Princess Diana's Close Friend Shares Beautiful Advice for Coping with Grief
"No position protects you against the pain of your loss," Julia Samuel tells PEOPLE
When Princess Diana died in Paris 20 years ago, reserved Britons displayed an extraordinarily public grief that had never been seen in peacetime.
The flood of flowers, tears and mourners was both a reflection of profound loss and a change in society inspired by Diana’s emotional impact.
“There was something about her openness and authenticity — everybody felt they knew her, and they felt they had a version of her inside themselves,” says grief psychologist Julia Samuel, who was Diana’s friend.
“It does mark the beginning of a shift. From the two World Wars, there was no capacity to grieve,” says Samuel. “People had to have a stiff upper lip, because everyone was grieving someone they loved. [50 years later], there is a capacity and a space to be able to express our feelings in a way that my parents’ generation never could.”
Today, as she did then, Samuel, who is the founding patron of Child Bereavement UK, is working to help those with loss through her counseling work as well as a new book, Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving.
“There is so much misunderstanding and ignorance around grief, and that generates fear — so that when people are bereaved, they don’t know what to expect and how to support themselves,” she tells PEOPLE.
“Pain is the agent of change. The thing that you don’t want to feel is actually what you have to find a way of supporting. It’s through allowing yourself to feel the pain that you heal, because it forces you to realize that this person has died, that your reality is altered.”
Samuel’s career in counseling began by accident. The mother of four grew up as the youngest of five children, a daughter of a member of the banking arm of the Guinness family. (Her sister Sabrina briefly stepped out with Prince Charles.) She had been an interior designer in the 1980s and, by chance, she was asked to head up the fundraising arm of Birthright, a mother and baby charity (now called Wellbeing of Women).
She had no experience with families losing children and soon afterward was asked to visit a support group — a moment that opened her eyes to the world of counseling. Following some volunteering, she started pioneering work alongside the pediatric team at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington (where Prince George and Princess Charlotte were born). Today she continues that work, as a pediatric counselor at the public National Health Service hospital, and through her private practice.
Her strategy is laid out in the book in the form of eight “pillars of strength.”
“It’s about building systems to help you manage the pain,” she explains. “Then over time, you adjust to this new reality and find a way of living again. A different life, but living and loving again.”
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It was a meeting with Diana at a dinner party in 1987 that started an immediate and close bond. The princess was a vital and passionate supporter of the then-named Child Bereavement Trust. A decade later, Samuel grieved her friend along with the rest of the world.
Now two decades after Diana’s death, Samuel’s links to the late princess — both personal and professional — continue via Prince William, who publicly supports her charity’s work. (Samuel is also one of Prince George’s godparents). William and his wife Kate visited the charity earlier this year.
“People can see his empathy and his compassion, which is informed by his experience but also by his years as a man,” says Samuel. “They connect to that and find it extremely healing.”
She adds, “Whether you’re a prince or a member of the public, how we experience grief is both universal and extremely personal. No position protects you against the pain of your loss. A bereaved child, of 14, would look at [William] and feel the same kind of loss if their mother died. That experience when he meets families is present in his face before he even speaks.”
And like Willliam, who is using Heads Together to combine the talents of many agencies tackling mental health difficulties, she urges people to prepare for the inevitable.
“We have this magical thinking that if I don’t talk about death its not going to happen,” she advises. “So, talk to your family and friends and about your own thoughts about death and dying and also about theirs.
“An examined death is as important as an examined life. Talking is how we prepare.”