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Princess Diana’s friend, psychotherapist Julia Samuel, on the Grief Works app she helped launch and which taps her 30 years of experience helping others through loss

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 19/9/2021
a cat sitting in front of a mirror posing for the camera: There is no one way to mourn. A new app from psychotherapist Julia Samuel gives users the time and space to explore what is right for them. Photo: Getty Images There is no one way to mourn. A new app from psychotherapist Julia Samuel gives users the time and space to explore what is right for them. Photo: Getty Images

Julia Samuel, a British psychotherapist, has had a long career caring for those suffering from grief.

She has worked in the field for more than 30 years and written two books, Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving in 2017 and This Too Shall Pass: Stories of Change, Crisis and Hopeful Beginnings in 2020.

Now Samuel has brought interactive grief app Grief Works to the market, working with Nick Begley, the former head of research for the popular mental health app Headspace, and his team at Psychological Technologies.

"I felt there was a gap between the experience of someone reading one of my books and actually receiving in-person therapy, and for many, therapy is out of reach," says Samuel, referring to the long waiting lists and high costs of one-on-one counselling.

a person posing for the camera: Julia Samuel is a British psychotherapist and has had a long career caring for those suffering from grief. © Provided by South China Morning Post Julia Samuel is a British psychotherapist and has had a long career caring for those suffering from grief.

When Begley got in touch with her about creating an app that could help people put the advice from the books into practice, Samuel was "really keen".

"Fast forward two years, we now have an app that can offer high-quality grief support that anyone can carry around with them and turn to at any time," she says.

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"You can download and use it immediately for the price of a coffee a week, and you can interact with it not unlike the way you would with a counsellor - only it's available to you 24 hours a day."

This is not the first time Samuel has been forward-thinking in her field of work. While working for Britain's National Health Service as a bereavement counsellor in the paediatrics department at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, London, she pioneered the role of maternity and paediatric psychotherapy.

In 1994, Samuel was involved in launching Child Bereavement UK and, as a founding patron, is still involved with the charity.

Sabrina Guinness et al. looking at the camera: Samuel's sister Sabrina Guinness with Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, in August 1979. Photo: WireImage © Provided by South China Morning Post Samuel's sister Sabrina Guinness with Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, in August 1979. Photo: WireImage

This is a far cry from her privileged, society girl upbringing. Born into the Anglo-Irish brewing and banking Guinness family, her father was James Rundell Guinness from the banking side, her brother Hugo is a well-known artist and illustrator, and her sister, television producer Sabrina Guinness - now Lady Stoppard - famously dated Prince Charles before he married Diana Spencer.

Samuel, who at age 20 married into the Hill Samuel family, was known in the late 1980s and '90s for being a close friend of Diana, Princess of Wales. They met at a dinner in 1987.

"We started laughing together. There was something about her and something about me that just worked," she told You magazine in 2015. After the death of the princess in 1997, Samuel stayed close to her sons, Princes William and Harry, and is godmother to Diana's first grandchild and third in line to the throne, Prince George.

"In my late 20s, I worked as a volunteer with (mental health charity) Mind, and then I worked as a volunteer in a bereavement service and rapidly realised that this was the work I would want to do for the rest of my life," says the 62-year-old, who was made an MBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2016. "It was the deep connection to others, creating a relationship and being able to make a difference that inspired me."

She explains how she was drawn to work in the field of grief. "Both my parents had experienced multiple significant losses before I was born, but didn't talk about them. I was drawn to know what was really going on psychologically, which led me to realise that we need to love and remember those who have died, rather than forget and move on - which was my parents' response."

She is now vice-president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Her expertise and understanding of how to assist people experiencing grief has enabled her to change many lives. And now the new app can help her to reach even more people.

Grief Works has prompts and practices to guide users to explore their feelings and write down their thoughts in a journal, and gives advice on how to approach sensitive topics that typically crop up in the bereavement process, such as how to manage milestone dates like anniversaries, how to say no when everything gets too overwhelming, and how to honour a loved one's memory.

graphical user interface, application, chat or text message: Grief Works is an interactive grief app and has prompts and practices to guide users to explore their feelings. © Provided by South China Morning Post Grief Works is an interactive grief app and has prompts and practices to guide users to explore their feelings.

"If there's one thing I've learned from more than 30 years counselling the bereaved, it's that there is no one-size-fits-all way to mourn, and it's certainly not a linear process, so the app gives you the time and space to explore what is right for you, guiding you to a place where you can live and love again," says Samuel.

"There are also meditations, breathing visualisations, and even yoga and HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions that you can do whenever you need."

Samuel notes that unresolved grief is at the root of 15 per cent of all mental disorders.

"Unresolved grief can lead to complex grief and depression, both of which can deteriorate and be utterly disabling, whether in the short or long term. If grief is not dealt with as soon as possible, it tends to come out in some unexpected way in the future," she explains.

Samuel's expertise and understanding of how to assist people experiencing grief has enabled her to change many lives. Photo: Getty Images/Maskot © Provided by South China Morning Post Samuel's expertise and understanding of how to assist people experiencing grief has enabled her to change many lives. Photo: Getty Images/Maskot

Apps for those suffering from mental health issues have increased in recent years, and when asked where the technology might go from here, Samuel replies: "I imagine that someday, someone will try to make use of AI to make a personalised therapy app.

"It will be like you're talking to a therapist - but I'm not sure how I feel about a non-sentient being giving advice on how to live and love."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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