Claire Bidwell Smith, CONSCIOUS GRIEVING

Claire Bidwell Smith, CONSCIOUS GRIEVING

Renowned grief therapist (and future Zibby Books author!) Claire Bidwell Smith comes back on the podcast, this time to discuss CONSCIOUS GRIEVING: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss. As she and Zibby delve into the book's core themes, Claire shares her personal journey of loss—having lost both her parents at a young age—and how it led to a career in grief counseling. She also shares insights on the grieving process, touches on its misconceptions, and offers practical advice and encouragement for those facing it.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Claire. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss Conscious Grieving: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss.

Claire Bidwell Smith: Thank you, Zibby. It's always good to see you.

Zibby: So much has happened between us since our last podcast on the show. If listeners want to google or search, our last episode was forever ago. I had read your book. I was such a massive fan. I could not believe I got to see you in LA and that you were coming to my house. Then you showed up with your baby, who we passed between us the whole time. I was like, oh, my gosh, Claire Bidwell Smith is in my dining room with her baby. This is so cool.

Claire: It was one of those mom moments where I suddenly lost childcare. I was like, well, the podcast is called "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books," so I'm sure she'll be fine if I bring my baby because there's no other choice.

Zibby: I was totally fine. I couldn't believe. Now he's so big. How old is he?

Claire: [Indiscernible/crosstalk].

Zibby: He's five?

Claire: He's five, yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That tells us how long ago it was. Then you became a Zibby Books author along the way. Eventually, you'll write that book. Along the way, Kyle's production company optioned The Rules of Inheritance. Hopefully, that will be a show soon, which is really cool.

Claire: Yes, I know. So much. You became a media mogul. You're just changing the face of publishing day by day. It's amazing. I'm so proud of you. A lot has happened in the last five years.

Zibby: A lot has happened, and you've lived in every place in the entire United States. Yes, a lot of personal changes. It's great to have you back. This time, we are talking about Conscious Grieving, which is not a memoir like your last book, but much more of a, not a workbook, but a -- why don't you describe it? What's the word? Reported piece, a help --

Claire: -- It's self-help.

Zibby: Self-help. Thank you. I don't usually do podcasts this late in the afternoon when my brain shuts off. It's my fault. Talk about your self-help book and your approach and your whole experience as a grief counselor for so long and what you learned and why you wrote the book.

Claire: This is really my letter to people who are grieving. It's actually written in the second person. I just recorded the audio recently. It struck me that if you listen to the audio version, it's like I'm just talking directly to you, which is what I wanted the book to feel like. This book is a synthesis of everything I've learned in the past twenty years of being a grieving person and also someone who's been sitting with thousands of people along their journeys of loss. I've been a therapist for fifteen years now, private practice, hospice, retreats, and support groups. Every day, I'm sitting with somebody who's going through immense loss. I went into this work because I lost both of my parents when I was young. I went into this work thinking I knew a lot about grief, and I only knew my grief. Since then, I have learned so much. I learn something new from every single person I sit with about grief. It's so universal and yet also so deeply individual, our relationships, the way we lose people, our personalities. This is the book where I summed up everything I know about grief. The really big thing I know about it is that we have to lean into it in order to heal and that when we do lean into it, there's a lot of hope and transformation possible, even in the deepest anguish and sorrow of some losses. That's why it's called Conscious Grieving. It's just about being intentional. I say in the book, loss is something that happens to us, but how we grieve is up to us. It's about really leaning into this process with intention and consciousness.

Zibby: It doesn't feel like it's up to us, grief.

Claire: It doesn't.

Zibby: It feels like it's taking over your body and your life and everything. You're on this roller coaster of this unfamiliar ride.

Claire: It does feel like that, especially in the beginning. It just feels like your whole life has been upended. You've been hit with a sledgehammer. Everything feels unpredictable. Then I think we can really make choices about how we engage with it, how we seek support for it, how we learn to talk about it, how we learn to carry our grief. Because it's so overwhelmingly like that in the beginning, I think we often try to run away from it. We try to tamp it down. We try to deflect or distract. This book is really about, let's not do that. Let's do the opposite of that. Someone once told me about anxiety, which I also talk and think a lot about and experience a lot, someone once told me that it's like -- you know that advice when you're on an icy road and your car is skidding? You're supposed to lean into the curve so that you can get control of the steering wheel. I feel like it's like that. Anxiety is like that. Grief is like that. Life's kind of like that. Lean into it so that you can actually engage with it.

Zibby: I took that to mean when your car is skidding, you should turn the way the car is skidding, but that's actually not right. I got in a car accident when I was eighteen. I just kept turning and turning the wheel so that I ended up doing front, back, front into the bumper in the middle of the highway. I kept twisting my own car. The point is, you're supposed to get it back straight.

Claire: I think you lean into it in order to start to get that control. Then you can take it in your own directions.

Zibby: So maybe don't take it too, too literally. [laughter] I feel like there's something similar about grief and pregnancy where you don't know how your body and your emotions are going to respond to being pregnant, but once you've been pregnant a few times, you realize, oh, this is what my body does. This is how I feel when I'm pregnant. Then once you've had grief hit you or you've had losses hit you, then you're like, this is my grief response. What's going on here? This is how I grieve. You don't know. You don't know if you're going to be a cute pregnant person or a hideous pregnant person. You just have to wait and find out. You don't know if you're going to be a hideous griever or whatever. It just happens.

Claire: It's true. It really can change so much about us. You don't know if you're going to be an extroverted griever or an introverted. Maybe you're going to be someone who writes and talks a lot about it. Maybe you just get really private about your grief. That's something that you really may not know until it happens. I think you're right about, our grief does show up in certain inherit ways. The more you get to know it through each loss, you start to recognize it. It becomes kind of familiar.

Zibby: Then I feel like sometimes you realize it's applying to things that are not necessarily death. You talk about losses. You talk about things like loss of a pet, loss of a home, or loss of a career or loss of a marriage. There are other ways to lose things that are not life-and-death situations that can still completely elicit a grief response.

Claire: I think we grieve throughout our lifetimes. I think we start really young. We grieve teachers we say goodbye to and homes we move from and pets and parents getting divorced or all kinds of things, not getting on a team that we were trying out for. That's grief.

Zibby: When we traded in one of our cars, my daughter, at the time, who was four, was sobbing outside. She could not bear to part with this car. I was like, you don't even like this car. What is she doing? It's the same car. We're just getting the new model of the car. Grief can hit you at any age.

Claire: It really can. I remember my parents cut down a tree in our yard when I was in fourth grade, and I was bereft. I was sobbing saying goodbye to the tree. I wrote a poem about it. I've always been a big feeler.

Zibby: Such emotional souls here. The book is great in that you chop it into little digestible bits. The physicality of grief, let me go to that section because why am I having headaches or stomachache? All these different things that are part of the journey, so to speak. Tell me about the way you structured the book and the way you address these things. Did you do this because this is sort of the attention span of a griever to begin with?

Claire: Exactly. You don't need one more overwhelming thing when you're grieving. I just wanted to make it really palatable and bite-sized. You can flip through it. You can open it anywhere. Some of the little chapters and sections are half a page. Maybe that's what you can handle today or that's what you need today. I just wanted to make it something that you can come back to whenever. I always hear people tell me that they bought every grief book on the market when they first go through a loss. Then they don't remember any of them later. They start going back to them a year or two later and being like, which one really speaks to me now? I was thinking a lot about what people are looking for when they're first grieving. It's like you're trying to orient yourself to a new landscape. You're trying to get your bearings. It's hard to figure out. There's a lot of stuff out there around grief now. The pandemic really bloomed so much about grief, and so there's a lot to pick and choose from, which I think is amazing. Twenty-seven years ago when my mother died, there was nothing out there. People were just like, you'll be fine. You're eighteen. You've got your whole life ahead of you. Just soldier on.

Zibby: I remember getting grief books after 9/11 not for me, which I should have done, which is stupid, but for the people around me who I didn't think knew how to handle how I was feeling the right way. I was like, I'm going to give you a book. [laughs] 

Claire: I love that.

Zibby: Maybe this will help you. I still have some of those books. I know where they are, where they live. They still hop around. I must have gotten copies for myself too or something.

Claire: It's this really weird thing where the people who are grieving end up being the ones educating others about grief, like how to talk with us, how to hold space for us, how to think about it. We have to take on one more thing. That's a big thing to also have to take on. I hear it all day long from people.

Zibby: You have a section on complicated grief. You're like, don't judge yourself. Grief is grief. Then you had something like, what if nobody likes the person who died? How do you feel about that? What if you're glad the person died? This speaks to Jennette McCurdy's book, I'm Glad My Mom Died. Talk about that for a minute.

Claire: I have so many people that had complicated relationships with the people they lost. Maybe you had an abusive spouse. Maybe your person suffered from mental illness or addiction. You'd been estranged from them for many years. They were just harmful to you in some way. You'd set up boundaries, and then they die. There's still grief there. It might not be the same kind of grief as someone who had a loving relationship is experiencing, but there is still grief. Then you're sorting through not only your grief, but this complicated relationship or the complicated layers or judgement from people saying, you're grieving that person? Yeah, you're grieving, maybe, the relationship you never got to have. There's such a finality when they die that you suddenly get really hit with, oh, my god, we never ever got to repair that. We never got to have this fantasy version I've been holding onto in my head. There's a lot of layers. I think that that can just make grief very complicated.

Zibby: It's interesting. When do you know when you need to see a grief counselor versus you're just grieving? You say you see people all day. You've been seeing people for so long. So many grief counselors do. How do you know? How do you know when to take that step?

Claire: I don't think everyone needs to see a grief counselor or go to a support group. I think that you know when you, maybe, are really having trouble functioning in your day-to-day life. The grief is really consuming you. You don't have any support around you. You don't have anybody who can understand or is willing to listen. A lot of people experience anxiety in their grief and loss, if that's something that's overtaking you, or some of these complicated relationships that I'm talking about or you experienced a traumatic loss. I work with people who've lost a loved one to gun violence, mass shootings or various things like that. There's so much that you have to process and sit through and unpack. That should not be done on your own. It's just too much. It's too much to sort through. One-on-one coaches, counselors, therapists are amazing. Also, support groups. I lead a bunch of support groups. They're so beautiful to watch people connect. I have a support group for moms who have lost kids. It's so heartbreaking, but it's also, some of the most beautiful and real conversations I have all week is in that group. I think that just being able to go into a space where other people really get what you're going through and you can say things that nobody else understands or is able to hear, that can be really helpful and healing. Then there's a light level where you just listen to podcasts or read books and look at some grief stuff on Instagram, and maybe that's totally enough and helpful. That's fine too.

Zibby: There is this whole community of grief experts who are really fun, awesome, great people who love to have a good time, as exhibited by the party that you threw for Meghan Riordan Jarvis where I was like, I can't believe all these grief experts are in the same photo. The photos from that event -- I don't usually spend a lot of time looking at other people's party pictures. Oh, my gosh.

Claire: Meghan made me this book.

Zibby: For people listening, it's literally everyone from Steve Leder to Tembi Locke to every grief expert in the world. It's like a bar mitzvah album or something. Is it the knowledge that you all have in particular each and every day, like, this is it, let's live it up, or is it that such nice, kind people become grief counselors to begin with? What do you think it is?

Claire: I think it's all of that. I think all of us have been broken down to our depths with our losses. Then we've rebuilt ourselves and encompass so much compassion and empathy and just this desire to be in the world, soak it up as much as we can. Everyone I know who's really immersed in this space all the time, they're also the most fun people I know. They really know how to live. They know how to seek meaning and just enjoy every moment and treasure and cherish friendships and relationships and experiences. They're pretty amazing. The same was true when I worked in hospice. I felt like every single doctor, nurse, social worker, everyone who worked in hospice, even just doing paperwork, admin, were just incredible people. I think it's when you really face and embrace death. It makes you value life so much more. It's a weird trait. 

Zibby: No. You said in the book, no one sets out to become a grief counselor. No one knows this will be their life path until something happens, usually to them or whatever. When did you know that this was something that you had to do?

Claire: I grew up wanting to be a writer, which I am. This is my fifth book. Sixth coming for you.

Zibby: Chop-chop.

Claire: I always wanted to be a writer. Then my parents died. I really hit rock bottom in so many ways that I outlined in that first memoir that you read and loved, your mother read and loved too. [laughter] 

Zibby: We're laughing because I had an event for Claire along with an author named Sarah McCall, who, by the way, I've totally lost touch with, at our home in LA, and my mom happened to be there and was makings lots of comments.

Claire: She was so proud of me for having made such a mess of myself and then gotten back together.

Zibby: That's right. She couldn't believe it.

Claire: She was like, look at you. You're so put together.

Zibby: You're okay. I don't know what she thought, she would pull up and see you on my living room floor or something.

Claire: Gosh, what was I saying? I was trying to continue as a writer after my parents died. I was writing for magazines and doing various things. It just kind of felt meaningless. I went into therapy, finally. I found it really illuminating and fascinating. I think there's a lot of threads that cross over between therapy and writing. Being a therapist, all I do all day is help people explore their narratives and look at the story they carry and look at the way they tell a story, the way they hold it. So often, it's about helping them rewrite it, taking out pieces that don't serve them, really looking at certain parts of the story that maybe aren't accurate, but they've been holding onto it for a certain reason, or bringing in other pieces of the story that they were unwilling or afraid to acknowledge. There's a lot there around storytelling. I think as humans, we're innate storytellers. When we go through grief and loss, it becomes a story about that loss and that person and that relationship. Anyway, I went back to get my master's in clinical psychology. I remember there was one class that was an elective that was about aging and dying. Nobody wanted to take it. I was one of five people in there. Everyone I knew, all of my fellow classmates, they were like, ugh, grief, I would never work in that space. I was like, oh, I'm happy to talk about it all day, so I think I should do that because nobody else wants to. I went straight into hospice after that.

Zibby: I remember getting to college and being like -- I thought I wanted to be an English major. I was like, I'm going to be a writer. I'm going to be an English major. Then I was like, I don't want to take any of these English class. These look terrible. Then I was like, every single psychology class looks amazing. Do these not look amazing to everybody else? Don't they? People were like, no, I'm heading to econ. I'm going to do history. I'm like, but look at these.

Claire: Every single class was so fascinating, even the law and ethics because every law was built upon something really messed up that had happened in a therapeutic practice. It was fascinating.

Zibby: Neurobiology, the chemicals, that was so cool, all this stuff. I guess for people interested in people -- [laughs]. It sounds so obvious. We find our paths somehow. You have four main buckets in this book in your approach to conscious grieving. Can you just quickly run through what those are and why they're [indiscernible/crosstalk]?

Claire: They're just entering into grief, which is that initial thing that we talked about where it doesn't feel like a choice. You're just entering into this thing that's happening to you, so how to orient in that place and time, how to take care of yourself. Then engaging with it, so really choosing to start making conscious decisions about how you're going to move through it and carry it and take care of yourself. Then surrendering to it. I think it takes time for us to really accept that this is our life now. Sometimes we can accept the reality of the loss, but we haven't accepted that, god, I'm going to have to go my whole life -- this is what's happening from here on with this person gone. There's a surrendering to the process of the way that grief transforms our lives and transforms us. That final piece is the transforming through grief. That's about post-loss growth. That's about all the ways that we really can grow as people and learn so much from going through loss.

Zibby: When in the grieving process is the right time, do you think, to read this book?

Claire: Anytime. You can read it in the first week. You can read it in the fifth year. Whatever works. It's really something you can come back to over and over and skim through and pick up different pieces of.

Zibby: Awesome. This is also a really great gift. I don't mean to say, if you're looking for a gift, but for someone when you don't know what to do and someone you love is really struggling. This is a great tool to hand over, I would say maybe not in that first week where everything is the funeral and the chaos. Maybe give it two weeks. Even at the month anniversary, put it in your calendar for somebody you're really close to or something. Then when the chaos dies down and they're left with the life that they thought that they were going to live, but it's totally different and they have to get back on their feet, I feel like that's a really good time for the book to come.

Claire: I think so too. People get really scared of what to do and say after someone they know has gone through a big loss. I think just showing up -- also, like you just said, it doesn't have to be right in the beginning. Keep remembering. Keep acknowledging that they're going through that. So many of my clients are like, it's been six months, and nobody talks to me anymore. No one brings it up anymore. It's like everybody has forgotten that I'm going through this.

Zibby: I think the biggest misconception is you're not supposed to bring up the loss because you're worried about upsetting the person, who is obviously just thinking about their loss anyway. You shouldn't avoid saying the person's name who's passed away. In general, you love that person so much that it's nice when people bring it up or share a memory. Do you agree with that?

Claire: Totally. Stephen Colbert talks about it too. He said something like, people will tell me they didn't want to bring it up because they didn't want to make me think about it. He's like, I'm already thinking about it all the time. Please bring them up.

Zibby: You want to tell us about your next memoir project? [laughter] 

Claire: I will tell you more at some point.

Zibby: I'm just joking. I don't mean for this episode to be flip because I'm sure people are listening who really do need help and are grieving, but I think there is a need and a requirement for the combination of humor in loss and finding any sort of joy or any sort of -- it evokes such extreme reactions. 

Claire: We have to have that balance of light and laughter too sometimes within grief.

Zibby: I like when I'm saying something that's not making any sense and you just repeat it back in a way that's completely clear and articulate

Claire: That's my job as a therapist. That's what I do all day.

Zibby: I'm going to just start forwarding you some of my emails, and you can rephrase them and make everything sound better. Oh, my goodness. Claire, thank you so much. Conscious Grieving: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss, everything that you've learned in one book. Thank you very much.

Claire: You're welcome. Thank you, Zibby. Thanks for everything you're doing for authors and grievers and mamas and everybody.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.

Claire: Bye.

Claire Bidwell Smith, CONSCIOUS GRIEVING

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