Every night, Julia Samuel goes to bed and silently recites a list of names. She begins with her nine grandchildren, then her three daughters, her son, their partners, and then her husband of 42 years – it’s a ritual she started, to look after her family. And then every morning she gets up, has a cup of tea, and goes upstairs to look after everybody else’s.
Samuel holds a unique place in the British psyche, one seeded before she was born (into the banking side of the Guinness dynasty) and one that grew in complicated ways with her appearance in the tabloids alongside her friend Diana, Princess of Wales, evolving again as she became a counsellor, working in the NHS at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where she pioneered the role of maternity and paediatric psychotherapist, and founded the charity Child Bereavement UK.
Now 62, she’s a bestselling author of books that attempt to guide readers through trauma and change, and consequently has become the public face of bereavement, so often the most darkly private thing. It was Samuel who Brendan Cox called before breaking the news of his wife’s murder to their children, and (though neither have confirmed this) Samuel who Meghan Markle is believed to have called when she felt suicidal during pregnancy. This role, a sort of unofficial grief tsar, must bring with it a certain amount of pressure. “I don’t feel pressure,” she smiles, “I feel energy. The last few years I’ve seen more suffering than I’ve ever seen in my whole career. The fact that there was no bedside or graveside – it’s been a much more complicated grief. Much more protracted, more traumatic. Seeing your partner die on an iPad while you’re isolating at home is truly awful.” What does she think the ripples from this will be? “I think it’ll enter the therapy rooms for years to come.”
It’s her therapy room we are in today, above her west London apartment at the top of five flights of carpeted stairs – she is used to waiting here for clients with a ready glass of water. We are meeting to discuss her third book. – It’s about families, the place we love and hate hardest, the only relationship we can never leave. “I became fascinated by how patterns in families get passed on. And how what isn’t dealt with in one generation goes down to the next until someone’s prepared to feel the pain. Often, it’s the things that are unsaid that cause more harm than the event itself, or the stories that are made up to cover up the secrets.” There are eight case studies, including the family of a gay couple adopting a daughter, the ultra-Orthodox family of a survivor of Auschwitz, and a family finally ready to deal with their father’s suicide. Samuel unrolls each story like a delicate canvas, explaining her own emotional reactions along the way. She’s often told she cries a lot for a therapist. “Well, I’m emotionally invested. And I couldn’t put on a mask – I think part of being able to create a therapeutic relationship is that it’s genuine. But I keep one foot in my world so I can move back and then be responsive. Because otherwise…” What? “I’m not doing my job properly.”
Her book begins with the line, “Every family has a story,” except, her family never told theirs. She grew up in a house of privilege and ghosts, where her three siblings and twin brother were raised with stiff upper lips and framed photographs of the dead. At 20, she married, and over the next nine years had four children. Becoming a parent herself inspired her to think about her own parents’ histories of addiction, and at 27 she went with a friend to an AA meeting. “I heard people talking about how they actually felt. I had no idea that people could really do that – it was incredibly powerful. Now when I look back, I think I wanted to do this work because of all the unexpressed loss of my parents. But it took me a long time, and quite a lot of therapy to work that out.” Over the course of writing this book, meeting families over Zoom, people who hadn’t come to her to unpick their pasts but instead to deal with their painful presents, she found herself changed again.
“I was a very imperfect mother and I’m also an imperfect grandmother,” she chuckles. “But I’m a bit more compassionate towards myself about it now. And I felt differently about my own parents, too, how they had been so impacted by their history, their losses. After writing the book, I ‘got it’ in a much deeper way.” Can she tell me more about that? “You’d be a very good therapist,” Samuel smiles, and I wait, professionally. “Well. I really love my [late] mum and dad, but they were quite old-school. I had understood psychologically why they didn’t talk much about the people they’d lost, for instance their parents in the First World War. But I think I still held some level of criticism for them. And now I can see they didn’t really have any option.” She’s reluctant to talk about her own children, or how her (allegedly) “imperfect” parenting might have impacted them, but she will offer a quote from Nora Ephron. “She said: ‘You know you’ve brought up successful kids when they can earn enough to pay for their own therapy.’ Ha!”
Samuel’s destiny, when she was growing up, was the life of a comfortable housewife, perhaps a little light fundraising. And for a while it looked as though she was content with that – she worked as an interior decorator in the 1980s, sharing school pick-ups with Diana. “But I always liked work. The structure, the purpose of it. It’s a big part of my identity. I like being a different person, being outside your family. I didn’t know until later how meaningful that was.”
At 31, after training, she went to work in the obstetric unit of St Mary’s as its first counsellor for families whose children had died. Before then there was very little support around stillbirths in the UK. “I think in some ways, not knowing what I didn’t know supported me. So I listened and I cared.” Her first case was a couple whose daughter had been born at 28 weeks and died a month later. Recently, walking through an airport, Samuel saw the mother again – they’d had another child, he’d recently got married, they hugged. She grins, remembering. “You don’t ever get over a loss of a child, but by the time they stopped seeing me they did find a way of living with it.”
Three years later, Samuel founded a national charity that supports families and trains professionals to help when a child dies or is bereaved. “It was about getting the hospitals to stop saying, basically, ‘You need to move on.’” In practice that meant things such as encouraging maternity units to help parents of stillborn babies to take photos and footprints, to have a proper funeral. “So that they have memories, really. Because the moments between the birth and the funeral is the only time they’ll ever have with that baby. And they can’t go back and put that right. You need to give them time to make important decisions: do I dress them in this? Will the siblings come and see the baby? All that felt very… significant.”
It occurs to me that through her work Samuel is providing a map to lead her parents’ generation, whose framed photos of lost relatives took the place of conversation about death, towards a healthier future where grief is understood, acceptable and sometimes messy. For all her celebrity attachments, it’s her ability to act as a link that will be her legacy. She pauses to consider. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. But yes, I’ve taken the learning from my experience and used it to improve the experiences of other people. Talking about death and bereavement is unbearable, so I want everyone to get the support they need, from the institutions but also from their family, so they don’t say the wrong things.” What are the wrong things? “‘Don’t worry, you can have another one!’ Or, ‘They were so little, you didn’t even know them.’” She shudders slightly.
Before working with a gay couple who were planning to adopt a baby she “immersed” herself in research papers, LGBTQ+ books, data and memoirs, and “gave herself a sharp dig”. “I didn’t realise I was so heterosexually biased,” she says. “It was a wonderful expansion of understanding.” It’s striking throughout her book how regularly Samuel names her privilege, pausing in the narrative to describe the research she took on or the discomfort she felt. “Well, of course. The thing I always start with is that when we work together, we bring our histories with us. Our histories will meet and if I have misunderstood what you’re saying or what your experiences are, let me know. But what I didn’t take on board before was the level of privilege I have just walking into a shop. And not having that experience of being looked at like a Black woman might, or their weathering of anxiety of being a black body in a white space. That’s what I’m learning all the time. I still find it uncomfortable. But there’s no way I can work authentically with people without naming our differences of experience.”
When she left St Mary’s after 25 years, she began working with adults who were dying. “It put me much more in touch with my own mortality.” She wrote down all her passwords and WhatsApped a photo of them to her children, “telling them I have prepared everything that I’d want when I died, that I didn’t want to be resuscitated, all these kinds of things”. She’d realised we need to be talking about death when we are alive and well. “There was a woman I was seeing whose friends would not talk to her about the fact she was dying. They kept saying things like, ‘The medicine is amazing, you’re going to be fine.’ And she was never going to be fine. That had a big impact.”
Sometimes Samuel recites an acronym: Fine – freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional. But spending her time facing death did two things to her. It made her grateful for her own life and that of the people she loves. And it made her turn off the TV. “Yes, when I’m not working I want nothing to do with death. So I don’t watch sad films. I don’t read sad books. I don’t watch the news. I do everything that is to do with life and vibrancy and happy endings.” She started kickboxing 28 years ago, “because it makes me feel fierce and strong”. Seated still, she shows me two stabby little punches before smoothing down the dark florals of her dress. “It’s a way of releasing all my frustration – I find it incredibly satisfying.” What does she think about when she’s boxing? “People’s stories that I’m upset about, or more often nothing at all – I just feel pure, pure joy.”
Fighting is something that matters to Samuel. Despite her boxing skills, “I am not very good at fighting,” she says. “But inevitably where we love most we also annoy each other most. And if we keep swallowing what’s annoyed us, it causes a separation. Fighting productively means not using words as weapons of mass destruction.” The crucial thing is the repair – when everyone has calmed down, she says it’s important to discuss what the fight was really about. “And it may have been that your mum forgot your swimming kit that morning. But it also could have been that you feel sad because you felt forgotten. Then you feel closer and more trusting, because you can fight and still be loved.” As she was reminded by working with families over lockdown, sometimes these fights are never resolved. Like that forgotten swimming kit, they ripen and grow mould, poisoning relationships for decades to come. “Problems get buried and then dragged up. And so, you don’t feel loved afterwards, you feel injured. And that can stay in you forever.” I say I feel like this should be part of the curriculum. “Definitely!”
So, I must ask… I start. “Oh, must you?” she winces. We have to talk about her relationship with Diana and her sons – Samuel is godmother to Prince George and as such remains a figure of intense interest, with details of the type of presents she gives him (large, noisy and with many complicated pieces for William to put together) verging on front page news. “Well, I feel lucky I was such a good friend of Princess Diana. And I really love my godson, George. And it’s a lovely way of loving her,” she says, elegantly. I wonder how much influence she had on the princes’ decision, which at the time felt so radical, to talk publiclyabout their own mental health. “I think both the princes have really turned the dial on talking about grief so honestly and also about mental health. But that was all theirs – completely off their own bats.” I remember driving through London the nights following Diana’s death, seeing all the flowers, their scent heavy on the wind. How did it feel to grieve her friend’s death privately when strangers were grieving so loudly? “I felt angry,” she says. “I was angry that she died, and shocked and I couldn’t really understand it all. I mean, I understand it better now.” I wait. “I understand that people felt they really knew and loved her. But I still feel sad today.”
She looks a little pained and I apologise – it’s one thing to ask her to talk about grief, it’s quite another to ask repeatedly about a friend who died 25 years ago. “I feel that in some ways, my professional life is completely separate from my friendships and private life. But, of course, nothing is separate. Who I am and who I know is also part of my professional self. And so…” she shrugs. “That’s me.”
I ready myself to go back outside, into a square behind Hyde Park where the country is limping back to work after months at home. As well as grief, Samuel has seen in her clients the smaller irritations the pandemic has caused, the anxieties, the pains. “But pain is the agent of change. So we have to allow this new reality to hit us. And it’s uncomfortable, so we have to support ourselves through it, mainly through love and connection.” How does she deal with change? “I really don’t like it, so I resist.” And then? “And then,” she grins, leaning forward in her consulting chair, “I swallow my own medicine.”
‘My parents shaped me’
Julia Samuel reflects on her own family’s trauma in this extract from her new book
The story of the family I was born into was one of great privilege and multiple traumas. But we didn’t tell stories. There was no narrative or understanding of what had been, what was going on, or how to deal with it. My parents were young adults during the Second World War. My father was in the Navy and my mother was a Land Girl. But that was not where their injuries lay. My mother’s parents and two siblings had all died suddenly and unexpectedly by the time she was 25 years old. My father’s father and brother had also died, without warning, when he was still a young man. Their fathers had fought in the First World War. As with the majority of people living in that era, and as my generation of baby-boomers can attest, they abided by the need to survive and multiply. They had admirable tenacity, grit and courage. Their route to survival, the only one open to them, was to forget and move on. They lived by the adage that what you don’t talk or think about won’t hurt you. Putting on a good show, hiding vulnerability and, yes, a stiff upper lip were the mantras of my childhood and that of most of my generation. But even when it’s out of sight – perhaps especially when it’s out of sight – the fingerprint of love and loss inside us continues to gather complexity. It isn’t always visible to the naked eye, but is still complicated, still textured, still painful.
What is often not recognised is that behaviours like these are the legacy of trauma. Trauma doesn’t have language. Trauma has no concept of time. It sits on high alert in our bodies, ready to be ignited many decades after the original traumatic event. It doesn’t allow for the processing of emotion. For me it meant many pieces of the jigsaw were missing. I remember looking at black-and-white photographs of my dead grandparents, aunts and uncles, examining them for clues because I knew practically nothing about them. The first time I saw a photograph of my maternal grandfather was this year. There were so many secrets and so much was left unsaid that I look back at my parents now and wonder: what did they know? What did they think about? Did they know what they felt? As a couple, did they ever talk about the things that mattered to them? And those secrets, did they tell each other or not? They certainly didn’t voice any of it within my earshot.
This meant I was constantly observing and listening for clues. As it turned out it was the perfect brew to ferment a psychotherapist: I was always curious, listening intently, keenly interested in what was happening behind the façade, like a detective looking in the dust for footprints.
My parents have died yet they live on in me, continually shaping and influencing me, as do all our key relationships. I am hugely grateful to them. I learnt from them many crucial skills, behaviours and ways of being that serve me well. I still benefit now from the immense opportunities they gave me.
I am no different from my clients – every one I have counselled has focused on their family. They want to know why they have difficulty with their relatives or describe why they love them, and everything in between. In my therapy, I spent great tracts of time exploring my family of origin and my family now, trying to make sense of what was going on.
At its best, family is the safe place where we can be our whole selves, with all of our frailties and faultlines, and still be loved and deeply understood. Ideally, it is a place where the roots of our development are fully known, the atmosphere we grew up in acknowledged.
When they are “good enough”, as Donald Winnicott, the eminent paediatrician and psychoanalyst, termed it, families form the bedrock of our lives, a foundation that keeps us steady when we face the brickbats of life. When functioning well, we can turn to our family in adversity, and for team support. When the external world feels fractured and alienating, home and family can be a refuge to heal and rebuild our strength.
We may not see our family, but they are still part of us, genetically, in our memories and our unconscious. We can never leave them, as we can a partner or a friendship.
There are ongoing debates about nature and nurture. When we are born we are given a genetic blueprint: our propensity for intelligence, athleticism and character traits, and we know that their potential can be fulfilled or blunted by our environment. The random luck of what kind of family we are born into, wealth or poverty, history, psychological health and family patterns, influences the quality of the nurture. But at the heart of wellbeing is our core identity: “I am loved and I belong. This family is my home and safe place whatever happens to me or them.”
From my own experience and what I have learnt from the families I see, when comparing non-biologically and biologically related families, the stories we tell ourselves become who we are. When we are told truthful stories, we trust that we are loved and belong. And we thrive, whatever our genetic inheritance or connection.
Families are messy, chaotic and imperfect. Where we love and care most, we also hurt most, fight hardest and make our deepest mistakes. Yet we thrive when our family is held securely within and around us. It is worth the effort, heartache and strife. When we can trust in it, it can be the force that holds us together when our world is upended. Even across great distances, when our family is at the centre of our being it can help us find our own equilibrium despite the disorder and madness in the world.
The best thing we can do to help this is to prioritise our family, in our hearts, our minds – and with our time.
Every Family Has a Story by Julia Samuel is published by Penguin Life on 17 March at £14.99. Buy it for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com