In our household, death and dying are not ‘taboo’ subjects. This is largely because much of my volunteer and professional work is with people who are near the end of their life; experiencing grief; or are bereaved. I made a comment about something grief-related at dinner one night and my then 13-year-old rolled his eyes and said “Yes, Mum, we know it’s okay to talk about death.” Not sure he appreciated the fact that in some families, it’s not okay to talk about death.
Similarly, I know a family that go around the table at Christmas and answer the question ‘Bury or burn?’ – this sounds flippant but in terms of a family understanding of death, they’ll have a less painful time in bereavement than those who have never spoken of it.
Grief Works by grief psychotherapist Julia Samuel, is a collection of case studies about people who have experienced significant loss, and how they managed their pain. I stress the word ‘significant’ – some of the stories are traumatic and unbelievably tragic.
The stories are grouped around particular losses – parents, siblings, and children; losses that happen suddenly; and those that people ‘prepare’ for in the case of terminal illness. Samuel reflects on the impact of grief and particularly how, in experiencing the death of someone close to us, our own fears are exposed.
Through the stories, Samuel demonstrates that if we talk honestly about death with friends and family, much of the fear and uncertainty around loss can be eased.
The stories are sensitively presented and Samuel’s reflections on each story are insightful and very personal – she is not afraid to reveal her own vulnerabilities.
“I felt inadequate and frightened in the face of her loss.”
This was one of the most interesting parts of the book for me. Many people are under the impression that therapists are ‘blank slates’, and that they should not allow their own feelings to surface. While that is true to a certain extent, more accurately, therapists need to be aware of what they’re feeling, and spend time away from the therapy room understanding those feelings. While Samuel’s exploration of her own feelings might not be directly useful for readers trying to make sense of a bereavement, it does speak to the impact of the enormous losses people experience.
Samuel also touches on one of the most difficult parts of counselling – the ‘what happened next?’. Our natural curioristy demands a resolution – counsellors often don’t get an answer. Your time in people’s lives is brief – you see them at a crisis point, and you rarely see the resolution (or the mythical fairy tale ending).
This book does contain useful advice, and gives important context for that advice, but like any book in this category, it will resonate for some and not others. I enjoyed it for the detailed case studies.