302 Claire Bidwell Smith
Grief Therapist and Author
“I just remember the feeling of having his arms around me, and I just felt so sickened that I had chosen this instead of my mother.”
Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief and the author of three books about grief and loss. Visit her website to find her offerings including courses, meditations, one-on-one grief sessions and more.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
In 2019 I was on 90 airplanes and in 7 countries.
And my friends will tell you that at the time, I talked a lot about how tired I was, how much I missed home, how annoyed I was by giving the same talk so many times.
In 2020 I was in my apartment. And about 6 months into this pandemic, I tweeted “Sorry for how much I complained about my travel schedule back in 2019 but I was busy taking my entire life for granted”.
In the newly unhurried and uncluttered spaces of my life I have found myself wistfully longing for things I had no idea I was taking for granted at the time. I miss the buzz of humanity that wafts off a live audience as they find their seats – I miss speaking to large groups of actual human beings and not just squares on the screen of my MacBook.
I miss hugging my parents and who I am when I am with my friends and movie theater popcorn.
It reminds me of what it feels like to see pictures of my children from when they were small. How their baby pictures can elicit a longing in me for those lost moments of sweetness – but also elicit a tinge of remorse wondering if I was appreciative then of the thing I wish I had back now?
–Perhaps we are not yet in a place where we can talk about the gifts that have come from this grotesque pandemic, because how do we name a gift that comes to us out of molded ash and tears?
All I can do is love the unhurried and uncluttered space I have now, as I may wistfully long for it if I am again on airplanes every week of my life.
That’s all we’ve got. We can’t go back and fix who we were. We cannot import the wisdom we’ve earned in middle age back to who we were in young adulthood. We can only try and honor now what we wish we had appreciated then. We can only savor now what we will miss when it’s gone. We can only practice being the person today we regret not being in the past.
My name is Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into the confessional. It’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. My guest today tells her own story of how who she is now was molded out of ash and tears.
NBW: I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you have stepped into the Confessional. Joining me today is Claire Bidwell Smith. She is an author and a grief therapist and I’m so excited to have this conversation with her, I’ve been looking forward to it. So welcome, Claire.
Claire Bidwell Smith (CBS): Thank you.
NBW: What brings you into the confessional today? Tell me what was going on in your life at the time.
CBS: So I was a freshman in college. so I was about 18, I was in Vermont at a very small liberal arts college. I had grown up in Atlanta, Georgia and wanted to go as far away from the South as I could get, which I don’t know if Vermont is as far away physically but culturally, it was and it was a difficult decision on some levels, because my mother had had cancer for four and a half years at that point and I’m an only child.
NBW: Oh wow.
CBS: Both of my parents got cancer at the same time when I was 14.
NBW: Oh my God.
CBS: My dad found out that he had prostate cancer and then my mother started having this pain just right before he was supposed to begin his treatment and she went in and they found out that she had very advanced colon cancer, stage four and so hers really took the spotlight suddenly.
My senior year of high school, her cancer came back pretty intensely and she was having more surgeries, chemo, she was throwing up in the bathroom, her hair was falling out. It was hard. I was escaping into boys and books, which have been my lifelong escape but I was already a writer at that point. so my parents just really encouraged me to find a school and go and continue that and so I picked out the school in Vermont and they drove me up there and I know they were really excited for me to launch into the world.
So I made this big decision to go away to college, even though my mom was sick.
NBW: And how was it for you getting away from your hometown?
CBS: And the first semester was pretty great, I loved the school, I loved the classes I was feeling like my brain was exploding all the time with just really exciting ways of learning and looking at history and literature and the people I was meeting. My mom came to visit at one point for parents’ weekend and she was so excited to come and see me and I remember just pushing her away in different ways. Wanting to go out with my friends or just not being as enthusiastic to hang out as she had hoped and there was a…
NBW: Kay. So she comes to the parents’ weekend or comes to visit you and you’re not really keen to envelop her.
CBS: That was in October and she got home from parents’ weekend and she really never got out of bed again. My dad called me and I remember sitting. There was a little dorm house that I was sitting in the and my dad said “Your mom is at the end. She’s not going to make it.” and he said “She and I have talked about it and we think you should stay in school.” He paused but then he said “But you’re 18. You are an adult. This decision is up to you.”
NBW: Yeah. What went through your mind? What were the different thoughts happening at that point when he said that?
CBS: I think I just felt panicked and I said, “I’m coming,” and I hung up the phone and I went up to my dorm room and I threw a bunch of stuff in a backpack and I got in the car
it was like a seven-hour drive and I was driving by myself in my old red Saab smoking a million cigarettes, listening to The Police
Or Susan Vega. I remember I was listening to Susan Vega all the time.
NBW: Yes. Yes.
CBS: And it was freezing and I remember just trying to wrap it around my brain that my mom was dying and I was saying it out loud in the car, “My mom’s dying,” and I couldn’t get it to feel real. About three hours, four hours outside of DC where the hospital was, I decided to stop. There was this boy of course, there’s always a boy, right? and his name was Christopher and I’d had this crush on him since the very beginning of school and it was very unrequited.
and I was driving through the very town he was living in on my way to see and I stopped at a pay phone and I remember calling him and he answered the phone and I was like, “Hey, I’m on my way to see my mom but wanted to know if you wanted to get coffee first.” So we went to the coffee shop
NBW: What did that feel like?
CBS: it was like the most delicious feeling to sit across from this boy I had a crush on and not think about my mother who was dying.
CBS: And so I flirted with him and we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and towards the end of it, he said, “Do you wanna stay the night?” And I said, “Yes.” I had been hoping he would ask. I don’t know if it was wanting to spend time with him, wanting to not go to the hospital but I said yes. We went back to his uncle’s house and then Christopher and I sat in the kitchen and we drank vodka and orange juice and I got pretty intoxicated. I had called my father and told him before that, that I had stopped to see my friend and he had actually said, “Why don’t you stay the night? It’s getting late
I’d given him Christopher’s uncle’s phone number and then we went upstairs and we went to separate bedrooms. He showed me to this guest room and I remember falling on my face on the bed. It was late and I was drunk and tired and went to sleep. At 3:00 in the morning, the door opened and this light shone in from the hallway and Christopher’s uncle was standing there with a phone in his hand and he handed it to me and it was my dad and he said “She’s gone.”
And that’s the moment that changed my life forever.
NBW: Do you remember what you were feeling in your body, were you still intoxicated? Do you think at 3 o’clock, were you totally lucid suddenly?
CBS: A little of both. Definitely, I became very lucid and I still now remember, all I remember is shame and humiliation and just desperate guilt right away.
NBW: Yeah. Had you told the boy that your mom was dying?
CBS: I had. He came in the room after that and he said that I shouldn’t drive at 3:00 in the morning and especially when I was upset and he laid down with me and he fell asleep and I remember I was just wearing this flimsy t-shirt and panties and it felt so weird to be in bed with him, this thing I had wanted for so long and I just laid there, staring out the window and he fell asleep I just remember the feeling having his arms around me and I just felt so sickened that I had chosen this instead of my mother. I got up the next morning and I drove to DC and my father met me at the hospital and my mother was gone. I never saw her again.
NBW: Did you get to see her body?
CBS: No. I never did.
NBW: So when you said to me that that’s the moment my life changed, say more about that.
CBS: It changed for so many reasons. It changed because she had been my most important person. I’m 42 years old now and no one has ever loved me like she loved me.
CBS: So to lose that.
I remember she would come find me towards the end of the night, I’d be in my room in high school, doing homework or talking on the phone and she would come down and she would come down and she would lay back across the bed. I had all these glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and we would lay in the dark on my bed and it was always the time I opened up to her and she would ask me about my life and I would. It always felt like a safe place to really be honest, ’cause we were in the dark and we were looking up at the stars and I would tell her all the things that I thought I shouldn’t say and she always, always was so accepting of them and that made me feel loved.
Not everyone gets an awesome mom but I had one and she loved me so fiercely and so losing that, I just felt completely lost. I didn’t know how to be in the world without her and I hated myself for not being there. All I wanted was to do it over again. I just wanted to be able to drive to that hospital that night and crawl in bed with her and put my arms around her and tell her how much I loved her and I wasn’t sure she knew that.
NBW: Yeah. How did that sort of just hatred of yourself for the choice you made. As an 18-year-old, how did that show up later in your life? Did that sort of remain a fixture in your self-regard?
CBS: It did. It showed up in a lot of reckless behavior, which was substance abuse, toxic relationships, romantically…
NBW: Did you ever communicate with that friend again?
CBS: I pursued him with abandon. He moved out to San Francisco shortly after that and I actually even took a Greyhound bus out there. I really for a little while there thought that if I could make him love me, it would make it worth not being there the night my mom died.
NBW: Oh Claire. Oh!
CBS: Which resulted in me finally sleeping with him and it being so painfully obvious that he didn’t care about me, and I had this realization that he was never gonna love me and my mother was never coming back and I was going to have to figure this out.
NBW: Yeah. Oh, wow but that…
CBS: Yeah, sorry that it doesn’t end well.
NBW: I understand the weird internal logic of that though.
NBW: Thinking, If he was the one, then it’s a different story.
CBS: Right. Yeah, completely, right? And I tried really hard but ultimately, I think I just had to reckon with myself.
NBW: I feel like I don’t have a lot of clarity about what it means to forgive ourselves and what the process is to forgive ourselves. Both of those things feel a little murky to me I just, I don’t know why that’s so hard, I feel like I can kind of have compassion for myself right now but forgiving younger versions of myself for not knowing what I know now or not having an emotional capacity then that I have now, I don’t know why it feels impossible to let my younger self off the hook. I have so much contempt for her.
CBS: That was a piece that was really difficult for me too. It took me a long time, it took me down on my knees, broken and at the bottom of the barrel, weeping, to finally get to a place where I could have compassion for myself. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
NBW: How did you get there?
CBS: I feel like I really hit rock bottom.
My father died seven years later and while his death was really transformative and this, in some ways, was a reparative experience. He talked about it, we sat together. I was holding his hand when he died, but it still didn’t bring my mother back and it didn’t take that night away that I missed and then I was alone in the world.
I was 25 years old and I was living in LA at that point and my parents were gone and I was an only child and all my friends were 25 and they were going out to bars and they were post-college and in these new jobs and relationships and I was…
NBW: Complaining about how they don’t wanna go home for Christmas ’cause their parents are so annoying.
CBS: Exactly and I was just like “What the fuck is life even about?” and I went pretty deep into drinking and my friends finally kinda rallied around and they were like “Okay enough,” and they urged me to get into therapy, which was the first step and I would go to therapy twice a week for a while there and I would just sit there and weep.
I hated myself so much, it was so hard to take it all out of the box and look at and then I started yoga and that was actually harder than therapy ’cause I had to sit there in my body and be me in the world. and I had come up with a lot of really good ways to run from being me. and so I would just sit there on the mat and just cry and cry and cry and um eventually, I just started to soften and the third thing I did that was really important was I started working in ways of service to the world.
NBW: What do you mean by that?
CBS: I had gotten these really kind of amazing jobs. I had worked at Time Out and t New York Magazine and then my first job out of college was at Vanity Fair and I was doing all this glitzy stuff and going to parties and travel writing and it suddenly seemed just so shallow and so I started working. I worked with under-served school kids initially doing tutoring and then I worked for a homeless organization and I finally started to feel like this makes me wanna cry. I just started to feel like I had something useful to offer the world.
NBW: Why do you think it makes you wanna cry?
CBS: ‘Cause I feel so sad that I didn’t think that before.
NBW: That’s such a tender reason.
CBS: I do look back on my younger self with compassion now. I mean I was 18 years old. I didn’t have the emotional capacity. I’d been going through the whole thing with them for all of my adolescence and there was nobody to say this is what grief looks like or this is what death looks like or this is how you show up for people. No one did that and so I did the best I could with what happened but that meant blaming myself.
NBW: Eventually that became your work, though, didn’t it?
it did. I went back and got my Master’s in Clinical Psychology and my first job out of grad school I spent my days sitting with people who were dying and sitting with their families who were saying goodbye to them and I knew what that was about. I knew how to sit with it, I knew what it looked like and that was the kind of final piece of forgiveness for myself was seeing so many other people afraid to say goodbye and when we’re afraid to say goodbye, we do sometimes stupid things.
For people who are in that place of severe self-critique and can’t get out of it, what is the path towards compassion for ourselves?
CBS: I think it might be a little different for everyone.
CBS: But I think it involves sitting with it, really facing your truth. I think that when there’s something that is deeply painful, we do anything and everything to run from it.
CBS: So the first thing is to kind of sit and face it but sometimes, you need help to do that. You need a therapist, you need a pastor, you need someone to bear witness to who you are and what you’ve done and we all have something, you know
NBW: Oh my God! One of the reasons I started this podcast is that I feel the same way about hey, if there’s something that you’re not admitting but is true. You will carry it around in some deformed package for your whole life and you’ll go through so much effort to try to pretend the deformed thing next to you isn’t there or that it’s beautiful or that really you don’t care or it’s not that heavy or whatever. This is what certain characters in books and TV and movies, this is what the driving force is, you can see it.
That’s why I feel like it can be a motor that drives us. If shame could be bottled as an energy source, it could maybe replace fossil fuel.
CBS: *Laughs* Totally, totally.
NBW: it’s super motivating but getting clear of it is like…
CBS: It’s the most liberating thing in the world.
NBW: And it makes you very attractive. Do you know what I mean? It actually is compelling for other people. When I’m around people who are free, you can tell, you’re like “Oh, you’re just… You’re free.” That makes me accept myself more. It makes me relax more, it’s a beautiful gift actually, to the world to do that work.
CBS: It is. It really is.
Well, is there anything else you wanted to add before we wrap up?
CBS: Um, I miss my mom, I still think about her every day. I mean, every day. I think I spent so much time and guilt that I pushed her away even more and when I finally softened and forgave myself, I was able to bring her back into my life and I feel like she’s with me all the time. I hear her in my voice, I see her in my kids, I knew her so well I could ask her if she would like this shirt I’m wearing right now and I know what her answer would be and it would be, “No.”
We don’t ever truly lose the people we love, they’re always with us.
NBW: Yeah, yeah for sure. Well, it’s such a pleasure to talk to you and I’m really grateful for you retelling the story and I think probably especially for just letting me sort of see that process of forgiving yourself. It feels impossible and yet maybe it’s not.
CBS: I don’t think it’s impossible. Everyone needs to be able to feel like they can do their own hard work.
NBW: Yeah yeah. I believe in it. I really do. Well, thank you. Bless you. I’m so grateful.
CBS: Thank you.
NBW: A blessing for Claire,
Claire, I wonder if you realize how many times you mentioned crawling into bed.
There’s the bed of a well-loved girl who looked at ceiling stars and said secret things to her listening mom.
And the bed you fell into drunk and still towns away from the one that mom was dying in. Where hours later you were uselessly held by a boy you thought you wanted, but who wasn’t even a little bit what you actually needed.
Because what you needed was to have crawled out of that bed you chose and into the sterile one your mother occupied to look once more at ceiling stars and listen to her secret things and tell her you loved her.
So Claire, I offer you a blessing for crawling into bed.
In the moments before you slumber, as your body and mind rest from the grief and joy and the annoyance of the day, may you feel nurture pressing into you with the insistence of a concerned mother.
As sleep comes, may her love whisper into your ear “you are mine”, may the sound of it blanket you into your truest self. Your wiser self. Your staring at stars and whispering secrets self that can easily say back to it, “I know”.