Podcast #144 ⁠Conscious Grieving: ⁠How Might We Engage and Transform Through Loss? – Claire Bidwell Smith LCPC

In this episode we explore the rich, complex topic of grief. Claire Bidwell Smith’s beautiful book Conscious Grieving: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss shares an easily accessible road map for anyone willing to be curious about what grief has to offer. Who is on such a journey with their grief? Well, that just happens to be all of us. Hopeful, pragmatic and inspirational, the brief chapters in this book show us concrete ways to “enter, engage, surrender, and transform” through the inevitable losses in our lives.




Hi, I’m Diane Hullett, and you’re listening to the best life, best death podcast. And today I’ve got a guest that I’m so excited to have here, Claire Bidwell Smith. Hi Claire. Hi Diane. Thank you for having me. Claire is an incredible author and a grief therapist and has just worked in this field for a long, long time and written several books.

But her latest book is called Conscious Grieving, a transformative approach to healing from loss. And I think it’s one of the most accessible books I’ve read about grief. And I just really want to put a shout out for this. Claire and I are going to touch on some of the topics in the book and kind of talk about how she got into this.

And I just want to add, I first, you know, met Claire. Met Claire. Claire, quote unquote, via the Endwell conference, which I was watching from my couch home with COVID. But Claire’s talk was one of the ones that really stood out for me. And I thought, okay, here’s a person I’d love to interview one of these days.

So here we are. Thank you. I’m so glad you were at EndWell. I really love that conference. It was a wonderful, just wonderful way to hear so many different profound points of view in a really quick amount of time. Really, really amazing. So this book, well, I want to read a paragraph that Claire wrote right at the beginning of the book, and this is the chapter called An Invitation.

She says, All you have to do is keep breathing. Just be here. I know that’s hard when the person you love isn’t. It may even feel impossible in certain moments. But grief is something all of us innately know how to do. It’s not something you can prepare for or need to feel ready for. It is simply grief.

And, you know, Claire, I just, I was so moved when I read that because I think there’s something about maybe just in the way we live these days, we think we have to be experts or good at stuff or competent stuff. And I love that you just named it, that grief is this innate. Thing that humans know how to do.

So with that, you know, talk about that or tell us who you are, wherever you want to begin. Yeah, I, well, I’ve been in the, in the grief world for so long since, um, since both of my parents, you know, got cancer when I was a teenager and I’m an only child. My mom died when I was 18, just starting college. And then my father died seven years later when I was 25.

So I entered into adulthood. With so much grief and not a lot of information about it and a lot of confusion in a place that none of my peers were in. I, um, ended up going back and getting my master’s in clinical psychology and becoming a therapist. But my first job out of school was in hospice because I’d had a really good experience with my dad.

And, um, Really went into that work thinking I knew a lot about grief, but realizing that I just knew my grief. And, um, over the last almost two decades of sitting with people who are also grieving, I’ve learned so much. Um, every, every person I sit with, I learned something new and this book was really my attempt to kind of convey everything I’ve, I’ve learned over the last 20 years.

But the thing I know more than anything is that we do innately know how to grieve and it is a birthright as I wrote in that book. I think we begin grieving very early on in our lives for things that we may not always recognize as losses, you know, changing schools or moving homes or parents getting divorced or losing pets.

You know, there’s so many things we begin to grieve very early on. And I think that grief is a natural part of being a human being and that there is a lot of grief. Beauty to it, not that we feel that in the beginning at all. And I always want to recognize that for anyone listening who is in the deep throes of a new loss, it’s hard to think about beauty or transformation, but I think a lot of the literature out there kind of looks at grief as this affliction or this really horrible thing that we have to.

Get over and get through and treat. Um, I look at it as a, you know, a human process. And if we lean into it, we can learn so much from ourselves and the world around us. And I think we need community and support in order to really be in our grief process. Um, but there’s a lot of ways that I think we can heal from it and can grow from it.

And, and I think a lot of it just means tuning in, getting conscious. Loss is something that happens to us and it’s not something we invited. It’s not something we wanted or asked for, but because it’s something that happened, I think we often begin to feel like the grief is happening too. And I just wanted to give people a sense of agency and empowerment around their grief and remind them that how we grieve is up to us.

One of the things you kind of say early on, or at least this is the metaphor I took, I think you name it as a map. Like you’re saying this, this book is a map for you to understand kind of how this works for you. And I thought one of the other powerful pieces in the book is in one of the appendices, essentially in your toolkit for grievers, I think you call the last part of the book.

You actually go through several different models And you say, here’s what Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, and here’s what Freud said, and here’s what some other models from the 1980s are, and here’s my model for what it is. And there’s something so powerful about reading those in just a short kind of four page, five page span.

And you say, here are several maps. Find one that sort of works for you and understand where you are in the process. And I think that’s such an interesting way to approach this. I see a lot of people just searching for a map, searching for some kind of framework for which to understand this enormous emotional experience they’re going through and all the life changes that come with it.

I think the secondary losses that come with. The initial loss are often underrecognized. You know, we may suffer financial hardship. We may, you know, have our work or career affected by a big loss. Family dynamics change. Um, our social lives change. Our sense and belief in the world changes. Um, and so all of those things really enable us to just be seeking for maps, road guides, orientation.

Yeah. Our identity. I hear people talk about that, that the, the loss of who you knew yourself to be is one of the most sort of surprising and subtle and deep at the same time. It really is so much of our identity changes. And sometimes there are really good pieces of that. And sometimes we end up really grieving who we used to be, you know, maybe a more hopeful, optimistic person or someone who felt safer and secure.

Um, and there’s, There’s really hard stuff that we go through in terms of identity shifts. I’m so struck by how, for you, that was such a young age. I have a daughter in college right now. And I imagine, you know, if that was her experience that her mom had just died, her, her, everything she was experiencing with her peers in college would just be like, Oh, my God.

Or, you know, just like skewed because nobody else would have been holding that for her. And I think at the time, you know, I don’t know what years that was for you, but, uh, you know, the whatever, early teens, nineties or something. Yeah. That, that there wasn’t the kind of grief literature, grief literacy. See, I almost want to call it.

Oh my gosh. There was really nothing out there. I didn’t know where to turn. Um, there was nothing and there was, I didn’t really know anybody my age who had been through anything like this. I would hear my friends talk about going home on the weekends and I, mine was gone. My bedroom was gone, like all of those things.

And so I was really, my whole identity shifted. Yeah. Yeah. It’s so interesting that you found a way, well, I think we are sometimes drawn to what we need to work on. Right. We’re drawn to work in the field. That is our, I don’t know, our truth, our sandpaper, you know, that’s, it’s going to be the thing that teaches us so much.

And you wrote several books before this one. I don’t know if you want to mention any of those. I thought this is my fifth book actually. Wow. Wow. I know. And, and one of them was. really about, um, for clinicians really, how can clinicians help support people? And I love your one called anxiety, the missing stage of grief.

That one came out during the pandemic when the entire world was going through grief and anxiety. And I definitely had not timed it that way, but I’m glad that it. I’m glad that it was available. And it is, um, I think it’s a really important aspect of grief that has been overlooked for a long time. That was my predominant experience after my parents were gone was just anxiety attacks and, um, you know, social anxieties, health phobias, so many things.

And I, I thought there was something. wrong with me. I thought there was something else. It took me a while to connect it to the losses because nobody else was talking about that. Wow. And you say in the acknowledgements, I was just kind of glancing at it again, say in the acknowledgement, something like, this is the book that I’ve been waiting to write.

And this is the book that I wish I’d had. Yeah, it really is. But I couldn’t have written it 20 years ago, you know, I mean, it’s really born from all the work I’ve done. I’ve sat with thousands of people now at this point who are along all different stages of their, of their grief journey. And I’ve learned so much.

And you know, what I most wanted this book to feel like was a lot of reassurance. So many people come to me and they’re, they have so many questions. Questions and confusion about my doing this right. You know, am I, am I, should I still be grieving even though it’s been two years and, or, you know, I’m crying too much or I’m not crying or, uh, you know, I’m stuck in this one spot with it.

And so I really wanted to provide a lot of reassurance. I love that Claire. I’m sure. And I mean, you’ve been on a massive book tour and doing so many presentations about this. And I’m sure that that word As you were writing it and as you talk about it, that comes up again and again, and I love that because I feel like that is what I took away from it.

And there were also two other things I loved about the structure of the book. One is that the chapters are fairly short. Like they’re really, I think sometimes if you’re in the middle of grief, you do not want Nobody wants to read a big, heavy book. You do not want a giant tome with like 20 page chapters.

Exactly. All of these You could sit down and read in 5 to 10 minutes and really, I think it’s accurate to say that every brief chapter, every brief reassuring piece that you read ends with a place to reflect a question, a comment, something for you to reflect on. And I read through it going, wow, this could really be a workbook.

But I love that you didn’t. You didn’t make it a workbook. You say at the beginning, it might be great to have a journal and just every time you’re moved to reflect, do so. And so there’s, it’s both reassuring and it’s an active engagement with your grief to go through this book. Thank you. Yeah. I just, I think that, um, People tend to buy a bunch of books and listen to all the podcasts and do all the things right away.

And what I hear all the time, which I think is so funny and sweet is that they, you know, six months, a year later, they don’t remember any of it. And so I wanted this to be a book that you could come back to over and over and flip through and just open up to a page and find something helpful because when you’re grieving, you know, every day is different.

Every hour can be different and you don’t know what you need half the time. And so just being able to kind of flip through this and find. Find something useful. Talk about that a little bit, just the, the range of what people experience given your own experience and thousands of clients, like I’m sure you’ve seen it all, but it’s kind of for listeners.

See if you can, I don’t know, put out a few pieces of the map. Yeah, I think, um, well, I divided the book into four orientations, I call them. Um, and the first one is entering into grief. And that is that. piece that we don’t have a choice over, right? The loss has happened and we are just in the grief. And so a lot of that first section is about kind of getting oriented.

What do you need to know that, um, about what’s normal about this experience? What are some really basic things to help you feel grounded and oriented? Because grief is so disorienting. It can kind of turn your life upside down. And I think Most people have not, unless they’ve been through something else really big, have not experienced that level and depth of emotion, and you suddenly don’t know how you’re going to behave at a party or at the grocery store, or you’re crossing a room and you feel fine one minute, and the next minute a song comes on and you’re on your knees.

You know, and so that first section is really about just kind of getting oriented. And the next one is called engaging with grief. And that’s, you know, what are some ways we can really kind of get more proactive and, you know, feel a little bit more agency in terms of what are we going to do with this?

We’re in it, you know, um, Yet I still think that there’s a lot of ways in which we resist and avoid grief. Um, and some of that is due to our culture, you know, because we are really a grief illiterate nation. As Maria Shriver once said, I think, um, you know, if you think about even just bereavement leave in our country, it’s three to five days for a major loss.

You lose a, a parent, a spouse, a child, and you get three to five days off of work. Um, I think that that message that that sends to the griever is that you just need three to five days, and you should be able to get back to things. And so we begin to really doubt our grief process and doubt where we should be in it.

And so the third part is called surrendering to grief, which is like, Really acknowledging that this is going to be a big thing for some of us. It may follow us through our lifetimes. I don’t think you can lose a child, for instance, and not that grief is always going to be with you. And that process is going to be unfolding from decades.

Um, and so how do we kind of surrender to it? And surrendering is really just kind of accepting that this is something that’s now part of our lives. Um, and the last section is transforming through grief. What are the ways in which we can really begin to learn about ourselves in the world, um, through this process?

You know, I see people make actually beautiful changes. They get rid of toxic relationships that aren’t working. Maybe they change a job that’s not meaningful. Maybe they really begin to deepen other relationships or find new truths within themselves. Loss and grief are the best. The big reveals of who we really are, you know, what matters to us?

Well, who do we want to be in the face of this? Beautiful. And I think it’s interesting to those four kind of entry points. You talk about how they’re really, they’re relevant, whether you’re reading this book, because something just happened, you just lost somebody, you had a big loss, or it’s been years, it’s been five years, 10 years, 20 years.

And you pick up this book to kind of have a new. Appreciation seems like a terrible word to use, but a new surrendering to what is possible in this. Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think back on my losses in the first 10 years of going through mine. It was a lot of surviving, you know, just trying to kind of figure out how to be here in the face of so much loss.

And later, I was able to really kind begin to reflect and look at all the ways that grief had changed me. And, you know, in many ways changed me for the better, even though that wasn’t something I wanted to think about in the beginning or could have, could have imagined for myself, right. Or even could have begun to think, um, I want to point out one section that I really liked and just to kind of put it in context, this is in part two, engaging with grief and you’ve got.

Uh, you know, a chapter called what does it mean to engage with grief a note about avoiding your grief, the effects of grief on the brain. That’s a really important kind of neuroscience section, recognizing trauma about guilt, about depression, about anger. And then you go into this section that I wanted to go in a little deeper called A Note About Shared Grief.

And I just wanted to read the second paragraph in that section. You say, You may share a loss with family members, friends, co workers, or even your entire community. Sometimes there is comfort to be found in the shared experience of grief, but sometimes sharing your experience of loss can be challenging.

Everyone grieving the same loss will go about it in a different way, and you may find yourself reacting unexpectedly to their various expressions of grief, feeling angry and resentful, or alternatively, insulted. Fired and soothed. You may also feel judgment from others about your grief, which can elicit insecurity and doubt within your process.

Hold true to what you know. Lean into your process as only you know how to do, even when it differs from what others are doing. So I thought this was kind of a powerful chapter because it’s just something I hadn’t thought about in exactly that way. Mm-Hmm. . Is there one more you would add about shared grief?

It’s just something that I see occurring all the time across the board for so many people, whether it’s in a small immediate family unit, or whether it’s in a larger family system, or like I said, even within a community, um, maybe you’re the person that you lost was a big person in the community and everyone’s grieving them, or you’ve gone through a public tragedy as You know, happens in this country in many different ways, um, and around the world.

And so there can be so many different people grieving the same loss, and it’s going to look different for everyone. Every relationship is going to be different. Every person’s personality is going to be different. Um, I hear even just, you know, Siblings who, who, you know, lost the same parent and they have completely different grief processes, and they may really, um, have conflicts over what they’re gonna do for Thanksgiving or if they’re gonna honor their person or not.

Or one person’s posting on Facebook all day about it and the other person feels more private about it. You know, there’s all these things that come up and, and it can be very triggering or it can be really helpful in soothing. Um, more often than not, it’s triggering. It’s really challenging to grieve with other people.

And I think. What the answer to that is, is really finding your own grief community. And this is something that didn’t exist, you know, when I was going through my losses, but now online, there’s so many beautiful communities that you can be part of, whether it’s an online support group or it’s a forum, or you’re just kind of finding the grief places that you feel aligned with, whether it’s a podcast or, you know, a social media profile that you really like, um, and going into those spaces and kind of.

Getting validated and feeling reinforced in your own process can make you feel a little less crazy or alone when you’re in that kind of family or community dynamic. So interesting. I mean, it just brings up so much for all of us. And then, of course, there’s the people who are like one level out. So maybe you’ve got a family system that lost a parent, and then you’ve got the siblings reacting to each other and maybe the surviving parents.

And then you’ve got their spouses, maybe your partners, and then you’ve got their friends. And how do you navigate, you know, the question always comes up, how do you navigate what to say or not say to someone who’s grieving? Oh, it’s so hard. I think people really trip up in this space. They want so badly to say the exact right thing, but there really isn’t a perfect thing to say other than like, I’m here, you know, just show up.

It’s more of, of, of an act rather than a phrase. Um, I think just showing up, letting someone know that you’re here, Um, and so I think it’s really important that we have a space for whatever is coming up for them. We get very uncomfortable when people are in pain, get very uncomfortable when we think about death and dying.

And so people will kind of get avoided, even when someone close to them is going through a big loss they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or it’s bringing up too many feelings for them, but really just being there just telling them that you see them in this grief that you recognize it. Um, and, you know, maybe checking in on them here and there, even long after the loss.

I think that’s one of the things everybody does tend to show up in the first few weeks or months, but often some big grief doesn’t start for six months a year into it. And by then everyone has dropped away. So keep checking in on people. I was really struck by that. How I was aware that people show up early on, maybe call it the first three months.

What I hadn’t thought about is that for the griever, many of the really complex feelings start after that. So anger, the distrust, the, um, the guilt, the kind of edgier emotions that come with grief, not just the full on loss and the love and the experience, but the more complicated stuff happens right about the time.

A lot of people drop away and forget. It was a big deal. And really it’s. The six to 12 month period of time is some of the most difficult for grievers because it’s often the longest they’ve gone without talking to or seeing their person and so that just that ache and that anguish of missing them is there.

This is often when a lot of the secondary losses are happening, you know, maybe there’s big changes that are happening to the landscape of their life or they, you know, they’re just not feeling social like they used to or they’re struggling at work. They’re now also going through all these holidays and anniversaries they’re approaching.

the one year anniversary, which can bring up so many things. Um, and this is the time when people are expecting them to be better. You know, they’re like, Oh, you’re still doing that grief thing. It’s so hard. It’s so heartbreaking. Yeah. One of the things I’ve just personally been meaning to do is to take more note of people’s death anniversaries or death days or deathversaries or whatever you want to call them.

Because I, I know people’s birthdays. But now I’m at a time of life where people are starting to have really important death anniversaries. And I think, well, gosh, I know it was in the spring, but did her mom die in April or May? And I just think, well, as a good friend, why do I not know that? So jot them down all the time and I just throw them in the calendar.

And then when I see it, I’d send them a quick. text or an email. And it means so much to people because I think so much of the time our grief feels invisible to everyone around us. We’re walking through our days, we’re going to school pickup or we’re going to, you know, the grocery store, we’re going to work and we’re carrying this grief that no one sees.

And so when you get that text or email from someone who remembers, it means a lot. Who acknowledge it, acknowledges it, you know, really sees it. Yeah. What do you think is different about this book from other grief books that you either you’ve written or others have written? Well, I just really wanted it to be hopeful.

I feel like there’s not enough grief books that are hopeful. Again, it kind of looks at it as this book. Big heavy thing to kind of maneuver and get through and hopefully get over and get through like you get through as opposed to like, I saw visual one time that I loved, which I’ll just throw in here as I’m interrupting you, which you know that we don’t, it isn’t like, uh, we, we grow and our grief.

Shrinks. It’s more that we grow and we expand to around the grief. How does the visual go? There’s like a circle. It’s a jar with like a big ball of grief in the middle and it’s not that the grief changes size, but the jars get bigger. I mean, there’s a few different ones like that. Yes. That’s it. Our jar gets bigger.

Our capacity gets bigger. It’s not that the grief shrinks. Yes. Yeah. Yeah. It’s about learning how to carry it. You know, for me, I will forever carry these losses with me. I’m raising three kids that my parents never met. Um, it’s, you know, it comes up, you know, often still. And so how do I learn to carry that through my life?

How do I learn to honor them to still stay connected to my parents to ensure that my children know them and stay connected? Some way and those are, you know, it’s not easy and, and I really wanted to give people permission to understand that they can carry this throughout their lives and that there are tools and ways to do it.

I love that permission to carry it and reassurance and hope and. And, and some tools. I mean, I think you really tried to make it a book that is, uh, accessible and provides tools and it’s like, here, this is how you move forward. I was telling Claire before we started recording, I got the book, read the book, loved the book, and I was carrying the book with me to a client and I met with this family and I said, You know, I think y’all need this book.

And they said, No, no, no, we’ll just get our own. We’ll go on Amazon right now and get it. I said, Okay, put the book back in my bag. Then I had coffee later that day with a friend and I was like, Oh, Okay. You need this book. So I mean, the book just had to leave my hands immediately and go into the hands of a friend who was about to go be with a friend having a super complex cancer treatment.

And I said, I think, I think this is going to be important for you to read and read parts of it to your friend, because there’s something about integrating the grief as we’re, whatever the losses are, as we’re moving into a diagnosis, as we’re moving into, you know, yeah, it’s I guess what I’m trying to say is it doesn’t have to be just the loss of a person who died.

There are other more kind of chronic and those kind of slow losses that build. And I think when we can read a book like this and find the hope and reassurance in it as we move into it, as we’re supporting those who are moving into it, that’s actually really powerful. Like that’s when we need it. Um, I sort of think this should be like required reading for anyone.

40 or even over 20. Right. I think, well, I mean, I think, you know, early on in age, again, we start grieving things very early, whether or not it’s the loss of a person or it’s a lifestyle or, you know, just your daughter in college, you know, moving on from her school. School years, there’s grief there. Like, oh gosh, I have to be an adult now, , and get a job.

And I kind of miss all of those things. And so the whole book is supposed to just be about how to lean into it all, how to feel empowered within the process and, and how to feel better. Absolutely. Well, I think it’s a huge, uh, what do I want to say? Like a huge expansion in what grief literature I’ve read out there.

It’s, it’s a, it’s a book that I think a lot of people are going to take to heart and share with others. And that would be my hope, of course, right? Is that you put it in the hands of someone right at the moment when they say, Oh, this is what I need to read. And this is how I need to, you know, engage and enter and surrender to my grief.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think one last thing I’ll say is that I think that grief in, um, in our later years is really kind of overlooked, you know, and I think that there’s so many things that we grieve as we aged, you know, 40 and up and so much of the current grief literature out there is written for younger people and it’s, there’s tones of it that I just don’t love.

And I work with so many older people and it’s, Like the amount of grief they’re carrying from their lifetime, and that’s occurring around in their lives all the time. So I really wanted this to be a book that felt really good to people who are, you know, 60 and up. So, yeah, I think you, I think you nailed it because, you know, one of my favorite books about I Death really is called the art of dying well by Katie Butler, and I say over and over again to people what I love about it is it is both, uh, aspirational and inspirational, and it is pragmatic and practical, and I feel the same way about this one.

It’s, it allows people to get a bigger view, get a bigger picture. Kind of perspective on what they’re going through. And then it also says, here’s some tools. Here’s some, here’s some things you can do. Here’s some things you can ask of other people. And those, those kinds of books to me, just, uh, you know, when you combine the aspirational with the practical, you’ve got me.

Thank you, Diane. Well, thank you, Claire. And thank you so much for your time in the midst of all you’re doing. And obviously, you know, you’re going to hear Claire’s name on lots bigger podcasts and bigger TV. Whatever. TV isn’t the, what am I even saying? This is when I show my age, like TV shows, you know, like different interview, uh, pieces are coming out right now with Claire and this book.

And I really appreciate you taking the time for a smaller podcaster. And I think this has been wonderful and Thank you so much, Diane. So you can find out more about Claire’s work at ClaireBidwellSmith. com. Beautiful. Bidwell is B I D W E L L. So ClaireBidwellSmith. com. And it’s always, you can find out more about the work I do at bestlifebestdeath.

com. Thanks for listening. Thanks for joining me. Thanks Diane.

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.