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Pillars of Strength 6/8: Limits

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 sixth pillar – recognising and asserting our limits.


When we experience a life-changing loss, it is likely to affect our capacity, our clarity and our assertiveness. People often talk about their emptiness, having no gas in their tank, and a sense of hopelessness. It is certainly true that our capacity to even function, let alone think coherently and be engaged in our task, is usually severely diminished by grief.

This can mean clients feel incapable of doing anything, and after the first months of shock we may need to help them implement ways of mitigating against doing absolutely nothing, for that will increase their desolation and despair. Or clients may have a drive to continue in their daily life as they did before they were bereaved because it is the one thing that is familiar. Work, for example, might be an aspect of life where they feel their agency and power when so much else feels pointless, depleted.

Limits is therefore an important pillar: to recognise our power, and the importance of finding a way to say ‘no’. When we find ourselves honestly assessing a situation and realising it is not right for us, and have the confidence to say no, it paradoxically enhances the power of ‘yes’. Friends and family can get very bossy when we are grieving, and very keen for us to get back into the swing of life. Conversely, our family may be shocked that we want to, for example, date again.

One of our jobs as therapists is to help our client listen to their own authentic voice and be influenced by that. Nobody else can know what our limits are – but we can be helped to pay attention to them and voice them clearly.

Limits are also important in establishing our boundaries. Having permeable boundaries, or no boundaries at all, allows others to shape our thoughts, feelings, and needs. Defining boundaries is a process of determining what behaviour is or is not acceptable from others. The weather of grief tilts us off centre and in many wayward directions. If we have a sense of our own limits, that helps us maintain our balance. A good metaphor for helping clients to visualise limits for themselves is the gearbox of a car – our accelerator and brakes. We can help clients to sit in the driving seat of their own life, and find the right pace and direction for them.

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


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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