“Healing from loss means making our lives worth the pain we endure when we lose someone we love. And that transforming through grief is an opportunity afforded to all.”
Claire Bidwell Smith is a renowned therapist, grief expert, and author. After losing both of her parents at a young age, Claire was drawn to helping others navigate the grief process. We had the joy of interviewing Claire in advance of her appearance at the End Well Symposium on November 16th in Los Angeles.
Q: How have you encountered grief and loss in your own life? How has this inspired your journey as a grief therapist?
When I was fourteen years old, both of my parents got cancer at the same time. I was an only child and my adolescence was dictated by my parents’ roller-coaster of medical treatments. My mother died of colon cancer when I was 18 and my father died of prostate cancer when I was 25.
While their deaths utterly shattered me, they also provided vastly different learning experiences that I continue to draw upon two decades later in my work today. My mother’s death was over-medicalized and her approach to the end of her life was steeped in denial – the result being that none of us were prepared for her death and the emotional fallout was immense. My father chose to stop treatment and embrace the end of his life as consciously as he could and asked me to join him in that endeavor. He died at home in hospice with me as his caregiver and his death was as beautiful as a death can be.
However, after they were both gone, I felt very alone in the world. I was 25 years old and had, in fact, lost my entire immediate family. But more so, I felt isolated and lonely in my grief. My sadness and complex reactions to their deaths felt invisible to the outside world who constantly impressed upon me that it was important to move on as quickly as I could from these losses.
“True healing in grief requires that we evaluate everything we ever considered meaningful.”
It took me many years to understand and process the experience of losing my parents at such a young age. A lack of support and a lack of understanding about grief led to me forging a path to healing that took many rambling roads, yet all along I knew that someday I wanted to be in a position to support others as they moved through loss.
After I earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology I took a job as a grief counselor in hospice, helping individuals and families face death and walk through grief. I eventually went into private practice and all along the way I have written multiple books about loss in an attempt to demystify the grief process and give others permission to seek support and ultimately find healing.
The thing is, I went into this work thinking I knew a lot about grief but I only knew my grief. Over the years,I have sat with thousands of people as they walk through the journey of loss and what I have come to understand is that grief asks a lot from us. But I also understand that the ability to grieve is a birthright. I know that we grieve throughout our lifetimes. We grieve the deaths of loved ones yes, but also moves, divorce, illness, injustice, time lost, changes in the world. I also know that true healing in grief requires that we evaluate everything we ever considered meaningful. Healing from loss means making our lives worth the pain we endure when we lose someone we love. And that transforming through grief is an opportunity afforded to all. Lastly, I know that we must lean into our grief, rather than avoid it, in order to achieve the transformational experience that loss presents.
Q: Do you believe that our modern society has a “grief illiteracy” problem, and how can we address this gap to foster deeper understanding and compassion?
While I believe we are largely a grief illiterate society, I do think there have been great strides in recent years towards broadening the conversation around loss. Our societal awareness around the importance of mental health has expanded a lot just in the last couple of decades – we have become more trauma-informed, begun to recognize the importance of social-emotional learning, acknowledged what healthy workplaces should look like, and peeled back more layers of systemic racism – and each one of those areas encompasses grief and loss. We then experienced a profound expansion in the realm of end-of-life due to the Covid-19 pandemic which forced us into a worldwide experience of grief and loss. However, we still have a ways to go. Grief support is still not readily available, our rituals and customs around grief are ephemeral, bereavement leave is sorely lacking, and our cultural tolerance for conversations and education about grief are quite limited. Despite all these factors, I am feeling optimistic that we are experiencing a positive trend in terms of improving our grief illiteracy rate. Organizations like End Well certainly help propel this forward movement.
Q: Is there anything you would want people to know about the end of life experience that is commonly misunderstood or misrepresented?
Oh gosh, I don’t even know where to begin! So many of us feel unprepared for the end of life experience – whether it’s our own or someone we love – but that’s not our fault. Our culture shies away from it on a regular basis, our medical system is ill-equipped to support it, and we simply are not taught to include end-of-life in our future planning. The fall out from this is immense. So many of the grieving people I sit with grapple with immense guilt and regret because they feel they did not have the experience they could have.
But perhaps the biggest misrepresentation or misunderstanding about end-of-life is that it’s scary. But it’s not. There is great beauty and intimacy and growth and transformation that occurs in death, loss, and grief. And when we can embrace this realm I truly believe that we can live more meaningful lives as a result.
Q: Your work delves deep into the connection between grief and anxiety – a perspective not often highlighted. What profound realization led you to identify and emphasize this often overlooked relationship in the grieving process?
My work was really born out of my own personal experience of loss, one that catapulted me into a relationship with anxiety that took me years to unravel. I began having panic attacks and experiencing other forms of anxiety shortly after my mother died. I was so young and because there was nothing in the grief literature at the time that pointed to anxiety, I thought there must be something else wrong with me. Years later, after I began to connect the dots, I started writing publicly about the correlation between grief and anxiety and people streamed into my office, feeling validated in their own experiences and eager to learn more. My roster became filled with clients who were experiencing this kind of grief-related anxiety so I was able to really study it and uncover many ways to help people heal.
Q: How do you stay optimistic and joyful despite working with individuals going through tremendous grief, loss and pain?
Oh, I see so much beauty in my work every day. We grieve because we love. We grieve for profound and complex relationships. We grieve for all the intricate ways we are connected as humans and in that, there is so much beauty. I also view grief as a transformative experience that is a natural part of our time here. Grief asks so much of us. It asks us to evaluate everything that ever mattered to us and the experience of loss asks us to examine who we want to be going forward. While the process can be filled with pain and anguish, it also grants us the opportunity to evolve into better versions of ourselves, taking less for granted, and appreciating not just what we once had, but what we still have in our lives ahead. In the work I do, I feel deeply honored to meet people during some of the most vulnerable times in their lives and experience the privilege of witnessing them transform in beautiful ways.
Q: What’s the most challenging misconception about grief that you’ve encountered, and how do you hope your work reshapes that narrative?
The biggest misconception I run up against day after day is about how long grief lasts. People who have not experienced a significant loss expect others to move through the experience quickly. And those in the throes of grief, are often startled by its longevity. It’s understandable that we would want this painful experience to be an ephemeral one but the truth is that there is a long arc of loss that most of us must traverse. Many losses carry an impact that plays out throughout our entire lives. And while the initial throes of grief eventually give way to a different intonations, there are many experiences of grief that stay with us for a long time. I think as a society, we’ve finally started moving away from the idea that we need to “get over” a loss but I think we are still learning how to live with those losses as we continue to move forward. Helping people understand that grief is not a quick process will help give those in the throes of it permission to learn how to carry it, rather than trying to rush through it. Grief is a tender and beautiful process that allows us to honor who we lost and discover who we are as a result. Something like that should take time.
BONUS: If you could give one piece of advice to someone grieving the loss of a loved one what would it be?
My biggest piece of advice when you are grieving is to be compassionate with yourself. Grief is an uncomfortable process at best. We often don’t even recognize ourselves following a loss. Our behaviors change, our view of the world changes, our sense of time shifts, things that once mattered don’t anymore. We often feel unfamiliar to ourselves in grief and so many people try to push through this part and force themselves to do more and be more capable than necessary. So go easy on yourself! Ask for support! Give yourself as much time as you need to grieve.
Claire Bidwell Smith will speak at the End Well Symposium on November 16, 2023.
Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief and the author of multiple books including Conscious Grieving and Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief and her work has created new and innovative ways to heal and transform through her grief and loss. Led by her personal 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 loss. Claire offers numerous programs in addition to working with people one-on-one, as well as training other clinicians to work in the field of grief and loss. Claire has been featured in and written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Scientific American, The LA Times, CNN, MSNBC, Forbes, The Today Show, Goop, Oprah Magazine, and Psychology Today. She deeply loves her work and is devoted to expanding the conversation about grief and loss. www.clairebidwellsmith.com