22 Apr Julia Samuel’s App for Grief
Julia Samuel is the creator of Grief Works, an app for grief that Apple has named App of The Day and that users have called life-changing. She has had more than 30 years of experience helping the bereaved, as a psychotherapist and founder patron of Child Bereavement UK. She has written two best selling books, Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass, which have become essential reading for anyone experiencing a death in their life. She often gives presentations and hosts a podcast that talks not only about grief over death, but also “living losses.”
Her dedication to helping people navigate their grief has earned her an MBE.
We sat down with Julia to find out more about her background and her inspirations behind the app.
Why did you become a psychotherapist, and then ultimately choose to focus on grief?
I worked as a volunteer with Mind in my late 20’s 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. It was the deep connection to others, creating a relationship and being able to make a difference that inspired me.
I was drawn to work in the field of grief because both my parents had experienced multiple significant losses before I was born, but didn’t talk about them, It meant I was drawn to know what was really going on psychologically, and 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.
Why did you decide to create a grief app?
I felt there was a gap between the experience of someone reading one of my books (Grief Works, This Too Shall Pass) and actually receiving in-person therapy, and also actively actually doing the work of grief and for many, therapy is out of reach. So when Nick Begley from PSYT got in touch with me (former head of research at Headspace) to create an app that could people put the advice from the books into practice, I 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 at any time.
How does it help people more than let’s say old fashion one on one counselling?
When it comes to grief, many people are unable to access counselling due to long waiting lists at counselling organisations, time or financial constraints, and others are unwilling to ask for help, due to taboos around grief and death. That’s where I see Grief Works come in; 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.
The app has prompts and practices to guide you to explore your feelings, journal your thoughts, and 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 honor your memories of your loved one. 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.
There are also meditations, breathing visualisations, and even yoga and HIIT sessions that you can do whenever you need. In fact, users rate the practices as helping them feel better immediately 92% of the time.
We’ve also heard from users who use the app alongside their weekly therapy sessions, and they’ve found that it accelerates their progress, because they can access it daily, rather than merely once a week. The journal is particularly useful because you can then go through it with your therapist when you next meet.
Most people cannot afford the time or money to see counsellors, and have to sort out their problems themselves – does this app now give access to those people now?
Seeking professional help is still seen as taboo, and even if it isn’t, there is an unseen barrier that people find hard to overcome to actually accessing support. This is confounded by our ignorance about bereavement; unfortunately there’s a view amongst some that you should “just get over it” when someone close to you dies, which means even people with the means don’t ask for help.
The app is therefore a way for someone experiencing grief to navigate it in a completely personal, private way. And it’s a lot more affordable than therapy.
We tried to make the app as close as possible to the experience you get from speaking with a bereavement therapist. The app takes you through all the common experiences of the bereaved — like regrets, guilt, anger, how to deal with milestone dates like anniversaries — and has prompts and self reflection exercises to help them explore what’s going on inside, and finally, to find their own, unique way to what I call “the new normal.”
The structure of the app is such that you can dip in and out as you wish, be guided by the sessions chronologically, or do a 5-10 minute practice when you feel the need arise (even if it’s at 3 in the morning!). This is really useful for someone grieving because oftentimes, they’re so upset that they can’t bring themselves to do any more than that. And that’s totally fine.
Where does the marriage of tech and counselling go from here?
I imagine that someday, someone will try to make use of AI to make a therapy app so personalised, 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!
Grief Works app is available on the App Store for £49.99 / quarter. To download and try the app Grief Works on the App Store, click here.