41. How Can You Move Forward in Life While Grieving? With Sukey Forbes
The first time you laugh, smile, or feel happiness while grieving can be very unsettling. You might feel like you aren’t properly grieving if you get distracted for a moment and don’t feel the exquisite pain of your loss. Sukey Forbes wants you to know that not only is it ok to do those things, it’s necessary. Sukey has learned a lot about grief in the 18 years since her daughter Charlotte died at only six years old. Sukey tells Claire how she was able to parent her two other children while grieving for Charlotte, why she thinks we need to be careful when we talk about being resilient in the face of grief, and why being open-minded while you are grieving can be so important to your healing.
Resources from the show
- Read The Angel in My Pocket by Sukey Forbes
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Sukey Forbes, Claire Bidwell-Smith
Claire Bidwell-Smith 00:00
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Hi, I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. Welcome to NEW DAY. I’m so excited about today’s conversation. Sukey Forbes is someone you’ve heard me talk about on this show before even if I haven’t mentioned her name. You may have heard me tell the story about how I met my husband Mark. I was at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving and my friend sat me next to Mark who was her cousin. That friend? Yep, Sukey Forbes, Sukey and I met eight years ago through mutual friends. It’s not exactly the cheerier story. But I was deeply grieving the loss of a very close friend and Sukey had just published her book, The angel in my pocket about the death of her six year old daughter, Charlotte, our friends that we would hit it off, and we absolutely did. It’s now been 18 years since Sukey lost Charlotte, and she’s learned a lot that she wants to share with people who may be going through something similar. That kind of grief never goes away. But it certainly does evolve. At the beginning, Sukey was so devastated that she said she was angry. She didn’t die with Charlotte. Now Sukey is in a place where she still thinks about Charlotte every day, but she can talk about her without getting emotional. Things get better with time, but it’s not a straight line. Sukey says she got to a point where she could tell that her overall progress was forward. But there were still days she’d tumble back into the abyss as she calls it. It’s important to be open minded about grief because you never know what will bring you comfort. Sukey was brought up in a very stiff upper lip, New England family as she calls it. But she ended up exploring mediums and people with extrasensory perception after Charlotte’s death. Okay, I’m not gonna give away all of Sukey wisdom here, but trust me, she has a lot of it. And you’re gonna have to listen to our conversation to get the rest.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 02:33
All right, Sukey. You ready?
Okay, welcome to NEW DAY. I start every episode by asking my guests. How are you doing today? But how are you really doing?
You know, it’s funny you asked me that I just got choked up, I think partially because I love you so much. And just seeing. You know, I’m doing well, but I’m also still dealing with the fallout of Covid and the lock down and trying to get back up on my feet in terms of the pace of life and being both interested and interesting in the day to day activities. And I think so many of us put so much time in locked down and brought our inner introvert and it’s hard to then gear back up and get back out, particularly if you identify as being very sort of bubbly and out there and curious. So I struggle with that. But in general, I’m doing really well. I’m surrounded by the people I love and making choices that further make me happy and I’m around my horses, which I know you know, I love, so, overall very good. But on the micro is definitely struggling a little bit with the post Covid world.
Yeah, I think we really all are, like just trying to figure out like, what life is now and after this whole experience. It’s been so interesting and so different. Well, I have to tell listeners upfront that you and I have a personal relationship, but it’s such an interesting one and such a good story. And what was it, gosh 2014, actually, yesterday was the anniversary of my dear friend Abby’s death she died eight years ago, June 1 2014 breast cancer she was a young mom like me have two little kids and it was a really hard loss. And around that same time that summer I kept getting all these emails and texts and notes from people saying have you heard of Sukey Forbes you gotta meet Sukey Forbes? Sukey Forbes has a book coming out, you’re gonna really like Sukey Forbes and I was just going through a lot in my life. I was pretty newly post-divorce and my friend had just died and I even had an email in my inbox from you because people were telling you the same thing that we needed to meet. And I still hadn’t written you back. And I flew to Boston for Abby’s memorial service the end of the summer, and got off the airplane, and Abby’s childhood best friend Tasha picked me up and she’s like, I’m taking you to lunch to meet my friend Sukey Forbes. Like, okay, okay, okay, Sukey Forbes, I will meet Sukey Forbes. Do you remember that lunch?
I absolutely remember it. I think we met on Newbury Street sometime, somewhere in Back Bay, Boston, and we were sitting outside. And you were just like a ray of light. I remember being really struck by that, because you were both you and Tasha were both really grieving. And, and yet, I was really struck by that light, which I immediately loved and recognized and felt a kinship for. So the minute the minute I saw that new, I thought, okay, I see why everyone wanted us to meet, because I had also just put my book out. And so we were indeed, kindred spirits. But we, I don’t even believe that we talked that much about grief immediately, I think we just fell into conversation on a lot of other subjects.
We did, we got into some post divorce life and dating and you were about to move to California. But your book, Angel in my pocket had just come out. And I had not read it yet. And truthfully, I didn’t want to read it. Because it’s about the death of a child. And having young kids, it’s, you know, it’s the unimaginable, which you have experienced. We’ll come back to our personal story. But can you tell us a little bit about the book and about your journey writing it?
Sukey Forbes 06:26
Yeah. You come from an old New England family, the Forbes family, how did that impact your grief process and your sense of self kind of moving through it?
Sukey Forbes 06:26
Well, it’s most of the books sprung from the actual journey of grief, I became very determined. Early on after losing my daughter, she died very suddenly at the age of six, and she was my middle child. And so we didn’t have any time, I don’t know if there’s ever a good time to lose a child. But over the course of three hours, she disappeared from our lives, from a high fever and unexplained. And so we woke up the next day, and we’re just in a complete fog for a very long time. And by the time the dust began to settle, I really wanted to die along with my daughter. And I remember being so angry that I didn’t get to die, because I had to stay here I had other children and I had a husband and a family and other obligations. And then I thought, Okay, well, what are my choices here? If I want to see her again, if I believe that she’s somewhere, somewhere out there, which was a big part of my existential grief anyway, how do I get from here to there when I see, when I’m going to see her in the long run. And I figured that the only other choice was to find a way to enjoy life so that it passed quickly. It was very selfish, initially, it was like, I just want the time to pass like, how can I make it pass quickly. And I was frustrated at the time that there wasn’t enough out there written about positive grief or trying to find a safer resting spot. And that became frustrating. And I remember at some point thinking, I’m going to write this book, if I get to that point. Sometime later, when I’m back and engaged in life and loving it authentically, I want to share that story. Because I need that book right now on my nightstand. I just wanted someone to shine a light on the path. And there’s many more books out there like that now. But at the time, I felt very alone in that process and frustrated that, you know, I felt sort of condemned to misery for the rest of my life, and that wanting to live and wanting to survive, felt like a horrible, it made me feel as though I was a terrible mother, that if I wanted to feel good at some point, did that mean somehow that I was less than as a person or I loved her less. And so there was a lot of wrestling with that along the way. And a lot of the writing that ultimately became the angel in my pocket was through journals trying to make a sense of what was happening along the way. So by the time I sat down, there was a clear moment when I knew it was time to write the book. And up until that point, a lot of the hard part, emotionally had already been written about.
Well, the Old Boston Yankee way of moving through many emotions is a stiff upper lip, you just power on through you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and there you go. And in many ways, that was really helpful, because I was very stoic, and I just went deep and I really did shut down. I think a lot of that was rooted in being shut down. But I really had I really powered through and felt I needed to put on a brave face for a long time and it wasn’t until the first year I was very aware of eyes being on me making sure I hadn’t crumbled or anything like that. And when there were fewer eyes on me, the leaks started to spring. And I found myself coming apart. And I want to be careful here. I have an extraordinary family, and I’m very proud of all of them. And so this heritage of Yankee stiff upper lip and self-reliance, you know, my great, great, great grandfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. And so that very much informed so much of how we were raised. I’m really proud of that. But the negative piece of that was definitely not feeling that it was safe to go deep into those excruciatingly tender places. But even privately, it was very hard to do. But I felt very supported by my family. So I want to make sure that I don’t imply that it was a cold place and not supportive for me when I was struggling.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 10:58
No, not at all. I agree. I think there’s some, you know, that resilient piece of grieving is a tricky one, right? I think I am always careful with it when I talk about it with clients, or when I talk about it in interviews, the concept of resilient grieving, because I never want to give anyone the message that they need to put their grief away and just, you know, get going with things. But I do think that there is something to be said, for really trying to move forward at the same time, while you’re allowing yourself to grieve and I think you, you know, manage to really kind of find that balance given who you were and where you came from, and what you were seeking. And so when I met you that day, at lunch, I was also surprised by how much light and effervescence you had in the face of, you know, the story that you were carrying, and the book you were putting out in the world. And it was really refreshing to see and exciting to be around.
Well, thank you. I, you know, we all have our own tragedies that we carry. And it has now been in 2022. Enough time has passed since 2004. That I still think about her every day. But I can talk about it without becoming emotional. And losing a child is basically every parent’s worst nightmare. And so we have to be careful in conversation. I need to be careful when people say, you know, I wrote a book, well, what’s your book about and we’ll be at a cocktail party. Last glasses drop, and people start to cry. And you have to be very careful, collected, and come back into this into the place of sharing for the first time because it is a bit of a bomb to drop on somebody. But you know, the resilience piece. I do think that is so true. It is a really tricky one because you can choose to be resilient and perhaps maybe choose at an inopportune time when you’re not ready. And then it comes off as denial, or not being authentic to the whole process. But at least for me, I held that out as the overall goal. And so when I tumbled backwards into the abyss, I’d be like, but it’s out there, and maybe I can do it. And when I did it just one time, that would give me the hope that I could do it the next time when I fell off the cliff. And, you know, overall, the progress was forward. But there was so much backwards to so yeah. I don’t know, I think resilience is one of those big words that we have to hold out there. But make sure that we’re aware that it’s not a constant, a constant forward trajectory,
Right? It comes and goes, you know, there’s moments and periods and pockets of resilience. And then there’s moments of falling apart again. And then there’s moments of going back to that place. You know, what was it like to be a mom to your other two children and role model grief and take care of them while you are grieving?
Sukey Forbes 14:07
That’s such a good question. And it’s so complicated and yet so simple. You know, my children definitely saved me. We all create scenarios like I don’t know if that would ever happened to me. And I honestly don’t know how I would have managed had I not had two other children I had to show up for my daughter, Beatrice was three. And my son Cabot was seven, Charlotte was six. And they needed me and they needed their dad. And it was the week before school started and we had to go to back to school conferences. And so it was very much a we decided right away we were going to try to keep our lives as normal as possible, whatever that means, without glossing over the fact that we had this catastrophic experience in our Family, neither my husband nor I wanted to take our other two children’s lives away. And so we worked really hard to show up for their activities. And there was an enormous amount of just going through the motions of just showing up. I mean, I honestly do not know how I did it. I think a lot of that was that Yankee fortitude, and that interbreeding of you just go. And then we’d come home and be in the fetal position. But I believe, particularly in those first few years, we were really there for them. And I think that they would feel the same way. And I do think that was a really important part. We did family group therapy together and individual therapy. And Charlotte, our daughter who had died was never off limits in the house. And so we were really careful about people sharing when they wanted, and we would do cake on her birthday. And in the first year, I couldn’t even I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t partake, but the other two wanted to do that. So we were you know, it was really a very painful experience, but they wanted that. And I think it’s really important to remember that it’s not. It’s not just about me, it’s not just about the Father, Cabot lost a sister, Beatrice lost a sister, my mother lost a grandchild. I mean, it had rippling effects through our community, and everybody had a different experience. And I didn’t have it in me to support them. I couldn’t even support myself. But having children and a husband to attend to was it was a responsibility that I hopped on to I mean, I really made sure I doubled down in my parenting especially that first.
I’ve worked with so many clients in the most recent years, who’ve lost children and having to carry your children’s grief, you know, your remaining children’s grief along with yours and your families. And you know, the people you run into at the softball games, I mean, it’s just so much. Tell me about how spirituality came into play for you. This was one of the things we did talk about that day at lunch, I remember that we dug into spirituality of it.
Well, I was raised again, I mentioned Emerson, I was raised with little to no formalized religion, the divinity of God and nature was very much the culture of my family. So if you want to feel close to God, go for a walk, go sit on a rock, go look out over the ocean, roll around in a field of flowers, and to this day, that has served me and I love it. However, it threw me into complete existential chaos when she died. And her father, my husband, at the time, was a very devout Catholic and his family descended upon the house very lovingly, and were utterly convinced she’s in heaven. And that’s where she is. They were also devastated. I don’t mean to take it lightly. But I was stuck with where’s my daughter? And where is she?
Claire Bidwell-Smith 18:34
But they had an answer.
And I didn’t have that. And I was so resentful of it. And I wanted to cling to something, I couldn’t really move forward in my own grief until I knew where she was. And I needed to find some faith, I believed in God. But I believed in God in the natural world. And I needed to believe in the more standard God that had a more human form with arms that could put their arms around my child and care for her. And I really struggled with that for a long time. And it took me down some real rabbit holes that I’m not sorry for that ultimately worked for me. And I do believe that being open minded is one of the things that’s really important in grief because we never know what might bring us comfort. But in trying to make sense of my own spirituality, and trying to find out where God was where my daughter was, what happens when we die for lack of a better word. I ended up also consulting some mediums and people who had that extra sensory perception of places beyond us. And I had always thought it was kind of interesting when I was younger, but I never thought about it much because it’s somewhat unknowable. But all of a sudden I have more skin in the game. And so that and that, along with my spiritual process, I don’t, I want to be very clear that that didn’t become my sense of faith, religious wise, but in terms of faith in humanity and the process, exploring those other realms, were very helpful to me.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 20:25
It’s really interesting. I think it’s its own stage of grief, you know, this kind of searching for a framework, if you don’t have one that you go into the experience of loss with, I see so many clients, most of them really begin to and it’s, again, it’s not right away. But in those first few years start to think, Where is my person? And why did he leave about life? And why do some people get to be here, and some people die, and some people have these lives and some people don’t. And it’s really hard to go through a huge loss and not have those questions and look for answers, you know?
But again, that’s, you know, we talk about the resiliency, I think that’s one of the, I’d give all of this up in a nanosecond to have my daughter back home, I mean, without a blink. But one of the things that we learn along the way is we learn more about ourselves and about how to be, how to have faith in each other in the world, in the process, and also how to be mindful that it could all blow up in five seconds. And so to be very present to what’s going on right now. And not waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Yeah, absolutely. No, I talk about the transformation that can come with grief. And that’s what I mean. But it’s not an easy thing to say to someone who’s newly in the throes of a loss. No one wants to hear about how they’re going to be transformed or about the possible positive, you know, impacts that grief and loss can have. Nobody wants to hear about how they’re going to learn to live with the loss. You know, they just want their person back and they want this agony to go away. It’s been almost 18 years now since Charlotte died, which must be so hard to believe. How is she with you today?
Sukey Forbes 22:12
She is with me today, I feel her I feel as though I can almost invoke her at this point, she really does feel like a guardian angel. Her presence. I have vastly more moments, when I talk to her. And I do I sometimes even do out loud, I vastly more moments when I speak to her as if she is a guardian angel. And just that she is there. I have a few moments, when usually their hallmark times like she would be graduating from college this year. So all of those hallmarks are not being able to see her go to the prom, or all of those things that we would have missed. I think of her as Charlotte in that age. But most of the time I think of her energetically as Charlotte, I wonder, I wonder what she would look like, you know, I see her cousins and I look in their faces to see how their features would have moved together. But mostly I feel her in very sweetly with me. Watching over sometimes I feel like that’s a tough job. And I feel like I have to apologize to her. Like, she’s keeping me safe and doing crazy things.
But I do very much feel her presence. And I wish that for everybody to get to that place. Whatever that looks like, to me it authentically feels as though there is a presence of some sort, not a ghost like presence, but an energetic presence that some essence of her I feel comes to me. And that’s very comforting to know that that’s around and it feels warm and safe and still present even though it’s not physically there. And that gives me a hope that in however many years when it’s my time to cross that bridge, that some form of her will be there and I don’t know, I you know, they say that they present to us in whatever form we remember them which would be So darling because I want to get my arms around her. But I feel like continued relationship and it comes much more easily now with time and I’m very, very grateful for it.
So, the rest of our story you and me is not over. But the other part of our story is that I met my husband through you, I met my second husband through you. And sometimes I think about Abby. And I wonder if Abby played a part in that, you know, because it was so directly, all of that stuff that happened around that time and meeting you in Boston. And then you would just move to Mill Valley, which is where I live now in California. And I was coming up here a lot for work, and started to see you a lot. And we created a friendship. And over a year after that first meeting, I came to Thanksgiving dinner at your house, and I brought my daughters. And the night before when I was in your kitchen with you. You said I think you’re going to like the seating arrangement, Claire. And I rolled my eyes at you. And you said I’ve put you next to my cousin mark. And he’s tall and handsome and divorce. And I was like, yeah, I’ve met a bunch of those. And he said, he lives in Georgia. And I was like, what am I going to do with that? He said, we’ll see. We’ll see. And the next day, I met my now husband, I sat next to him at your Thanksgiving dining room table.
Sukey Forbes 26:08
And the sparks were flying right away. It was so beautiful. That’s my greatest success story. I think I’m gonna be one and done. It was so beautiful. Remember the bird that you rescued?
Oh, the bird. Mark rescued a bird from the rafters and we released it into the night sky. And it was a whole magic moment. And yeah, and I think you know, I think about things like that. And I think about Abby and I think about my mother. And my mom was like an animal fanatic. And like the bird, I was distraught about the bird up in the rafters that Mark saved because my mother instilled that in me. And, you know, it turned out Mark live just down like he lived in the same little town in Georgia that my mother’s best friend had moved to. And you know, now I see my mother’s best friend all the time when I go to Georgia, like all these little intricacies that I think are woven into our lives, and if we can open up to them and pay attention to them, and let ourselves have them that they do happen. But there’s a lot of stuff that we have to get out of the way sometimes in order to get there. Where are you today? Who are you today? Have you found that happiness?
You know, I have in fact I’ve been I’ve been working on another book. for about 10 years, I thought I had a rough draft written about. Five years ago, in August, that was a bit of a follow on to the angel in my pocket, but more about more in the same line of making decisions and saying yes to life, and reengaging. And, you know, I have tried all my life, not just since grief to when faced with a big decision, take the kind of sitting on your arm chair in your rocker on the front porch and looking back over your life like will I regret not trying that, whatever that would be. What that has allowed me to do is make a lot of more, take a lot more risks, some of them not very wise, but some of them have opened up different avenues. And so I’ve continued on that path. And so now in the writing, I’ve been exploring happiness, what brings us happiness, long term, versus pleasure. You know, happiness being those things that we do day after day that incrementally make us happy and give us a hit of serotonin versus things like bungee jumping off of a bridge or taking drugs that give you a quick high and then you need more and more and more. And just teasing out which pieces of those in life are worth pursuing. And at what, and at what level and with what people. And if it sounds somewhat vague, it’s because it’s all still distilling inside of me. But that’s where I am right now being very clear that happiness is an okay objective to have in life. I know that I share with several people who share a similar type of grief, that were somewhat unapologetic at this stage in our lives for pursuing happiness. Maybe pursuing pleasure may be a little bit more self-serving. But pursuing happiness is not an unknowable goal, or I don’t want to. It’s not the wrong goal. In fact, it’s a beautiful thing. And so how do we do that? And then still feel good about the rest of our lives and what you know, serving our communities and serving our children and our families and our extended networks of people.
No, I couldn’t agree more. I love it. I think that it’s so important to add joy and pleasure and love to our lives and it makes everything better, it makes us stronger, better able to withstand the hardships and the stress and if we have some of those things in our life, so I think it’s a really noble pursuit. Last question, what do you know about grief now that you didn’t in the beginning, obviously a lot but when you look back, you know, what would you most wish to give yourself or impart to someone else who’s in the beginning of it?
Sukey Forbes 30:06
It terrified me to hear in the beginning, that grief is a very long process, and that you will be forever changed. Because I took that in a negative way thinking I would be forever changed, and I liked who I was before the grief, and that I would be broken. And I have learned along the way that it is an incredibly long process. And it is painful. But there are parts of it that are beautiful gifts if you let them be if you feel one piece, but then say what is this teaching me here in this moment, and then open up your heart and mind to the lesson. I think that makes; it has made me a richer person. And it allowed me to be more vulnerable. And I think vulnerable translates to being more easy to relate to in relationship. And so it draws people in. And I think that the big lesson is just that it is a very long process. But it is not all horrible. It’s a lifelong process. But it is not all horrible.
Yeah. And in some ways, you don’t have to do anything. When you’re grieving. You just show up to it. You just let it be, you just let it wash over you. You just sit in it. You know, there’s nothing that you really have to do besides get up every day. Or not some days.
Well that’s a tricky thing, too. I think for people who are very list oriented and action oriented. You know, one of the greatest things I heard early in my grief was from the priest from our local Catholic Church who came over, you know, within hours of Charlotte’s passing. And he said, your body cannot physically handle the state of grief 24/7. And the exquisite pain that you’re in will make sense. But what most won’t make sense is the moments when you laugh, or when something distracts you and you feel okay. And that’s okay, you need that. And at the time I looked at him, it was like yeah, right, that’s not going to happen. But I remember those moments when we would laugh. And that’s what everything felt wrong, I think, how could I have possibly laugh at a time like this, but that was the body’s way of, of, I don’t know, healing or not completely imploding. And those moments, those moments added softness and sweetness to the process at times.
Claire Bidwell-Smith 32:52
Yeah. I did eventually read your book, The angel in my pocket, and it was so beautiful, and it wasn’t hard and heavy and scary. You know, like, I worried it would be and there’s so many beautiful nuggets of wisdom in there. And just pieces of, you know everything. We’ve been talking about this idea of resilience and how you live with both hands full of so many different emotions and experiences in life. So I’m so grateful that you put it out there. And that we’ve met you that you came on the show today.
Thank you so much.
There’s so much I love about this conversation with Sukey. But the thing I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is something she said right there at the end. She was terrified that grief would leave her forever changed, because she assumed that meant only for the worse. And of course, as she said she would give anything not to have gone through this grieving process and to have Charlotte back. But she has been able to see some of the wonderful things that have come her way as she’s grieved. And I don’t think we acknowledge those enough. It can feel wrong to see positive things in the wake of a tragedy. Like we aren’t grieving deeply enough if we laugh or love or experience joy. But it’s so important to do that. I don’t know if I would have met Sukey if I hadn’t lost my friend Abby, and having Sukey in my life, well, that’s as she said, a beautiful gift. Thanks for joining me. I hope you’ve noticed by now that new day has moved to three times a week. The best way to keep up with the show is to subscribe on your favorite podcast app so you never miss an episode. And submit questions for me to answer on those Monday, Wednesday episodes by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or by filling out the online question form at bit.ly/newdayask. You can find the link in our show notes. Okay, see you next week.
NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show is produced by Kryssy Pease and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. Our VP of weekly content is Steve Nelson. And our executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, and me, Claire Bidwell Smith. NEW DAY is produced in partnership with the Well Being Trust, The Jed Foundation and Education Development Center. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me at clairebidwellsmith.com. Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow NEW DAY listeners at facebook.com/groups/newdaypod. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week.