On a cold November night, we gathered for this year’s final talk in the Pureland Series: Coping with Loss and Grief with panellists Julia Samuel, Victoria Milligan and chair Tom Bradby.
As a renowned psychotherapist specialising in grief counselling, Julia Samuel has spent the past 25 years working with bereaved families, providing advice on how to come to terms with the agony of losing a loved one.
Throughout the talk, Samuel provided eloquent and profound advice to those who have suffered loss, beginning with a show of hands as to who had lost a parent, partner or child. It was an incredibly powerful way of recognising that every audience member had their own reason to attend, but that we all shared the same feelings of grief.
“Every loss is unique,” stated Samuel, “but there are universal norms of grief that we see and can learn to cope with.”
A heart-breaking story of loss is that of Victoria Milligan, who offered an insightful, moving and candid account of the death of her husband and daughter in a speedboat accident that also left her an amputee. Suddenly facing life as a widow, bereaved single parent and with injuries of her own, Milligan’s recovery was assisted by Samuel, and her personal experience added to an engaging discussion on the ways in which we cope.
Alongside Samuel and Milligan, journalist and former foreign correspondent Tom Bradby chaired the talk with humility and insight into his own experiences reporting on death and tragedy for ITV News. His questioning felt unflinchingly raw but necessary, suggesting that we do not talk about mortality and death anywhere near as much as we should. We learn to deal with the death of loved ones through a cultural veil; while our approach may alter as we age, the emotion remains as poignant and painful as ever. It is, as Bradby put it, “the agony of being a human being. We have learnt so much about life, but have yet to learn to deal with its antithesis.”
Milligan continued the discussion with an insight into the immediate effects of the deaths of her partner and child, expressing her initial feelings of all-encompassing grief and exhaustion – managed by setting a series of small achievable goals – and the impact of keeping a journal to look back on and reflect on recovery.
Together Samuel and Milligan discussed the physical effects of grief and the impact of shock and guilt. Samuel’s reflections on Milligan’s recovery and the latter’s experience of it were insightful. Samuel stated that we are inclined to feel enormous grief and blame at the death of a loved one; hence the numbness one feels is a survival instinct, meant as a form of protection that allows us to heal.
“Pain is an agent of change,” Samuel elaborated. “Pain allows grief to be let through us, and it is what we do to block grief that is the most harmful to us.”
It is, as Samuel continued, “a battle of the head and the heart; the head knows what has happened but the heart finds it hard to accept.” Pain keeps a person close, meaning that when moments of happiness are experienced, it can feel like a betrayal of the deceased.
A useful metaphor expressed by Milligan was the idea of grief being seen as a physical thing – in her case, a tennis ball in a bell jar. The tennis ball consumes the space, filling it up and making it hard to manage. As time passes, the tennis ball is moved to a larger jar, illustrating that although the size of the grief remains constant, the space around it – and ultimately the strategies one develops to deal with it – become larger.
Samuel continued her exploration of coping strategies by suggesting that we must learn to show more compassion to our inner self, acting as might a caring friend. Here the conversation turned to gender differences and whether grief affected men and women differently; the answer was too nuanced to discuss in detail but Samuel touched upon it when she stated that men are normally wired to get on with things and hide their emotions in order to remain strong for others, whereas women are more likely to dwell and be more open about their feelings. Although neither reaction is necessarily wrong, what can be harmful are the fault lines in understanding that develop. Interestingly, men are 60 per cent more likely to remarry within a year of being widowed than women.
Wrapping up the talk, the panel discussed differences in generational experiences of grief and loss, Milligan comparing her experiences with those of her remaining children. “It is by remembering that we heal,” stated Samuel. “Older generations were taught to repress emotions surrounding death, particularly in Britain, where a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach was often seen as an appropriate response.”
The floor was then opened up to questions, the first of which came from an audience member who asked Samuel to elaborate on coping strategies. She responded by advising that it is important to recognise that you are not in control of grief and the best way to deal with it is to find small ways of imposing structure. Exercise, meditation and keeping a journal were suggested, while Samuel highlighted the paramount importance of self-compassion.
Further questions explored ideas of cultural and national differences in mourning, the notion of living loss and the complexities surrounding it, concluding with a profound point made by Samuel that older people would be more accepting of their own and others’ mortality.
“It doesn’t matter if you are eight or 98,” Samuel mused. “People tend to experience death how they experience life. If someone is open and accepting in life, they are likely to be more accepting of death in a profound way.”
Grief is something that we all experience, but for which we are often vastly underprepared. Heart-breaking stories were shared in this honest and open discussion on how we must learn to contemplate own mortality if we are to accept the hand that grief and death deal us. This was a powerful finale to this year’s Pureland Series; a reflection on death and loss and the importance of providing platforms for open discussion in order for us to cope with this most fundamental of experiences.