How to let grief work for you | Julia Samuel

The death of a loved one creates an inner wound that can’t be ignored. Healing it requires work

Grief is profoundly misunderstood. We seem happy to talk about sex or our sense of failure, or to expose our deepest vulnerabilities. But on death and loss we are silent. Which is why Prince Harry and the Duke of Cambridge were so courageous in talking openly about the mental health taboo their grief following their mother’s death – having a greater impact in a week, than I’ve managed in 20 years. Most of the time we prefer it when the bereaved don’t show their distress, and we say how “amazing” they are for being “so strong”. But, despite the language we use to try to deny death – euphemisms such as “passed over”, “lost”, “gone to a better place” – the harsh truth is that, as a society, we are ill-equipped to deal with it. The lack of control and powerlessness that we are forced to contend with goes against our 21st-century belief that medical technology can fix us; or if it can’t, that sufficient quantities of determination can.

Every day thousands of people die, expectedly and unexpectedly – 500,000 deaths a year occur in England alone. On average, every death affects at least five people, which means that, cumulatively, millions will be hit by the shock of the news. They will forever remember where they were when they heard that their parent, or sibling, or friend, or child, was dying or had died. It will impact on every aspect of their world for the rest of their lives and ultimately alter their relationship with themselves. How successfully they manage their grief will, in turn, come to touch the family and friends around them.

The pain we feel is invisible, an unseen wound that is greater or smaller depending on how much we loved the person who has died. It may be that we are grieving a sudden death or an anticipated one. Either way, the sky we look up at is the same sky as before the death, but when we look in the mirror the person we see has changed.

Death is the great exposer: it forces hidden fault lines and submerged secrets into the open, and reveals to us how crucial those closest to us have been. But those surrounding us don’t necessarily understand the complexity of what has happened or the depth of the injury we are carrying.

Grief forces us to face our own mortality, which we have spent an entire lifetime denying. Often through the creation of order, we have predictability and, most importantly, control. Death shatters control; it is brutal in its ultimate power over us and it is this fact we find so impossible to accept.

Yet I have regularly seen that it is not the pain of grief that damages individuals, and even whole families, but the things we do to avoid that pain.

Society approves if the bereaved person is getting on with things and disapproves if they withdraw and fail to cope. Paradoxically, the grief that should cause concern is the one that is cut short, by self-medicating against the pain, for example. As a society we need to learn to support a healthy grieving, and to help people to understand that each person goes at their own pace.

To grieve we need to find a way of enduring the pain of the loss, not fighting or blocking it, and for that we need support – the love of our family and friends; and we need to understand what the process entails.

Grief is a process that has to be worked through – and experience has taught me that grief is extremely hard work, but it is also essential if we want to move forward and heal.

Grief Works by Julia Samuel (Penguin Life, £14.99) is out now. To order a copy for £11.24, go to

Julia Samuel

The GuardianTramp

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