‘This is grief with the volume turned up’: Julia Samuel on grieving during Covid-19

Julia Samuel on grieving during Covid-19

Julia Samuel has spent her career thinking about grief. A distinguished psychotherapist and author of Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass, she’s spent nearly 30 years helping people work through bereavement, crisis and change. In part two of our interview, she shares how Covid-19 is disrupting grief and why it’s so important to acknowledge loss.

How do you think Covid-19 is affecting grieving people?

There are multiple things. In most hospitals and care homes, families won’t be able to be with the person when they’re dying. So all of the things that support you when someone is dying, like holding their hand and being with them, those are gone.

There’s also the speed of it. You could have someone who has an underlying condition, but had a life expectancy of ten years, then suddenly, overnight, they collapse because of coronavirus. All of that contributes to trauma.

What effect will this have on how people grieve in the longer term — do you think deferred grief will be an issue?

I think they’re likely to be frozen in time while we’re under lockdown. They’ll be in limbo and the funeral won’t include the normal rituals. So a memorial will be the real acknowledgement where you get the support that you need, and that will be very important.

Time is changed when you’re grieving, it’s often fast when you’re happy and slow when you’re very unhappy. There’s a sense of suffocation now, with lockdown, not being able to have a memorial, not being able to set a date because you don’t know when you’ll be able to do it. So time will feel very strange and suspended.

People might also project their distress and anger onto a system, whether it’s the NHS or the government — and that takes away from the actual grieving. There’s a lot of opportunity for regret, and that derails the grieving process.

What kind of meaningful rituals can people do privately right now to help with grief?

You can light a candle and be with other people, maybe even on Zoom. People could say prayers, they could say poems, they could talk about the person that’s died. You could have a kind of gathering with flowers and a photograph.

The key with the first stages of grieving is acknowledging the reality of the death and getting the support that you need.

What additional advice might you give to someone when so much else is changing around them? They’re not only grieving, but their day-to-day life also looks dramatically different.

People have multiple losses right now. They have their grief about the person who has died and then they have living losses of not being able to have the funeral or be with people that are close to them.

It’s helpful to acknowledge the level of loss that they feel. What they’re feeling may seem abnormal, they may be furious, they may be numb, they may feel despairing. But whatever they’re feeling is normal given the circumstances that they’re in.

Also, allowing themselves to express their grief and not trying to block it or tidy it away. Then, over time, they will naturally heal. But there’s no doubt this is grief with the volume turned up.

You’ve written a lot about the taboo surrounding death and our fear of dying. How can we helpfully confront our fears when we’re surrounded by so much death and dying right now?

I think [Covid-19] is forcing families to talk about death in a way that they haven’t before. And, in talking, you discover that your magical thinking is wrong, because talking about death doesn’t make it happen. It doesn’t make you more mortal, but actually takes a lot of the fear away.

I think what we don’t know is much more frightening than what we do. And we keep turning away from it in the hope that somehow it’s not going to keep hurting us, but it does.

You’ve used your research to create 8 pillars of strength to help with the grieving process. How might they apply during Covid-19?

When we’re in a process of change, it’s very good to have pillars of strength to support you. This is a set of attitudes, behaviours, and support that help you manage things when you feel turned upside down.

Some of them are about your relationship with yourself and those close to you. Others involve your mind and body, calming down and recognising your limits. Exercise really helps and so does meditation. Structure, even if it’s not a complex structure, helps to stabilise you.

Grieving is an active process that takes work, and the eight pillars help you do that. The key is to look at them and find the tools that work for you.

How does a global pandemic change the work that goes into grieving?

I think that it’s difficult if you feel like you’re not special, if you’re just a statistic. I would encourage people to be connected, to talk to people that they care about and who care about them. The love and support from others is an important predictor of your outcome.

You can be living alone and still connected to the people that love you, to family members and friends, to Zoom groups. The bonus of the 21st century is that we can be alone in our four walls, but still be very connected. I also think journaling helps to find out what you think and what you fear. Often you don’t really know.

It will take a long time for people to find a way of trusting and loving life again, longer than they want. But it’s always amazed me how people do find resources within themselves, and that they can rebuild their life after even a very traumatic and difficult loss.

Read part one of our interview with Julia Samuel: ‘Hope is the alchemy which turns a life around.’

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