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Pillars of Strength 7/8: Structure

Psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE has spent 25 years working with bereaved families. In this weekly blog series, the author of Grief Works is sharing her concept of the ‘pillars of strength’, which we can use to help clients grieve and rebuild their lives. Today, Samuel introduces the seventh pillar – structure.

In the chaos of grief we can feel tilted off our central axis. It helps to build a pillar of structure, although it is also important to allow flexibility within it – for too much controlling behaviour can be counterproductive. Because grief and the pain of loss are invisible, committing to doing tangible things in our everyday life can be really helpful, enabling us to manage the pain and gain satisfaction by completing even a small task.

The process of grieving is the movement between the poles of loss and restoration. If we create a sustainable structure in our daily life, it creates opportunities to allow us to move between the two, and in the process adapt to this new life we find ourselves in. Psychologists suggest that not only are we meaning making beings but we are naturally habitual. It saves psychological resources to have regular habits, like putting our left sock on and then our right sock when we get dressed, rather than having to work out what we do every morning.

Only we can know what habits work for us individually. But as therapists we can support our clients to establish the commitment and discipline to consistently follow the structure they’ve designed that best suits them. It builds self-esteem and self-efficacy when a client can be helped to reliably trust in themselves. The other Pillars of Mindbody (see Blog 5), Limits (see Blog 6) and Focussing (see next week’s blog) are an integral part of our Structure when we are bereaved.

Developing a structure

  • Exercise first thing. Perhaps this could be a different exercise on different days, like weight training on one day and a sport another. It is recommended we take exercise 4-5 times a week for the minimum of 20 minutes each time.
  • Include some work or chores. It helps concentration to limit this to 40 minutes at a time, like a school lesson. Our concentration is limited when we are bereaved, so after 40 minutes, get up, get a breath of air, a cup of water, walk around and then go back for another stretch of time.
  • Take time to remember the person who has died. This would not necessarily be every day, though some people feel giving even a small nod to the person who has died, like stroking their photograph, supports them to manage all the things they have to do without them.
  • Actively choose to do soothing, calming things. This could be buying flowers, having a massage, cooking nice food, watching box sets, or listening to music. Some find it takes a long time before they can concentrate on reading.
  • Build good sleeping habits. Switch off all phones and computers two hours before bed, have a cold, dark bedroom, and don’t work or watch television from your bed so that it is associated with sleep and relaxation.

Supporting our client to develop a structure of good habits has the multiplier effect: the more they do them, the better they feel. It takes about six weeks for a habit to become so habitual that we do it without thinking about it.

Find out more about Julia’s work and writing at Grief Works

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Julia Samuel

Julia Samuel MBE, Msc, MBACP (Snr Accredited) UKCP Registered Psychotherapist was Psychotherapist for Paediatrics at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington, the post she established in 1992, where her role for 25 years involved seeing families who have children or babies who die, and where she trained and supported the staff.

In 1994 she worked to help launch and establish The Child Bereavement Charity, and as the Founder Patron was involved and continues to be involved in many aspects of the charities work, having a key role in fundraising, strategy and training. In 2016, Julia was awarded an MBE in recognition of her services to bereaved children, and in 2017 Middlesex University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate. In 2017 Julia published Grief Works, which was a bestseller in the UK and has been published in 17 countries. She also has a private practice where she sees families and individuals for many different issues.

Roles: Chairman Birthright (Wellbeing) (1992-5); Founder Patron the Child Bereavement Charity 1994+; Trustee Child Bereavement Charity 2008+; Tutor Metanoia Institute 1997-2008; Governor of British Association of Counselling  and Psychotherapy (2001-2004); Vice President British Association Counselling and Psychotherapy Nov 2013+.

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