — are particularly unhelpful: “If you block pain, you block joy and the capacity to experience all feelings.” Instead, it’s healthier to acknowledge our difficult feelings, with support from friends and family, alongside exercise.
Samuel is one of five children born into the banking side of the Guinness family. Her mother and father subscribed to the “stiff upper-lip” approach to emotions. “They were good people and [they] were very old-fashioned parents.”
By the age of 25, Samuel’s mother had lost her father, mother, sister and brother. “[Her] most significant family members had all died and they never talked about any of them. There were these black-and-white photographs around the house, and I vaguely knew that was my grandfather, that was my uncle, but they were never, ever talked about.”
At 20, she married Michael Samuel, a descendant of the family behind Hill Samuel bank, later bought by Lloyds. After a brief career in publishing, she trained as a psychotherapist, working at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, where she had her own four children.
Describing herself as an “imperfect mother”, she says she was “ignorant” when she had her first child at 21. It was a different time, less obsessed with parenting advice. “There were virtually no books then.” She is fiercely devoted to her children — and also pragmatic. “I really love my kids, we get on very well. We’re incredibly close. I really annoy them.”
It was her mother’s buttoned-up emotions that convinced Samuel that there was a better way to grieve. “In many respects, I have lived a very traditional, married, old-fashioned life. But I’ve also travelled millions of miles psychologically, working in a hospital for 25 years, and had thousands of different experiences with thousands of different people.”
Her role at St Mary’s was to support families whose babies and children had died. She often saw refugees and worked with interpreters. “I went to their homes, and worked with them at their home, because they couldn’t leave the child. I went into lots of people’s houses from very different backgrounds.” She remains attached to the hospital today through its ethics committee, supporting staff. “I love being part of it,” she says.
A good friend of the late Princess Diana, she is a godparent to Prince George. Prince William and Harry’s openness about the difficulties they had after their mother’s death, she says, highlighted the importance of grief counselling for children, something that she herself has campaigned for.
I tell her that a friend is wrestling with how to help an anxious child who is worried about their family dying from coronavirus. Samuel, who is a founder patron of the charity Child Bereavement UK, says that kids need truthful information, just like adults.
“Check what they understand. Check their fears,” she says. “So, always, when you’re telling somebody bad news, check what their existing understanding is. Because then you can correct them. And then ask them what their worries are. We need to allow children to be sad and worried and upset. Don’t stop them. Don’t over-reassure them. Let them feel what they feel, and then let them be normal, happy kids.”
A child’s grief is different from an adult’s, she notes, more akin to jumping in and out of puddles. “You jump in the puddle and you’re very sad, and then five minutes later you’re out of the puddle, screaming with laughter, nicking your sister’s toy and having a lot of fun.”
The previously bereaved, she says, might find themselves better-equipped to deal with these anxious times, as they know they can come out the other side. “They survived it and came through and did OK; [that] will give them hope.”
As the death toll from coronavirus rises, grief will be an emotion more of us will have to deal with. In Grief Works, Samuel wrote: “We seem happy to talk about sex or failure, or to expose our deepest vulnerabilities, but on death we are silent. It is so frightening, even alien, for many of us that we cannot find the words to voice it . . . The pain we feel is invisible, an unseen wound.”
One bereaved mother told her after her daughter died of a drug overdose: “I really haven’t felt well in the head, I’ve just been breathing, not really alive.”
Widespread deaths, through war or a disaster, can prove particularly complicated. Samuel counselled grieving relatives after the fire at Grenfell Tower killed 72 people in 2017, and after the Paddington train crash in 1999, in which 31 died. “You would hope that you’d have a shared experience, and that there would be a sense of understanding with each other,” she reflects.
“And there certainly can be that, but also you can feel that you’ve been robbed of the uniqueness of your experience, and somehow you’ve been thrown into this club where everyone is a coronavirus widow or bereaved child, and you lose your uniqueness.” Collective grief can be “incredibly overwhelming, confusing, and you’re treated like one [person] . . . [when] you’re really a lot of very different grieving, hurting people.”
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Seeing all this grief throughout her career as a psychotherapist has, unsurprisingly, “completely changed” her. “I really know bad things can happen to good people. And that bad things can happen out of the blue for no reason, because I saw it every week.”
It takes an emotional toll. “I cry seeing them so upset. I cry with clients sometimes. I don’t boo hoo or any of that. Seeing them with their dead child is devastating. I’ve got lots of tools that I use. And I cry when I get home, and I write notes.” Kick-boxing is one of her own coping mechanisms.
Millennials, she says, are often so much better-equipped to discuss their interior life than past generations. However, she worries about the modern tendency to pathologise normal feelings such as sadness and worry, labelling them as depression and anxiety and baring their souls to everybody.
Instead, we should “open ourselves to [parents, partners, close friends] and burst into tears, pour it all out, over-exaggerate it, make a drama, call it trauma. They support you. You cry. You feel better. You have a cup of tea then, you go back to work.”
Julia Samuel’s five tips on coping with coronavirus
Keep plans short-term. Only plan today and the next few days. Don’t look into the unknown future: it will drive you mad.
Exercise. Even seven minutes inside will help. Dancing in the kitchen is good at lifting your mood and won’t feel like a slog. All movement helps reduce stress in your body.
Breathing. After physical exercise, try a five-minute breathing exercise. It can just be breathing in for a count of seven and out for 11. Or use an app such as Calm.
Treats. Give yourself intentional treats (preferably not tons of alcohol).
Connect with others. This can be online via a video link or by phone.
Emma Jacobs is an FT features writer.
“This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings” by Julia Samuel is published by Penguin
Portraits by Lea Thijs
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