Book of the Week: Grief Works

22 Jan|Julia Samuel

If you don’t want to think about death, let alone talk about it, Grief Works is the book for you. In a series of true stories bereavement psychotherapist Julia Samuel gives us an extraordinary insight into what death has got in for us, and sensitive advice about how we might deal with it.

Most of us want to find a partner with whom we can build a meaningful life and, as a couple, experience life’s joys and difficulties. Loving is always risky, and requires trust in one-self and the other for it to be sustained. Yet, when couples commit –  whether it be through marriage, cohabitation or a civil partnership –  death is rarely something that they envisage, certainly not until old age.

Few events are as painful as the death of a partner. It is the death of the dream of the imagined future, as well as the couple’s current life together. It is the end of a mutual set of circumstances: companionship, status and often financial security may all be affected by unwanted change. Many people define themselves in relation to their partners, and subsequently when that partner dies they fear they will fall apart. Their grief is emotional and physical, severely disrupting the stability of their world. And one of the most painful aspects of losing a partner is having to parent alone.

[My patients] Caitlin, Kayleigh and Stephen all experienced the death of their partner, but that is where their similarities ended. Each of their responses was entirely individual. Their reactions were shaped by a combination of many factors: not only did their genetic make-up, personality type and the events surrounding the death play a part, but also the story of what had happened to them in their lives, and the belief systems and expectations that came about as a result. Their relationship with their partner influenced the extent of their loss, and the course their grief would take, though the support available to them would also be influential in how well they would manage after the death.

The difference in numbers and attitudes between men and women

In my practice I have seen many more women than men whose partners have died. This does not mirror exactly the actual statistics. In 2014 there were 3.5 million widows and widowers in England and Wales, about 7 percent of the population. Of these, 48 percent were male and 52 percent female. Women tend to seek social support following a bereavement, while men rely more on their own resources to cope.

It is important to point out that counselling is by no means the only form of support. Talking to friends, writing a journal, painting –  whatever the route, the important thing is to find a way of expressing the grief.

The difference in attitudes to grief depending on age

The generation born before the 1960s don’t tend to seek therapy when a partner dies, as they were brought up to be self-reliant and to view mental illness of any kind as a weakness.

When the death conforms to a general idea of life expectancy, interestingly, the men over eighty seem to suffer more from the loss and take longer to recover than women of a similar age. My guess is that research in the next ten years will show that men who are in their twenties to forties now will be much more likely to seek counselling when they are older – something I am already seeing clinically, as the num-ber of younger men coming to me has increased.

The difference in grief when the death is after a long life or a life cut short

Statistically, the majority of partners’ deaths are people who have lived a long life. Their surviving partner is likely to be very sad, but they recognize it isn’t a tragedy, as it has fallen within the normal life span. And there can be relief when someone who has been ill for a long time finally dies, particularly when they have been in pain and their suffering is at an end. Relief may also come from the partner no longer having to assume the role of carer and all the limits on individual freedom that that entails.

When the partner who dies is younger, the grief can be more intense: the surviving partner is mourning the future they expected to have together as well as the death. If it is a sudden death, the level of distress is magnified further. Even when the couple are much older, sudden death can bring about an intensity of loss that is the same.

Julia Samuel will be speaking alongside radical undertakers Ru and Claire Callender, Louise Winter of Poetic Endings and Idler agony aunt Virginia Ironside at our event on Wednesday 7 March. Buy tickets here. Click here to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts. Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving (Penguin Life) is available in hardback now and will be published in paperback on 1 March. Find out more at griefworks.co.uk.