Grief is a funny thing. In the counselling room I mostly encounter people who have come because they feel down or anxious, but can’t put their finger on why. There invariably is a reason, or a collection of reasons, behind the way they feel and our task is to unpick this and make sense of what has gone on. However, when it comes to working with grief and mourning this process is slightly different. Usually the loss is known, obvious and acute. This doesn’t make it hurt any less, it just makes the starting point for therapy a bit different. In Grief Works by Julia Samuels, we encounter many different individuals and couples who find themselves at this starting point. Samuels talks us through how she, as a grief therapist, meets these people in the very depths of their loss. She initially sits alongside them in their despair and then, when they are ready, she begins to walk with them, whether that’s along the path to the far-off land of a ‘new normal’ without their loved one, or for those with terminal illnesses, towards their own mortality.
One of the aspects I really valued in this book was the range of experiences that Samuels covers, which serve to highlight that no two encounters with grief are the same. One vignette tells the story of “Ruth” who finds herself in counselling after the death of an adult half brother, whose existence she had only recently become aware of. The inclusion of Ruth’s story shows that the loss of someone we don’t know well can touch and move us deeply, often opening up great chasms of other unacknowledged losses that needs to be worked through. Samuels also includes the story of a couple stopped in their tracks by the searing grief of a still-birth, a man who remarries quite shortly after the loss of his wife and a woman who has to negotiate her sister’s terminal illness via Skype. Not only do you come away with a sense that loss comes in all shapes and sizes, but also that there is no ‘correct’ way to mourn. When reading a book with my ‘therapist hat’ on, I’m often asking myself who might benefit from the contents of the book. With Grief Works I’m hesitant to suggest that it would be good for anyone working through a bereavement, certainly whilst in the early stages of an immediate loss. Not only might the vivid descriptions of the others’ sadness be a bit too close to the bone, but Samuel’s reflections on what emotions these stories brought up in her could seem irrelevant and almost self-indulgent coming from a person who has not experienced the loss directly. However, it would be for this exact reason that I would recommend the book to anyone supporting a person who has been bereaved, as these same reflections provide a framework for exploring the effect that someone else’s grief can have on you. There can be a lot of talk in the mental health world about the ‘pathologisation of grief’ and the suggestion that sadness is an abnormal response that needs to be treated, rather than a natural reaction to loss. However, I choose to see it in the same way I see a cut on my hand; that is, worthy of care and attention. In most cases, I can address the wound either by myself or with help from someone nearby to put a plaster on. But, if the cut is too deep, doesn’t stop bleeding, gets infected, affects my ability to use my hand etc., I may need to get further help and support. What I love about Samuel’s book is that it shows us that, when it comes to grief, there is nothing wrong with wanting that. In fact, for each of the people’s stories she tells, reaching out is the healthiest thing they could have done.