Episode 86: Claire Bidwell Smith, Grief Expert
Claire Bidwell Smith is a renowned grief expert and author. After losing both of her parents at a young age, Claire was drawn to helping others navigate the grief process. A former therapist in private practice for over a decade, she has counseled thousands of people and written three books about grief and loss. Claire speaks and lectures widely; she is passionate about advocating for advancement in end-of-life care and bringing awareness to our culture’s understanding of grief. Claire has written for The New York Times, Scientific American, The Washington Post, Goop, The Huffington Post to name a few, and she has been featured on MSNBC, Good Day LA, Today.com, the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, NPR, Forbes, Oprah Magazine, Self Magazine, Shape Magazine, and dozens of radio shows and podcasts.
Claire Bidwell Smith Bio
Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief and the author of three books of nonfiction: The Rules of Inheritance, After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go? and Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief. Claire offers numerous online programs for grief in addition to working with people one-on-one. Led by her own experiences with grief, and fueled by her work in hospice and private practice, Claire strives to provide support for all kinds of people experiencing all kinds of grief. In addition to having given dozens of talks on grief, Claire has written for and been featured in many publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Scientific American, The LA Times, MSNBC, The Chicago Tribune, Goop, Oprah Magazine, and Psychology Today. She deeply loves her work and is devoted to expanding the conversation about grief and loss.
Intro Voices 00:04
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me? This is You Matter, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Campus Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:36
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Campus Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today I welcome Claire Bidwell Smith, a renowned grief expert and author. After losing both of her parents at a young age, Claire was drawn to helping others navigate the grief process. A former therapist in private practice for over a decade, she has counseled 1000s of people and written three books about grief and loss. Claire speaks and lectures widely and runs a series of different programs designed to help others move through loss. Claire is passionate about advocating for advancement in end of life care, and also brings awareness to our culture's understanding of grief. Claire has written for the New York Times Scientific American, The Washington Post, Goop, and the Huffington Post to name a few. And she's been featured on MSNBC, Good day LA, Today.com, the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, NPR, Forbes, Oprah Magazine, and dozens of radio shows and podcasts. Claire, welcome to You Matter.
Claire Bidwell Smith 02:06
Thank you. I'm honored to be here with you today.
Karen Ortman 02:10
I'm honored to have you here. This is a really important topic that I've been wanting to talk about for a while. So I feel very fortunate to have found you. So let's start with talking about grief. What is grief?
Claire Bidwell Smith 02:24
Grief is the feeling of loss. It comes with change. It comes with the loss of a person, it comes with the loss of a job, of health, of divorce pets, there are so many different forms of grief. And I think in the last year, during the pandemic, we've come to recognize that more than ever,
Karen Ortman 02:41
Yeah. It is such a broad topic. Some people might consider grief as equaling the loss of a loved one. But it's really so much more than that. When did your passion for understanding grief begin?
Claire Bidwell Smith 02:56
When I started going through it. I was 14 when both of my parents got cancer at the same time. I was an only child and my mother died when I was a freshman in college at age 18. And then my father died seven years later when I was 25. So I entered into early adulthood in a lot of grief and very alone.
Karen Ortman 03:17
How did you cope with that?
Claire Bidwell Smith 03:20
It was hard to navigate. You know, I'm thinking about college students. And that age it was funny, because everyone around me really thought that because I was you know, in college and doing fine that everything was okay, you know that I had this whole life ahead of me and that I was going to be fine. But I was really grappling with a lot of anxiety and grief. And I didn't know how to figure it out. So I just started studying and reading, ended up getting my master's in clinical psychology, went through a lot of my own therapy, worked in hospice became a therapist. I've been writing about it all along.
Karen Ortman 03:53
So you're self taught, really?
Claire Bidwell Smith 03:56
Karen Ortman 03:56
Which I would presume would be the healthiest response to somebody going through such grief and trauma at such a young age. You know, the loss of your parents is, you know, significantly impacts your life.
Claire Bidwell Smith 04:13
Karen Ortman 04:14
So there's other directions you could have gone that may not have been as...
Claire Bidwell Smith 04:18
I've been down a few roads that weren't so healthy, but came back and found my way.
Karen Ortman 04:24
So how were you able to turn this traumatic event the loss of, you know, first your mom and then your dad into your life's work? What sort of was the catalysts - well, their deaths obviously were a significant catalyst, but what made you realize that this was going to be your life's path?
Claire Bidwell Smith 04:46
It's a good question. It's was a little bit meandering. I was always a writer, like since I was a little kid, and it was what I was studying in college. It was what I really began to feel passionate about in high school. And so writing became a natural out for my grief. It was a way for me to explore my feelings, it was a way for me to understand what I was going through. I was very drawn to other writers. And so that was part of it. And then, by the time I graduated college, I was working for travel and food magazines. And it was really exciting. My first job out of college was at Vanity Fair as an editorial assistant, and all these fun things. But in the wake of both of my parents deaths, a lot of that stuff began to feel really meaningless. I would be a fancy hotel, reviewing it, and yet I was going through this existential crisis, you know, like, what is life about? What are we doing here? What is the point of all of this. And so I found myself kind of leaving that area of work and going into more work of service, I started working for homeless people, homeless organizations, I started working with underserved schoolchildren, in nonprofits in that area, and then I got my masters, and then hospice. And those were ways of making meaning of all the loss, which was something that was the only way I was going to make it through.
Karen Ortman 06:04
You really traveled down a lot of different, sort of, professional paths. During this time. Did you ever get to a point where you said to yourself, okay, this is where I belong?
Claire Bidwell Smith 06:24
I think working in hospice was the beginning of that, and working with other people who are grieving. When I was in graduate school, we would, there was one, only one class on death and dying and aging. And it was this class that all my fellow students really dreaded. And it was a field that nobody wanted to go into. Except I felt so comfortable in it. So I thought, well, if nobody else wants to do this, and I feel comfortable with it, I better do it, so that somebody's is out there.
Karen Ortman 06:52
Claire Bidwell Smith 06:53
So that was kind of the beginning of like, okay, here, this is making sense. And then I wrote my first book, when I was about 30, and working in hospice, and that it kind of brought it all together.
Karen Ortman 07:06
What did you learn from working in hospice? Because you still hear today about somebody being in hospice, and it makes others so uncomfortable, and so uncomfortable to talk about.
Claire Bidwell Smith 07:22
Yeah, it really does. Yeah, I could shut a conversation down very easily.
Karen Ortman 07:27
Yeah, and I find that subject to be really fascinating. What were your takeaways from your time working with hospice patients?
Claire Bidwell Smith 07:41
You know, that it was actually quite a beautiful experience. Death is the great equalizer, right? We're all going to go through it, we're all going to face it at some point. And why not face it with meaning with intention. I was pregnant,I was a new mom at the very same time that I was working in hospice, and I was pregnant and, I was living in Chicago, and I was thrown five different baby showers. And it was just people were so excited about this baby, I was going to have my first one. And at the same time, I was driving around to all these snowy little suburbs, and I was going into people's homes where someone was dying. And it was very hushed and very quiet and very isolated. And all I could think was, why aren't we putting the same reverence into death and dying into exiting the world as we are entering it. I was really struck by that. And that seems something that I'm still incredibly passionate about this, you know, like, I want very much for us to be able to embrace this part of life, because it's going to happen no matter what.
Karen Ortman 08:40
Yeah. So during your time working with hospice patients, what was your role?
Claire Bidwell Smith 08:48
I was a counselor, I worked with the patients before they died, often working with them around their fears of death or anything they wanted to close out in an emotional or psychological space. And I also worked with their family members before, during and after the death. And, you know, I went into it with my own grief, right, I had been through the loss of both of my parents, I'd also lost a best friend in there. And all three of their deaths have been very different. And I thought I knew grief in such a deep way and I did, but going into hospice, I saw grief in so many different kinds of people, you know, different ages, different ethnicities, different genders, different relationships, different kinds of deaths, and I really, like, grief became very three dimensional in a way that allowed me to understand it so much more.
Karen Ortman 09:36
So if you could summarize your experience working with hospice patients that had significant meaning for you, what would you say?
Claire Bidwell Smith 09:52
I would say that, you know, again, I feel like we really need to be more intentional about end of life, I think I saw a lot of people afraid to go into it, I saw a lot of people without enough support or community around them. So, I learned that. But, I also learned that there was so much beauty that all of this grief that people felt all of the reflections someone had on the end of their life, it only served to show us what these relationships were, how deep the love was, how much the life was lived. It was it was really beautiful.
Karen Ortman 10:27
Was it painful for you, though, as it related to your parents, and your your best friend?
Claire Bidwell Smith 10:32
Sometimes. But more so with certain cases, certain patients that either were sad or scared or patients that I became attached to, I would have to go home and cry here and there. But in terms of my parents, you know, I felt, so it was really helpful to me to start working towards helping others have more meaningful and intentional deaths, because my mother had not had that experience. And my father had. And so just knowing that there's the possibility of that meant so much to me. So it wasn't so sad. It felt, it felt good in a lot of ways.
Karen Ortman 11:09
Although everyone handles grief differently, there seems to be some common concerns that people have when their loved one dies. So can we discuss a few of these concerns? And can you provide your response as an expert on the subject?
Claire Bidwell Smith 11:26
Karen Ortman 11:27
Okay, and feel free to add, if there's something that's common in your experience that that I'm not mentioning, but one thing that I hear often is the survivors fear that they're going to forget their loved ones voice, their laughter, their face.
Claire Bidwell Smith 11:51
Yeah, yeah, that's definitely a very real one. For many people. Most people, I think, have that fear. And, you know, when we lose some we love, I think we enter into a new relationship with them, they are gone from this physical plane, we may end up with a spiritual or religious framework with which to feel connected to them, or we may come up with our own internal sense of connection to them. And it's something that comes a little later in the grief process. In the beginning, in the first year, two years, maybe even five years, we long so much for their physical presence, to talk with them, to touch them, to see them in person, it's so painful, especially when it's someone that has been with you all your life, you know, a parent, a child, a spouse that's been there for a long time, it's incredibly difficult to comprehend that physical absence. And then I think with time comes this opportunity to create an internal relationship with that person. My mother has been gone for 24 years now. I knew her so well, that I can think today, would she liked the shirt I'm wearing, you know, and I know exactly what her response would be, really, that's a kind of form of me, staying connected with her keeping her in my life, I can ask her questions like that I can ask her bigger things. But in the beginning, that urgency and that fear about remembering is very real. I often suggest people write. It's always what I go, to write down memories, just even little snippets, if you want, whenever they occur to you, oh my god, I hope I don't forget this, you know, the way that his eyebrows were or whatever it was. And so write it down, write it all down. And I think that helps calm that anxiety that you're going to forget things.
Karen Ortman 13:37
So what would you say to somebody who lost a loved one, and they're perhaps inconsolable about this person's absence in their life, to the point where it's beyond writing something down to refresh their recollection of their physical being? What does someone who really feels like they're going crazy as a result of the loss of this loved one. What do they do?
Claire Bidwell Smith 14:14
I think that's a really important question. Grief can make you feel like you're going crazy. It is an experience unlike anything else. It's so intense. You feel it physically, emotionally, it just takes over and drops your knees on the floor. I think when you're in that intense grief, you really need support, therapy, group therapy, counseling, really asking for help looking for it. Because I don't think it's something that you can overcome when you're that deep into it. I don't think it's something you can just simply overcome on your own. You know, I think that frantic, lack of feeling like you can't cope can really take you down dangerous paths. So I think seeking support is vital. Whether thats just asking a family member to help you. Whether it's you know, searching for a grief counselor or grief support group, I think it's really important.
Karen Ortman 15:08
I would imagine that the loss of a child could make you believe that you are going crazy.
Claire Bidwell Smith 15:18
Absolutely. Absolutely. That's a really, really hard one. I don't like to compare grief. But that one is one I think that people really struggle with just feeling okay in the world again, you know, it's just never leaves.
Karen Ortman 15:37
How long, if there's even a response to this, how long does grief last?
Claire Bidwell Smith 15:44
That's my favorite question. Because the answer is it can last your whole life. And our culture constantly tries to wrap it up in a few months. Move you on after a few months, six months a year tops. But you know, grief lasts a lifetime, it's not that you're always going to be in the throws of it, you're not always going to be on your knees or, you know, like, just completely incapable of interacting as sometimes you can be in that first year or so. But it means that the loss is always going to be part of your life. And there's going to come times when it flares up and it gets opened up holidays, anniversaries. I'm thinking of, you know, clients I've had who lost a parent at a young age, and then they become a parent themselves. Maybe it's 20 years later that grief opens right back up.
Karen Ortman 16:32
Was that the case for you?
Claire Bidwell Smith 16:34
It was in some ways, it was also very cathartic for me to become a parent, but it did bring on a lot of anxiety as well. And kind of some renewed grief. I went through divorce in my mid 30s that actually brought my grief up more than parenthood did. And so I think, you know, I want everyone to always feel like it's okay to still be grappling with their loss. It's really important.
Karen Ortman 17:01
Is it possible to experience loss, and let's say in the context of a loved one, and not experience feelings of grief?
Claire Bidwell Smith 17:14
Yeah, I think so. Everyone's relationship is so different. Everyone's personality is so different. I think that everyone grieves very differently. Some people are very quiet and private about it. So it may appear that they're not grieving, but they are in some ways. Now, some people really like to bring it into every aspect of their lives. You know, they talk about it a lot, it becomes a part of their life. Other people are very compartmentalised about it, they will only talk about it or think about it in certain moments or times. And there's no perfect way to do this, right. So however it works for you, if you think that you are not grieving, because you're pushing it away. That's another story. But if you feel like you're not grieving, because you feel okay. I know, people have lost people and they felt like they had a wonderful relationship with them, they closed out things, everything was fine at the end, and they're, you know, sad they're not here anymore, but they're not really grieving.
Karen Ortman 18:09
Yeah. You are a grief therapist.
Claire Bidwell Smith 18:15
Karen Ortman 18:16
And is it safe to say that anybody listening throughout the country, throughout the world, if they are suffering, as a result of loss or grief that there, more likely than not, would be grief therapists in their area. And it's really just a Google search?
Claire Bidwell Smith 18:37
It is, yeah. It's as simple as a Google search. You can Google grief counselors, near me grief therapists near me, grief support near me, all of those things will pop up so many resources. There's much more than I think people realize.
Karen Ortman 18:55
Why is guilt such a common emotion following the death of a loved one?
Claire Bidwell Smith 18:58
That's the one I see more than almost anything except anxiety. But guilt is, is you know, there's often we don't always get the chance to do everything we would like to do say everything we would like to say before someone dies. And so there's often something left, that we wish we could go back and do over or something we wish we could go back and say. And people become very attached to these things. They ruminate on them - oh my god, if I had just made this one phone call, or if I had just tried this one doctor, maybe things could be different. It's our way of wanting a different outcome. You know, it's like a Rubik's cube in our head, we kind of run over and over different scenarios, wishing we could come up with a different outcome that brings them back. But what I also see with guilt is that sometimes it's a way of holding on to the person. So it's as though you feel like if I stopped feeling guilty about not being there the night they died, then that means I don't care anymore or that means I'm moving on. And so I do a lot of work with with clients in that particular area, and of helping them again find this new way of connecting with their person, because that's a way that they're kind of holding on to the connection is through this guilt and this grief. But finding a new healthy way to connect with them, really can help alleviate that guilt.
Karen Ortman 20:21
And how does anxiety come into play? You mentioned anxiety, too.
Claire Bidwell Smith 20:26
Yeah, my most recent book is about anxiety and grief, the connection there, and, you know, it comes from a personal place as well, when my mother died, I, within months, I was in a hospital ER having a panic attack. And at age 18, they told me there was nothing wrong with me, sent me on my way, did tons of tests, you know, all the things and then just sent me on my way with no help or no explanation. And so for a long time, I just thought there was something wrong with me. But I had developed severe anxiety after she died. And I didn't know how to help myself with it. And until I was in college and started studying trauma psychology that I started to connect the dots. And I began writing about the connection of grief and anxiety in my early 30s, maybe almost 10 years ago, and so many people came out of the woodwork to say, oh my gosh, is this a real thing, because no one in the clinical world was talking about it. And so I began to get all these clients who were also anxious following a loss. So I began to really study it. And what I found was several things going on that caused the anxiety. And a lot of it had to do with either repressing guilt, or feeling sorry, repressing their grief. So they weren't dealing with their grief, or they didn't have adequate enough support to sit with their grief. And so when you push that all down, it starts to bubble out as an anxiety or anger. And then the other thing I was seeing was, and this is really common, when we go through the loss of someone significant in our lives, it is so jarring, so disorienting, you know, we think that life is one thing and we're going along. And then we lose someone that we dearly love, and it makes us feel like anything is possible. Anything could happen. It shows us that hard, terrible things do happen. And it begins to put us on this edge. So I've seen a lot of different forms of anxiety in the face of loss.
Karen Ortman 22:23
Now, you spoke of your experience going to the hospital after your mother passed away. And they really were of no help to you in the time that has lapsed since your mother's passing, which is over 20 years now. Would you say that the response would be different today, if somebody presented at the hospital with similar levels of anxiety that you did?
Claire Bidwell Smith 22:51
Absolutely. I think that it's much more common. And this happens a lot. I'll have clients that come to me because they also went to the ER with a panic attack. But this time, they are at least told, oh, I think you're having a panic attack. You're having anxiety, probably good idea to go see a therapist. And so that's when they find me. And so I think that has changed a lot which is heartening.
Karen Ortman 23:14
Yeah, it is. Are there helpful tips that you could provide our listeners who are struggling as the result of the death of a loved one that could sort of hold them over until they decide for themselves that they're going to seek professional help and get counseling.
Claire Bidwell Smith 23:45
I mean, I think seeking support in some form is the most helpful way. But if that's not a possibility, or not something that someone's ready for yet. I think one of the best and easiest things to do is just to start to read other stories of people's loss. There's a great website called ModernLoss.com. And it has all kinds of resources, but lots of essays and stories about people who've gone through loss. Because what I find is that most people, they think they're doing it wrong, they think they shouldn't still be grieving as long as they are or they shouldn't have the feelings that they do. I'll have clients confess to me like, I'm jealous of my friends who still have moms and they feel so terrible for feeling that. But of course, of course they're still jealous of that, you know, that's so normal. So any way you can help to normalize your own feelings is really going to be healing for you.
Karen Ortman 24:38
Is it common to have a physical reaction as the result of the loss of a loved one?
Claire Bidwell Smith 24:45
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, our bodies are very linked to our emotions and our psyches, think about when you think about something sad, there's liquid that comes out of our eyes, you know, we cry, and so we definitely have physical reactions to grief to anxiety. I think we hold a lot of grief in our bodies. I think when anxiety comes on, you can get, you know, short of breath, your stomach can get into knots, you can have this pounding heart. And then with grief, you can feel this heaviness and this kind of sedation almost, especially with depression. And so there are many physical symptoms that I think people overlook, too, I think one of the easiest things you can do when you're really grieving is simply take care of yourself physically, because unless you're really strong enough to hold all those emotions, you're going to get, you know, into a mess with all of it.
Karen Ortman 25:37
If somebody falls into a depression as a result of loss. Is it possible that depression remains as a condition for that person for an extended period of time, if not for the remainder of their life?
Claire Bidwell Smith 25:56
I think it could. I think people who were already prone to depression would experience that more, I think, than someone who has never felt depressed. But again, I think that if this happens, and it does happen with depression and anxiety, both could they come on from a loss, and if not dealt with, if not supported, if not, you know, really paid attention to and if you don't lean into your grief and acknowledge it, it will sit there forever.
Karen Ortman 26:24
Yeah. You know, that makes sense. You advocate for advancement in end of life care. What does that mean? And in what ways do you advocate beyond what we talked about earlier, where you believe that when life comes into this world it's a celebration, and it should be the same when life leaves? In what other ways do you advocate for advancement in end of life care?
Claire Bidwell Smith 26:57
That's a great question. I think that there are so many ways that we can do this. It starts with just talking about it when we're young, when we're healthy. I mean, I think we all saw this in the pandemic, suddenly, this happened. And so many of us realized that we did not have anything in place, what would happen if something happened to one of us, mothers who have young children or anything like that a lot of people were suddenly scrambling around to put their affairs in order. And this is something we should be doing from the get go all along. We should also be talking to children about death and loss much more, people tend to - that's another one where people get really afraid to talk about it - with kids. They're afraid that they don't know the answers, they're afraid they're going to upset the child or scare them so they don't talk about it. And so then the child grows up with this message of we don't talk about death. And so this is how it perpetuates itself in the culture. I think if we started talking to kids more often, if we had death education in med school, if we had death education period, advanced planning were required.
Karen Ortman 28:00
Claire Bidwell Smith 28:01
I think all of these things.
Karen Ortman 28:03
Yeah. You know, another stigmatized subject. Yeah. Does dying scare you?
Claire Bidwell Smith 28:12
Not really, it used to. The only thing that scares me is not being here for my kids. I have three young kids. And so having lost my own parents, my fear is always that I won't be here to see them into their adult lives, but actually dying, no - and actually being dead, not at all.
Karen Ortman 28:32
What do you think happens to the soul of a person once they die?
Claire Bidwell Smith 28:43
I think I used to not believe that. I used to not believe in anything. And then that's shifted for me. Over time, I think there's a kind of spiritual stage of grief, you know, where you kind of begin to really question what life is about and where our loved ones go. And when I went through that phase, I began to look into all kinds of different religions and spiritualities and kind of find some framework for myself. And I did come through it believing that we do have a soul, and that we do go back into some kind of collective. I love the idea of reincarnation, you know that we come here to learn lessons. And we come back and again and again to keep learning.
Karen Ortman 29:22
Yeah. And I love the idea that the spirits of your loved ones are present in some form.
Claire Bidwell Smith 29:32
Oh, I love that too. I talked to my parents all the time. ,
Karen Ortman 29:36
I bet. Is there anything that I have not asked you that you think is important to share with our listeners?
Claire Bidwell Smith 29:49
The last thing I'll say is that I think we really have to be kind to ourselves. I see so many people, especially young people beat themselves up for feeling vulnerable for feeling good. If you're having a hard time feeling anxiety or anger, depression, jealousy, all of these things, but we're all human beings, you know, trying to make our way in the world and I don't believe that we can heal, move forward until we are kind to ourselves and help ourselves do it. So loving kindness, meditations, books about loving kindness. I recommend all the time, just as simple like, it's okay that you're in this space. Okay, that you're having a hard time.
Karen Ortman 30:28
Yeah. I think your parents would be very proud of you.
Claire Bidwell Smith 30:31
Thank you so much.
Karen Ortman 30:32
I think they are proud of you. I think they're still watching you and the great work that you're doing. So I thank you very much for having this very important conversation with me today.
Claire Bidwell Smith 30:43
Thank you for making space for conversations like this, it's so important.
Karen Ortman 30:46
My pleasure, I agree, it is important. I also agree that we need to start these conversations at a very young age with our children. So thank you again. Thank you to my guest, Claire, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter if any information presented was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU's Department of Campus Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share, like, and subscribe to You Matter on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Tune in, Stitcher, or Spotify.