Let’s talk about death. Don’t be scared—we’re in good hands. They belong to Claire Bidwell Smith, Los Angeles-based grief counselor, author of two books on the matter, and overall connoisseur of life and loss.
Smith’s first book, “The Rules of Inheritance,” is an intimate, elegant memoir, which follows Smith from her teen years to her twenties through the deaths of both her parents. Her second book “After This” (on shelves today) is also nonfiction, but widens the scale to explore death and what comes next from many angles beyond Smith’s own.
For someone whose life revolves around so much loss, Smith is unexpectedly serene. She has a lightness about her that I think can belong only to a person who has learned to shed the fear of death. That’s probably why her books, whose themes might seem dark from the outside, instead welcome readers in. Her books are a warm invitation, a grant of permission, to engage with the one thing we’re all most afraid of in a way that doesn’t feel so scary.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Claire in hopes that some of that serenity might rub off on us. Read on to discover more about how Smith’s view of death has changed over time, how she talks about it with her kids, the most important thing she learned writing “After This,” and more.
“After This” was inspired by an experience you had with a medium, per the request of your friend before she died of cancer at 21. Can you talk a bit about how that visit affected you?
I was terribly nervous entering into my first visit with a medium. At the time I was working as a professional grief counselor in a hospice in Chicago and doing something like this felt like a betrayal of the clinical work I was committed to. However, I was also curious, and I wanted to follow through on the promise I had made to my dying friend.
The reading was nothing like what I expected. Although some very uncanny things were told to me by the medium, what was most interesting to me was the very palpable sense of healing that occurred in the room for everyone attending, including myself. This initial experience helped me open up to the idea that connecting with our deceased loved ones is what is most important, no matter how strange or paranormal the connections may be.
Has the process of writing about death shaped your personal view of death?
I would almost say that death has shaped my writing more than my writing has shaped my views of death. I began losing people at a very young age and writing about these experiences became my way of coping and processing. I realized early on that I had a strange gift to share in the very real way that I was able to write about my feelings and views of death, and that this was something that was helping people. So many people are afraid to talk about death, but that’s really where the healing comes in. At this point it very much feels like a life path. And the thing is, when you’re writing or talking about death, what you’re really talking about is life itself.
“When you’re talking about death, what you’re really talking about is life itself.”
In “After This” you discuss many different ideologies of death. What’s something new that you learned over the course of your research that you found particularly resonant?
Well, I began this journey as a total nonbeliever in the “other side,” but I now think that something exists beyond this human experience we’re having now. I do believe that there are people in this world who can communicate with the deceased, and I believe that in some ways we all have that capability. And believe me, it’s shocking to even hear myself say that. Ten years ago I would have laughed if someone had told me I would say such a thing.
How does writing about death compare to talking about it in your work as a grief counselor?
As a grief counselor I mostly listen to other people talk about death. I ask a lot of questions. I try to help my clients explore their own feelings and ideas about death and loss and how it’s transformed them. I never ask them to believe the things I do, or to take the same routes I have in understanding it for myself. Rather, I work to meet them wherever they are in their unique process and help them heal along the way. In writing about grief and death I tend to express a lot more of my own opinions and feelings about the topic. But I hope that in being so candid with my own journey, it enables others to do feel a bit more freedom to explore their own paths.
How did writing “After This” compare to your first book? Was it easier in the same way having a second baby is easier?
Oh, they are such different books. The Rules of Inheritance is a deeply personal book, and very much a memoir. I drew on a lot of my background in poetry and let myself immerse in my love of language and the written word much more. I also held nothing back about my personal life and details during the period of my life that I was writing about. After This is written by a more grown-up version of Claire. While it indeed outlines a very personal journey, it also has a clinical approach as well, truly exploring grief not just from a personal place, but from a therapeutic standpoint as well. My life has changed a lot in the time between when I wrote both books. During the course of writing and researching After This my marriage fell apart and the last few years have been incredibly tumultuous as a result, but that’s not something I really touch on in the book. I wanted this book to be less about me, and more about a collective desire we all share to understand what happens next.
Most Americans are terrified of death and almost equally terrified of discussing it. What do you think would have to change to improve that mentality in our culture?
Death anxiety is pervasive in our culture right now. And I do think that talking about it helps. I also think we’re really experiencing a culture shift in terms of facing death and discussing it, more than ever before. The rise of things like death cafes, a growing awareness of hospice, the prevalence of grief memoirs and grief conferences, are all indicators that we are moving in a better direction in terms of acceptance. I think it’s hard to ask people who have never experienced loss to enter into that world and that conversation, but I like knowing that when those people do encounter grief there will be many places to turn. When my mother died when I was 18 there were not nearly as many resources or outlets for exploring grief and loss. I felt very isolated and alone in my process, but that has really changed culturally in the last 15 years.
How do you talk about death with your children?
Oh, I talk about death with them all the time. My daughters are ages three and six and they have the most fascinating take on it all. They’re very aware that my parents are dead, but they are able to accept it in such a simple and sweet way. As adults I think we tend to make death very complicated and nuanced, but children have a way of parsing the matter down to something very acceptable. They insist that we talk to my parents all the time, bake cakes on their birthdays, and bring them into our life. It’s very sweet and comforting.
“I think we tend to make death very complicated and nuanced, but children have a way of parsing the matter down to something very acceptable.”
What was the most significant nugget of wisdom you learned about death while writing this book?
The single most important thing I learned was that death does not change love. It does not erase it. The love you shared with someone you lost is still very real and alive in this world, and there are many ways to continue honoring that relationship and many ways to go about keeping it present.
What was the most significant nugget of wisdom you learned about writing?
I had to write this book under a pretty intense deadline. I also had a lot of fears about writing a second book. The most important thing I learned during this process was that in order to write you just have to sit your butt down every day and do it. It’s never going to happen otherwise. You can hem and haw and procrastinate, or you can go on and on about the book you want to write, but until you plant yourself in a chair every day and quiet all the voices in your head, and make yourself do the work, it’s not going to happen.
What are you doing today after this interview?
I’m going to take my daughters to the park. I’m helping my oldest learn to ride a bike without training wheels. I’m going to immerse myself in my very real, human life, and feel gratitude that I get to do these things. Then my friend Cat, a pretty crazy amazing yoga instructor from Bali, and some other weirdo spiritual friends, are all coming over for dinner. We’ll drink wine and laugh and talk about life and love and all things in between. Because, at the end of the day, that’s pretty much all we can do with our time here.
Photos: Claire Bidwell Smith