Julia Samuel, psychotherapist: “The perfect family is a big lie”

Before starting the interview with La Vanguardia, Julia Samuel warns, via e-mail, that she has facial paralysis: “I wear a patch,” she writes.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
03 April 2024 Wednesday 10:24
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Julia Samuel, psychotherapist: “The perfect family is a big lie”

Before starting the interview with La Vanguardia, Julia Samuel warns, via e-mail, that she has facial paralysis: “I wear a patch,” she writes. When we connect, via Zoom, and this journalist is interested in her condition, she explains that a skiing accident has led to a strange syndrome, known as Ramsay Hunt, which affects the facial nerves. Another person would have canceled the interview, but Julia Samuel is not an ordinary woman. Already in her day she defied the standards that her birth set for her (she was born into the Guinness family, known for its banking businesses and, of course, for the famous beer), and dedicated herself to psychotherapy, specializing in grief. . She has worked for British social security and in 1994 she founded Child Bereavement UK, an organization that supports families who have suffered the death of a child.

Samuel is also known for his close friendship with Diana of Wales, whom he met in the late 1980s. Diana was the godmother of one of her children and today Julia is godmother of her grandson and second in line to the British crown, Prince George, son of William and Catherine. This is something that makes her, she says, very happy, “and it is a fabulous way to love her,” she said in The Guardian. But the interview is not about the missing princess, whose loss still saddens him, but about her role as a writer and therapist, reflected in 'Every family has a story', published in Spanish by the Kairós publishing house.

In this book, Samuel discusses issues common to families, such as loss, separation, and relationships between stepchildren. He shows us how pain can be healed and gives us tools to create the families we want. Families that, he warns, should never aspire to be perfect, but simply “good enough.”

He begins the book by talking about his family, marked "by great privileges and multiple traumas," he writes. Among the latter, many losses, which no one talked about. Why is there so much silence around death?

I think we all have a kind of “magical thinking” about what scares us and death is an unknown territory, which makes us afraid. So there is almost a childish reaction, of: "What I don't see, what I don't think, can't affect me." It is a defense mechanism to protect us, but what it does is keep us in ignorance.

Isn't this ignorance useful?

No, because by trying to understand death and grief we acquire a capacity for trust that helps us. That's why I think we should talk about death in the family like we talk about birth. With children and with parents. Ask them things like: What do you think about death? What do you fear? My main message is that what we do not face, we do not fix and, although death cannot be fixed, confronting it, understanding it, serves to expand your stability and your family system. But death tends to hide.

In his family, without going any further…

Yes, my parents, at 25 years old, had already suffered very significant losses. And the answer was to forget and move on. Survive and procreate. They had no other options. Today, although the world seems more dangerous, we have much more knowledge, more capacity to think and process these things. So I think we should take this opportunity and help each other: what allows us to overcome pain is the love and support of others.

Who should build this support? Because in many families, when there is a death, a very thick silence is created. Why, sometimes, the most difficult place to talk about those who are not there is one's own family?

I think it's because of the trauma. Trauma changes the way the brain operates: it resides in the brain's amygdala, which is where our emotions are processed, and any mention, sight, or smell can trigger memories of someone who is not there. And in each family there are different ways of reacting: some evade, others lock themselves in, others confront... In my family they chose to lock themselves in, but we have to find a way to avoid the affliction and work through the trauma, because—and that It's one of the terrible things—trauma can live in a family for generations.

Isn't it unfair that one has to inherit the traumas of one's ancestors?

But remember that we also inherit good things. I focus on traumas and difficulties. When you ask yourself, what problem do I have? You have to look at previous generations to understand them. But we also inherit how to love and enjoy, how to have fun together... Many good things, which, hopefully, will protect us.

Do we inherit the good and the bad?

Yes, and although it is not the definitive solution, knowing what has happened in our family, those secrets from the past that no one has faced (traumas such as an abortion, a suicide, going to prison, an infidelity, a ruin, suffering a war...) , understanding these losses and having compassion, helps to understand what happens in the family, to know what your parents are like. That gives us a firm foundation that will help us.

But to have all that information you need to talk, and silence is common in many families. Are silences and secrets sometimes necessary?

It is believed that silence protects us, but it is a wall that isolates us and does not allow us to have those important conversations. In any case, I don't necessarily believe in the promiscuity of telling everything, although I do believe that in the most significant relationships it is essential to talk about things. In a family, tiptoeing around, not talking about certain things, can fragment it, make it very fragile and distrustful.

These silences around grief can affect children... How can we explain death to them? How can we help them in this situation?

Children are often the invisible mourners. There is a whole narrative around them, such as "they are extraordinary", "they endure everything", "they are strong". But what we know is that to build resilience they need the same truth as the adults around them. Children learn to navigate these experiences of pain and trauma by watching adults.

Whatever we do, they will do…

The model followed to restore ourselves after a death is to allow the pain to appear, express it and adapt it. Children must be allowed to grieve. But also life, hope: that is why we must let them express the pain, but also have fun, see their friends... It is these oscillations between loss and restoration that, naturally, allow us to adapt and Let's learn to live with that loss.

Grief is usually linked to people, but can you grieve for things like a lost house, job, status or beauty?

For many people, a house can be equivalent to an entire life story, a place where they felt safe, so leaving it is very hard. Like leaving a country, which can be a huge loss. You can also lose things like your health, your physical appearance (at this moment, I am lost, I am sad, I would not have chosen to have this appearance...). If these other losses are not validated, if you do not give yourself permission to feel sad, you will prevent the sadness from flowing through your system and from enjoying yourself again.

In some of the cases he describes in “Every Family Has a Story,” lack of money is a key factor in family unhappiness. Do rich families suffer less?

Data show that living in poverty causes more illnesses, lower life expectancy and happiness. This is true, but it is also true that the perception that if you have money you don't suffer, is not true. The first story in my book is a test. And I recently interviewed Charles Spencer [brother of Diana of Wales] for my podcast, where he says that, as a child, he was physically and sexually abused at boarding school and did not have protection at home: it is this terrible disconnection of living in a mansion , being an aristocrat, but, inside, being alone and deeply impoverished. Money doesn't protect us from dysfunctional families or mental illness, but it gives us many more resources to solve things.

In this century, also in your country, families have changed: parents show more affection towards their children, there is talk of emotional education... However, there is also talk of an epidemic of mental health problems among young people. How do you explain it?

It's really interesting; It's true that millennials and Generation Z have had more attention from their parents than any other generation in our history. I am totally in favor of paying attention to children, but what happens, sometimes, is that there is an excess, hyper-parenting: children do not learn resilience, nor their ability to make mistakes and learn from them because their parents are constantly doing their homework or solving their problems, rescuing them from everything. I think there is a line between supporting your children and being on top of them all day; It is difficult to know the limits.

After dedicating yourself to families for so many years: Do you still believe in them?

Yes, I believe in family, but in an imperfect family, because every family will make mistakes, fight, hate each other for a few days, reconcile and, in the end, repair themselves. For me the answer is “good enough,” by psychiatrist Donald Winnicott. I hate that curated image of the perfect family that abounds on social media; I find it very harmful, because you are constantly criticizing yourself and what we need is self-compassion, allowing ourselves to make mistakes, being kind to ourselves. This ideal of perfection is intimidating and false because… The perfect family is a big lie!