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Conscious Grieving with Claire Bidwell Smith

Claire Bidwell Smith knows grief well. When she was 14, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. Her mom died when Claire was only 18, and her dad died when she was 25. After getting her master's degree in clinical psychology and becoming a therapist, she worked with hospice.

She's also written five books about grief, including her latest, Conscious Grieving: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss. In a culture that avoids sad feelings at all costs and where bereavement leave is severely inadequate, Claire gives us the tools and a map for embracing grief and incorporating it into life.

You can learn more about Claire’s work and her books at


[00:00:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: If you like Peaceful Exit, you might also be interested in The Heart of Hospice. The host, Helen Bauer, who is a really thoughtful, amazing human, she interviews a wide range of experts about end of life care. It's come up again and again in my work that people don't really know what hospice is. They wait until the eleventh hour to call because they don't know the critical role that this care can play, and there's a real fear there, um, as if hospice is the absolute end. 

So, Helen's work explaining and examining end of life care is really, really important. If you're a patient, caregiver, anyone working with hospice team, this podcast is for you. You can learn about hospice basics, advanced care planning, patient and caregiver advocacy, grief and bereavement care, and so many resources for caregivers. 

I just had the pleasure of being on the Heart of Hospice podcast and Helen and I talked about my personal experiences that put me on this path and why we need to access our full range of emotions, especially while grieving. We also connected on how do we find joy and humor and lightness in talking about death, because it feels pretty dark sometimes, but not always. 

But there's lots of great episodes, so go check it out.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode, we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. 

My guest today is Claire Bidwell Smith, and she knows grief really well. When she was 14, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. Her mom died when Claire was only 18, and her dad died when she was 25. After getting her master's degree in clinical psychology and becoming a therapist, she worked with hospice. 

She's also written five books about grief, including her latest, Conscious Grieving, and I love this title. We're talking about this book today as a comprehensive guide to grief, being awake as you're grieving. It's a roadmap for navigating this experience and all the emotions that come with it. She really gives us a new framework to understand grief and how it stays and evolves with us. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: Welcome to Peaceful Exit.  

Claire Bidwell Smith: Thank you.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: It is wonderful to have you. Last night, my husband and I had this conversation. We each have one surviving parent. And I'm really aware of the book you wrote about conscious grieving and how conscious we are approaching loss, which is pre grieving almost, if you will. 

And our family is dealing with dementia. His mom just moved out of a home of 53 years and leaving that behind. And, you know, we're just all in the middle of it in both families. And so I just so appreciate your book. It's, you know, your book's so important because it's like a roadmap for how do we navigate grief instead of just like, you know, get over it, go back to work. 

You know, you've created a wonderful framework to replace that idea.  

[00:03:25] Claire Bidwell Smith: Thank you. I think it's really important for us to embrace grief and loss and end of life. And it seems a little funny right now because there's such a huge societal and cultural emphasis on longevity and how can we live forever and how can we avoid death and we need to be doing the opposite. 

I think it's lovely to want to live for a long time and be healthy and all of those things, but at the same time have to embrace loss and change and death. It's inevitable, you know? I mean, even just your mother-in-law moving out of her home of 53 years, that's a loss, that's grief, and we can't avoid things like that. 

When we lean into them, we can really actually find more meaning, more gratitude, live a fuller life.  

[00:04:06] Sarah Cavanaugh: Absolutely. Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about your story around death.  

[00:04:11] Claire Bidwell Smith: I came to know it very early. I was 14 in the eighth grade when both of my parents got cancer at the same time. My mother had colon cancer, which was pretty severe when she discovered it, and my father had prostate cancer. 

And so all of my high school years, they were in and out of the hospital. I'm an only child, and so our whole little family was really taken over by this. And my mom died when I was a freshman in college, and it was incredibly difficult. She and I were very close. And she had been very unable and unwilling to face her death. 

And so none of us had either. And we hadn't talked about it. We hadn't said goodbye. And we hadn't really explored what it would be like if she died. And so in many ways, her death came as a shock to me. And I dropped out of school for a little bit. I eventually went back to college, but was really, really. 

Consumed with a lot of anxiety and fear and grief and my father's cancer was returning during that time so I was also facing his death but he took a really different approach from my mother and As his cancer returned and became untreatable, he really wanted to just go home and be in a peaceful place, and he wanted hospice, and he asked me to be there and care for him during that process, and I wanted to, given how I hadn't been there from my mother, but it was also incredibly difficult, but it was kind of the last amazing parenting gift he gave me. 

He really walked me into his death. He helped me prepare for it. I mean, he had me sitting at the kitchen table writing down, like, what are the first five things you have to do when I die? And I'm, I'm crying and I'm 25 years old and I'm like, I don't know, dad. And he's like, call the mortuary, you know? And I still have this piece of paper with tear stains on it. 

But when he did die, I was holding his hand and he died in the place he wanted to be and he had lived a beautiful life. And we had. Said all the things we needed to say and I had that list and I ordered the seven copies of the death certificate as he advised and did all the things and while it was incredibly difficult to be alone in the world without my parents, I had such a different experience with his death, you know, it was cleaner, there was no guilt and regret and anguish that I felt with my mothers, but I entered into young adulthood with a lot of grief and a really different understanding of life than most of my peers. 

[00:06:38] Sarah Cavanaugh: Say more about how you feel you were not there for your mom. What is that for you?  

[00:06:42] Claire Bidwell Smith: Well, physically, I wasn't even there the night she died. Okay. Because I was so unaware that she was really at the end. She kept trying treatment after treatment. Even after the doctors had told her, there was nothing else, and so I really didn't understand that she was that close, and I wasn't there the night she died, and it, for years afterwards, really consumed me. 

I felt so much guilt and torment over not having been there and not having said goodbye to her. It was incredibly difficult to sit with. I now sit with clients every day who, have gone through a similar experience and I long ago kind of found a lot of compassion for myself and forgiveness for not being there and understanding of how this happens and the reasons why, but there were many years when I was very tormented by this. 

[00:07:28] Sarah Cavanaugh: So, what you're saying is really resonating with me because my mother did the same. She died of cancer 21 years ago and kept at it. You know, she went through a phase one trial at the end that was far away from home and that was a difficult time. It's so hard.  

[00:07:42] Claire Bidwell Smith: We're the ones left with a lot of that anguish and a lot of the confusion. 

It's really difficult to sort through after they're gone. There are a lot of ways to resolve it and to move through it, but it takes time to understand that.  

[00:07:56] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. You say grief is our birthright.  

[00:07:59] Claire Bidwell Smith: Mm hmm. I love that. For too long, grief has been treated as this affliction and this thing to get over. But it's a very natural process that we actually know how to do if we can lean into it and find the right support for it. 

People are often so afraid of it that they try to make it go away quickly, but when we can lean into it and embrace it and get to know it, we can learn so much from it and we can heal in a much different way.  

[00:08:23] Sarah Cavanaugh: Beautifully said. Language is so, so important. Early in your book around page 15, you define the four types of grief. 

[00:08:33] Claire Bidwell Smith: A lot of what grief work is, is orienting to it to this new world, to this new version of yourself, to the new emotions and feelings you're experiencing. And the first orientation is just simply entering into grief. When we lose someone we love, it's something that happened to us. It's not something we invited, not something we sought or designed. 

Um, it's something that happens to us. Because of that, we sometimes begin to think that grief is happening to us too, but I think that we actually have a lot more agency over grief, and we can choose how to be in our grief and how to move through it. And so the entering into grief is the first part where we don't really have a choice. 

We just enter into it. It's happening. And then we can begin to move into the second orientation, which is engaging with it. And how we engage with it is really up to us, even though this loss wasn't something that was up to us. And engaging with it looks like finding different forms of support, getting to know it, beginning to use tools like writing or meditation, and then we begin to move into a place of surrendering to grief, and that's the third orientation. 

At a certain point, we have to accept that this is happening. This is my new normal. This is the new version of myself that exists within this process. You know, it may never be okay that you lose a child or a spouse or a partner or a husband or a parent, but we do have to accept that they've happened and that we're going to kind of find a way forward. 

And that's the surrendering part. And the final orientation is transforming, because I do believe there's a lot of transformation to be found in grief and loss. But it's always important to note that in the beginning, nobody wants to hear about transformation, and I understand that. I sit with people every day who have been through unimaginable loss, and they don't want to hear about transforming. 

Especially not in the beginning. They don't want to hear about growth or any of the beauty that may come in time. I didn't want to hear about that when my mother died. I just wanted my mom back.  

[00:10:32] Sarah Cavanaugh: So when you talk about transformation, you're talking about learning. Is it possible to learn how to grieve someone before they're gone? 

[00:10:41] Claire Bidwell Smith: Yes and no. I don't know if we can ever fully understand and imagine what it will be like when that person is gone. We can feel grief around the idea that they're going to be gone. We can grieve losing versions of them as they are leaving with dementia or a long-term illness. You know, we definitely lose versions of those people that we once loved and were in a deep relationship with. 

And we can feel a lot of grief around that, but in terms of what it feels like when they are truly physically absent and gone, it's a different grief. And I know that sometimes people kind of hope and wish that if they do enough grieving before then they won't have to do it after, but often that's not really the case. 

We can learn how to make space for grief, learn how to hold our grief, the grief that we're feeling before they're gone, and that can help us afterwards. That can help us just kind of orient into it maybe a little easier, but the grief is still going to be there.  

[00:11:38] Sarah Cavanaugh: So practically speaking, what might that look like? What's an example of holding space for that?  

[00:11:44] Claire Bidwell Smith: Making time and space for it. Um, taking time off work or asking people to help out with daily social and family obligations. Or even little things, taking five minutes in the morning and lighting a candle and standing there with your eyes closed and letting yourself feel that grief. 

You can do that before you go into your busy, hectic day. It really helps just kind of be in your day and have made that space. Because when we don't make that space, it spills out inevitably. Um, you try to rush into your day holding a bunch of grief and it's going to spill out in irritability or anxiety or a big grief breakdown when you are least expecting and least wanting it to happen. 

[00:12:23] Sarah Cavanaugh: So I'm still thinking about this conversation last night and how different family members respond to grief really differently. And do you have stories of like how you approach a family that's like the dynamic is just. really difficult because everyone's grieving in their own way.  

[00:12:42] Claire Bidwell Smith: Yeah, I see it every day in my work. 

You know, if you think about a family that maybe has several siblings and parents and maybe one of the parents dies, I think about it like almost like a table with legs and all the legs now have to move around into a different position in order to keep the table level. And when people have to move around into those positions, it can be really uncomfortable. 

I'll see siblings resort to old arguments and dynamics that they had in their teenage years, you know, stuff about who was mom's favorite. All these kinds of things will erupt, and they feel so big and intense, and I've seen siblings stop speaking to each other for periods of time, or everyone has a different idea of how we're going to do Thanksgiving this year. 

Are we going to honor mom at the table? Are we not going to speak about it at all and pretend like everything's normal? It can be really, really challenging for families to navigate these different variations of grief. Not everyone's grieving at the same time, or in the same way. One person's posting about it on Facebook every day, somebody else doesn't want it on social media. 

There's all kinds of things that happen. What I really advise for that is, is again, this kind of idea about carving out space and time for your own grief. If you're doing that, you're less likely to feel so heated when it's happening in a different way or not happening within your family.  

[00:14:01] Sarah Cavanaugh: That's fantastic. 

This next question for me, again, your book resonated on so many levels. My mother lost a baby prior to my birth. And what really struck me in your book was the impact of a loss that happens before you're even born. And I learned that I had a brother when I was 10 years old. So there was no mention of his name, no photographs. 

And my question is really, what if my mom had been able to integrate the loss of her baby, of her son?  

[00:14:37] Claire Bidwell Smith: That would have been really different on some levels and in some ways still so difficult for her. It's such a hard loss. That is a loss that stays with you through your lifetime. You know, I bet there's, I bet there wasn't a day that went by that she didn't think about him throughout her entire life. 

And that would never change, no matter what. I have a woman in one of my groups right now who lost a four day old baby. And her baby has an older sister and they talk about the baby all the time. They say the baby's name, they celebrate the baby's birth. They try to integrate her existence and her presence into their life and be part of their family. 

And I think that that for the older sister will have an impact. I think that she will feel able to really carry the presence of her sister through her life in a way that will be healing for the whole family. And I know for the woman who's in my group, it's more helpful to talk about it than not. The incongruence we feel on a human level when we don't talk about these things is so vast, we feel almost split in two, right? 

There's this version of ourselves that walks through life with this loss and this grief, and if we hide it and we conceal it, then who are we when we're walking through our day to day life without that?  

[00:15:55] Sarah Cavanaugh: I think as a child, I knew something was off, and if you don't know what it is, it's very disorienting. 

As you said in the beginning, I felt like my whole family was disoriented in a way.  

[00:16:07] Claire Bidwell Smith: Yeah, it maybe would have felt more in alignment and if the loss was present with all of you. And acknowledged. And I also think that for children, it's really healthy role modeling to talk about it because everybody will go through loss. 

And so if you have some kind of role modeling for how to hold that from a really early age, you can enter into your own inevitable losses in a much different way.  

[00:16:31] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. It opens up for the kids a conversation about a really hard topic too. And one of the things we are trying to do is normalize this conversation for everyone, kids, adults, elders. 

So I love the language you use in the book about old grief and new grief, and how are they connected?  

[00:16:53] Claire Bidwell Smith: You know, Hope Edelman, I have to credit her for really exploring that territory. She's a colleague and a friend of mine. She wrote the book Motherless Daughters. And she wrote this beautiful book called The After Grief, in which she outlines new grief, old grief, and new old grief. 

In those, she talks about new grief being the, the grief, if you were to lose somebody this week, that would be this new grief that would be coming for them. In 20 years, it will become old grief, but then it can become new old grief in this, it sounds confusing, but it can become new old grief when it's reactivated in some way. 

Say you lost a friend this week, and then in 20 years, you lost another friend that was connected to that friend. That old grief becomes new and fresh again. And so, these losses that we incur throughout our lifetime stack up, and they connect to each other in many ways, and we carry them all. And we experience them singularly, but we also experience them collectively, and they can be reactivated in many different ways. 

I went through a divorce 10, 11 years ago, and a lot of my grief around my parents came up again during that time. The kind of dismantling of my family that came with the divorce activated this old grief that had come with losing my parents, and so in some ways it was a new version of that old grief. 

[00:18:09] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah, that makes so much sense. One of the things you talk about in Conscious Grieving is grieving complicated relationships. I spoke with Anita Sanchez about forgiving the unforgivable. You know, if it was someone who passed and you haven't been able to reconcile, the power of being able to do that, even if it's just within yourself. 

[00:18:31] Claire Bidwell Smith: Absolutely. So many of us have very complicated relationships with the people that we lose. Maybe we were estranged from them. Maybe they struggled with mental illness or addiction, or maybe they were abusive, or maybe we were not a good person within the relationship, and they died with a lot that was unresolved. 

And when that happens, it lends itself to a very complicated grief. There's a lot of layers to sort through. There's forgiveness, there's self-compassion, there's kind of how do you hold this. I have clients who have had really tough relationships and people will say to them, Oh, you must be so devastated that your person is gone. 

They can't even answer because it's too complicated. Right? And so holding space for that and really acknowledging that and talking about it is really important.  

[00:19:16] Sarah Cavanaugh: I also think people treat you differently. Like if they knew you had a complicated relationship, I once sent flowers to a friend who lost his father and he called me and he just, he was, no one's expressing, their compassion for this loss because they knew it was a difficult relationship, and yet it's still a big loss, you know? 

[00:19:40] Claire Bidwell Smith: Totally. I think people feel like they're not allowed to grieve some of these more complicated relationships, but that's not true. You can grieve what you didn't get to have. You can grieve the brief moments of good that there were. You can hold two things, you know, at the same time. You can miss them and love them and grieve them and also be angry with them or resentful or confused about their relationship. 

[00:20:02] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. And this brings to mind the pandemic and all the confusion and mixed feelings around grief and loss. So I'm really curious about your experience with COVID and how you've navigated that. So if someone's listening to this and they've lost a family member during COVID or they, uh, you know, my nephew was unable to go to the birth of his child because he was locked out of the hospital and, you know, all of these things that happened that were like, I don't know if you would call it secondary grief, but there's so many things that happened around COVID. 

[00:20:36] Claire Bidwell Smith: Mm hmm. So many secondary losses occurred. People were really hungry and curious to know about grief during that time. I had put out three books already, and the paperback version of a book I'd written called Anxiety, The Missing Stage of Grief came out in May of 2020, and the entire world was going through grief and anxiety. 

And that book, put me in a position to be really talking about it in a lot of news outlets. And people were just so hungry to have their grief validated. They were like, can I be grieving my kids being home? Can I be grieving missing this wedding? And I was like, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. This is all grief. I was running support groups for people who had lost someone to COVID as early as June of 2020. 

I was doing these online virtual support groups and they were packed, you know, with people who had lost someone and none of them had been able to be at the hospital with their loved one. None of them had been prepared. None of them had been able to say goodbye. It was really heartbreaking, and they are still coming to my support groups and They are still really dealing with a lot of this grief and it's been exacerbated and layered because no one talks about it anymore. 

You know, I have a woman in one of my support groups right now and every time she sees something in the news about COVID or particularly people who say that COVID's over, COVID didn't exist, or Let's not talk about it anymore. It's heartbreaking to her and it just dredges up a lot of different kinds of grief for her. 

[00:22:01] Sarah Cavanaugh: Like you say, that new old grief. How do we, how do we create spaces? What does it mean to create spaces for grieving, especially when sort of the mainstream culture is in denial again and just sort of moving on?  

[00:22:18] Claire Bidwell Smith: I think we really need community in grief, whether it's following certain profiles on Instagram or reading books or listening to podcasts and just hearing other people talk about what you're experiencing. 

That's a way of creating space for it. That's a way of feeling validated. Most people feel like they're doing grief wrong. Most people feel like they're grieving too long or too little or they're not crying enough or they're crying too much or they feel like they're going crazy because it's just so many secondary losses or so much emotion and they just, automatically assume that they're doing it wrong because we're not seeing it enough. 

We're not seeing it on television or in movies. We're not seeing it talked about by prominent figures. Grief is very hushed up and so we don't know what it's supposed to look like. Bereavement leave in this country is several days at most. What is the message that that sends to someone who's grieving? 

Someone who loses a spouse, they lose their wife and they get five days off of work. What's the message there that you unconsciously or consciously incorporate is get back to it. You know, you shouldn't have to grieve for too long. And so when you feel like six months, eight months later, you're still really struggling. 

You begin to feel like you're doing something wrong. So when we can create a community that really supports and validates all of the experiences and feelings you're having, then I think that we're able to create that space that's really needed.  

[00:23:45] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Well, you're trained to host these support groups. I wonder sort of in the general public, if there's a forum somehow that we can create. 

[00:23:55] Claire Bidwell Smith: There's much more than there used to be. I think social media provides a lot of outlets and spaces and resources and information and community. When my mother died in 1997, there was nothing. There was Elizabeth Kubler Ross's book and that was it. There was nothing else. There was nowhere to turn. There was, I didn't know anyone my age who had gone through the loss of a parent or even any kind of loss. 

I didn't know who to talk to, I didn't know where to find information about grief. And now it's as simple as opening up social media and putting in a grief hashtag and you're flooded with all kinds of information and tools and resources that I think are really valuable.  

[00:24:34] Sarah Cavanaugh: I know you wrote a book about exploring the afterlife as part of the grief process. And what does that look like? 

[00:24:40] Claire Bidwell Smith: Thinking about the afterlife is its own stage of grief. It's kind of impossible to lose someone significant in your life, someone really close to you, and not wonder where they are when they're gone. No matter what beliefs you had prior to their death, no matter how you were raised, no matter how strong your faith, there's this questioning that comes into play where you just want to know if they're okay while I see them. 

See them again. Can they see me? Why? Why did they die? Why did they die now? Why did they die the way they did? What will happen to me and other people that I love? There's nothing like it. There's nothing like going through a really big loss to make you kind of just throw all of your beliefs into question. 

Some people abandon beliefs they'd carried for their entire lives. Some people really become angry in their faith. Some people have had no beliefs and suddenly are seeking and finding things that they need to hold on to as a framework to understand all of this. But I think it's really important to be curious, to have conversations about it, to find places where you can ask questions and talk about these things because it's a really natural reaction to have. 

When my mom died, I was, I guess, pretty atheist, you know, I was an angsty 90s teenager, but I didn't want to believe that there was anything else. I was really angry that she was gone. I didn't want some ethereal, spiritual version of her. I just wanted her back. But in time, into my 30s, especially after I had been doing this work for so long and seeing other people go through this, I began to really open up those doors, and I wrote this book called After This, When Life Is Over, Where Do We Go? 

And it's part personal, going on my own journeys to explore some of these things, but also very much so for the people I work with. And I talked to rabbis and priests, I did past life regressions, I talked to a couple dozen psychic mediums. I just went down all kinds of different paths and avenues, shamanism, Buddhism, just really looking at how do our beliefs about the afterlife impact our grief process. 

And what happens when we die. Spoiler alert, I did not find the answer to what happens when we die, but I found a lot of really new ways to hold on to different ideas about life and death. And I also, most importantly, came out of it with an entirely new sense of connection to my parents, to a dear friend that I had lost, a new way to keep them in my life, to honor them, to feel like I can carry them through my life with me, that they can still be here and be part of it. 

I'm raising three kids that neither of my parents ever met. And I have made a lot of efforts to just bring my parents into their lives, to make their presence felt. Part of their lives. I talk about them all the time. I take them places that my parents went. I show them and teach them how to cook things my mother cooked. 

I try to imbue them with values that my father really held. And I think that that is a part of the afterlife. I talked to a rabbi, and he had also lost his parents in his twenties and had a very different experience of those losses than I had because he had such a community and such a faith around it. 

But he told me in Judaism, there's not a big emphasis on the afterlife being a place that we go. Rather, it's what we leave behind. The values that we had, the good deeds we did here, the ways that we helped people or shaped the world during our time here. And I think that's such a beautiful version of the afterlife. 

That's something any of us can buy into. You don't have to believe in anything to hold that idea. And so every time I do something, my father was really generous in spirit with money with his time. Anytime I embody that generosity, I feel like it's part of my father's afterlife, which is really lovely. 

[00:28:28] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah, I just gave a gift to a cousin of mine and it really feels like it was my mother, you know? 

[00:28:33] Claire Bidwell Smith: Yeah.  

[00:28:34] Sarah Cavanaugh: Giving through me.  

[00:28:35] Claire Bidwell Smith: I love that. And that's a way to stay connected to her and to keep her in Your life, you know, when we first lose someone and that physical connection is severed and their physical presence is gone, it feels so final. 

But in time, I think we can all come to realize that it's not as final as it seems in the beginning. There's a new way that we can bring them into our lives and feel them with us at all times, regardless of what you believe in.  

[00:28:59] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that you went out and talked to all of these different sort of faith traditions Was there any one in particular that you sort of gravitated to? 

[00:29:08] Claire Bidwell Smith: I just kind of went down rabbit holes. I started with psychic mediums for two reasons. One, because I had clients who were going to them and they were coming in to see me afterwards and they were like, I talked to a psychic medium and my son came through. And I didn't know what to do with that information. 

I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know if I should be freaked out or embrace it. So I was like, well, I better go see, you know, maybe if I just go see for myself. And I had also, I lost a really close friend of mine when we were 20. She died of leukemia, and I made her a couple of promises before she died. 

I had been looking at some John Edward book. He was on the sci fi network for a while in the early 2000s and had some show. And I said, when you die, I will go see John Edward and I will see if you come through. And I also promised her that if I had a daughter, I would name her after her. And when I was around 30, 10 years later, I hadn't made good on those promises. 

And I hadn't gone to see John Edward, and I'd had a daughter and not named her after Julie. And so I was like, Oh my gosh, what has happened here? And so I went to see John Edward, and I was so scared to go. I sat in this little hotel conference room with like 15 other people who had also come from all over the world. 

And I was really scared for the people who were there. I had been a hospice grief counselor for a number of years at that time. And I was like, how much pain and how much anguish must someone be in to do this? But what I actually saw happen in that room with those people was so much healing and connection with each other. 

And this hope, you know, there's nothing bad about hope. For these people to have a sense of hope that they still had a connection to their person, that they could still maybe talk to them or love them or hold them close. was so beautiful to see and it sent me down this rabbit hole of seeing other mediums and a few years later had another daughter and named her Juliet. 

So I made good on my promises to Julie. Did Julie show up in some way with your session? She didn't. Not any of the psychic mediums I went to see. Not one of them. She never came through. Which was really, hard and sad and yet also kind of left me in a place after a while of being frustrated with it, left me in this place of, you know what, I don't need them to find her. 

I can bring her through. And so I do. My kids and I celebrate Dia de los Muertos and We create an altar every year and we put up photos of all the people that we've loved and lost and we put up little trinkets and all kinds of things. And then I sit around and I tell them stories about each person and I love to talk about Julie and my daughter who she's named after really loves to hear stories of her. 

So she comes through in ways that I was not expecting necessarily.  

[00:31:56] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. I love your section on rituals. What's the value of putting a framework around ritual?  

[00:32:02] Claire Bidwell Smith: It's trying to ease that sense of incongruence that we feel on a daily basis when we're carrying such big loss. And if we can take that time and put a framework around it and have moments, um, like marking the rituals of continuity, you know, just kind of continuing to bring them into your life. 

We have rituals of transition where we, you know, let go of certain moments or we move forward in certain ways and sometimes that moving forward requires a transition, maybe moving a wedding ring from one hand to the other. Maybe it means leaving a home where you had a child who had a bedroom there who's no longer with us and you have to pack up those things and maybe you create. 

some kind of little altar in your new home that has pieces of that. I had a friend who lost a daughter and her six-year-old daughter had these really beautiful little sparkly red Mary Jane shoes and my friend had them put in this beautiful frame and they hang in her kitchen. So she no longer lives in the home that her daughter was born into and lived, but she has those shoes on the wall in the kitchen. 

Things like that are so important and they ease that sense of incongruence, that feeling of like, who am I? If I'm carrying all of this and no one can see it or I'm not honoring it and recognizing it.  

[00:33:13] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Personally, what rituals have you adopted? You mentioned the Day of the Dead. Mm hmm. Are there others? 

[00:33:18] Claire Bidwell Smith: I do this really crazy St. Patrick's Day party. You know, these are kind of all rituals that honor my mother. She was very celebratory and very artistic. And every year on St. Patrick's Day, she would put just a touch of green food dye in the mashed potatoes. And so now we have this tradition every year where we dye as many things green as we can. 

And so it's become this really unwieldy madness of a party, but it's so fun. And my mother, I just, every year I laugh because she would be so delighted. And I like to give my kids Christmas presents from my parents. I'll pick out things that would have been meaningful in some way that my parents maybe would have gotten to them. 

And kids love presents, right? So then they're like, Ooh, presents from Grandma Sally. And so that kind of keeps them in their lives as well. And on my mother's death anniversary, which is January 24th, I write her a letter. This year was 27 years since she's been gone. Every year I think, Oh, it's okay, whatever. 

I'm not gonna, I'm not gonna feel it really this year. But I've, I'm committed to this yearly ritual. And every time I sit down to write and I write those words, Dear Mom, the floodgates just open and it's all there. There was the Dear Mom, Dad Died letter. There was the Dear Mom, I Got Married letter. There was the Dear Mom, I Had a Baby letter. 

The Dear Mom, I Wrote a Book. You know, all these things I wish I could tell her. And it's a hard letter to write, but it's also really cathartic and it feels healing.  

[00:34:41] Sarah Cavanaugh: I feel like there might be a book in there, a book of letters.  

[00:34:45] Claire Bidwell Smith: There might be, though there is a whole book at this point. 

[00:34:46] Sarah Cavanaugh: There's a whole book at this point. 

Claire Bidwell Smith: 27 of them.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: 27 letters. That's incredible. So, uh, this is a question I ask all my guests. What does a peaceful exit mean to you?  

[00:35:00] Claire Bidwell Smith: Oh, that I loved really hard. That I didn't hold back at all. And I have so far loved really hard and taken advantage of every opportunity to be in deep relationships. in love with people, even when it's hard. 

[00:35:16] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well said. It is such a pleasure to talk to you. And it was so great to meet you. 

[00:35:22] Claire Bidwell Smith: You too. Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for this beautiful podcast and all the beautiful work you're doing.  

[00:35:31] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. I'm your host, Sarah Cavanaugh. You can learn more about this podcast at, and you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram @apeacefulexit. 

If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This episode was produced by the amazing team at Larj Media. You can find them at The Peaceful Exit team includes my producer, Katy Klein. And editor, Corine Kuehlthau. Our sound engineer is Shawn Simmons. 

Tina Nole is our senior producer and Syd Gladu provides additional production and social media support. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. 


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