Renowned grief therapist and ‘New Day’ host Claire Bidwell Smith was forced to confront her parents’ cancer deaths by the age of 25. Her quest to find meaning in the “nothingness” afterward led her down a healing path that she now explores with clients facing similar loss.
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They were each, each other’s third marriage. So they’d been married twice before they met each other, each of them. And my mother was 40 when I was born, which isn’t that old, especially these days, but my father was 57 when I was born. So they were much older parents, they had lived a lot of life. My father had actually been in World War Two, he was a bomber pilot. He’d been shot down over Germany and in prison camp until the war ended. And then my mother was this crazy, glamorous artist from New York City. And they met on a blind date. It was like a, like a second, or third or fourth chapter in their lives. And they embarked on this, this marriage, and my mom had never had a kid. And my father felt like she was going to miss out on one of the best experiences in life if she didn’t. So even though he was in his 50s, and he had three kids of his own, who were well grown and adults, he was like, Sally, you should have a baby. And that baby was me.
So I became the only child of these two really interesting people and, and we didn’t have a typical life, you know, we traveled a lot. And they really enjoyed their time together and their time with me. I was in eighth grade when they both got sick. And my father found out first that he had prostate cancer. And it wasn’t that serious, you know that it was kind of a run of the mill prostate cancer for a man of his age. And he was due to begin standard treatment. When my mother found out she had stage four colon cancer. And so my father’s treatment went on the backburner, it was actually postponed, so that my mother could have some pretty immediate and drastic surgery and begin her treatment. I was going through puberty, I was excited about boys, I was super nerdy, and, you know, reading books all the time, and very awkward. I don’t think that the full scope of what was happening hit me at all in that time.
I do remember seeing my mom in the hospital for the first time. And it was the first time that would be you know, years to come of that image. But I still didn’t ever imagine that she would die that he would die that we were about to go through anything that we went through. My father ended up having his treatment after my mother began hers, and he went into remission very quickly. So he was kind of okay after that. My mother, over the next four years, went on a roller coaster of chemo and surgeries. And, you know, she’d be in remission for a couple of months, and then it would be back. And it was this constant up and down for our family. She was very afraid and didn’t talk about it, she didn’t want to talk about it much at all, which meant that none of us talked about it. Which meant that I also didn’t realize the severity of it. My senior year of high school, she’d been pretty sick, a lot of throwing up in the bathroom and hair falling out. And she had gotten into a better place over the summer.
And they were so excited for me to launch to go off to college. And I remember they drove me up to school in Vermont. And I remember standing in the dorm room with my mom and she got really teared up. And at the time, it seems like normal parent, you know, emptiness stuff. And when I look back on that moment, now, I can only imagine the kind of fear and pain and wonderment and beauty that she was experiencing, watching me, you know, leave the nest, leave home and not knowing what was gonna happen to her from there. There was a little phone booth in the bottom of the dorm that I was in. And my father, when he called that night he called many times that semester to kind of update me on what was happening. And when he called that night, he said that they had reached the end that there was nothing left to do and that the doctors didn’t have anything else that they could do for her and he thought that she probably had only a matter of days. And I remember a lot of things from that moment just kind of shock disbelief. So I hung up the phone and I packed a bag and I was driving on my way there and just felt very alone in the world very kind of out in the night drive in my car smoking cigarettes, listening to The Police.
The band, not the actual police following me. And I just kept trying to comprehend what was happening. So I remember even saying out loud, my mom is dying, my mom is dying. At some point on the drive, I stopped. And there was a little town in New Jersey where a boy that I had been in school with for a bit was living and I had a crush on him. And I stopped there. And I called him. And I asked him if he wanted to get coffee. And he did. And he offered for me to spend the night it was getting late. And I said, yes. I think I was really hoping he would offer I think I was just really scared. I think unconsciously I couldn’t bear to drive towards what I was driving towards. And I called my dad and told him I was gonna stay the night with my friend and my dad was glad he said, good, you know, I don’t want you driving all night, stay the night, I will see you in the morning. I gave him the phone number of where I was, I hung up.
And Christopher and I this boy, we drink some vodka. We joked around it was this incredible relief not to be driving towards my mother’s death for just a moment in time and just to be sitting across the table from a boy I liked and everything felt kind of normal for a minute. We went to bed in separate rooms, and I woke up at three in the morning, and Christopher’s uncle was standing in the doorway with a phone in his hand. My father was on the other line. And all he said was she’s gone. And that was the night that my whole life changed. The only feeling I had, in that moment, hanging up the phone with my dad was just utter shame and guilt and regret, instantly, I was so filled with remorse. I couldn’t believe I had not gone to my mother, my beautiful, amazing mother that I love so much. I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t made it to her side. And that I had chosen this boy over her, which in retrospect, I now understand a lot more. But in the moment, I just hated myself. And I hated myself for many years after that.
It was really hard to live with that choice. And in that moment, I never saw my mother again, I didn’t say goodbye to her. And all I wanted for years was to finish that drive that night drive to the hospital, crawl in bed with her, wrap my arms around her tell her how much I loved her. And I would have done anything to be able to do that. You know, there’s that space movies where the astronaut, like accidentally gets disconnected from the spaceship, and he’s floating out into the abyss of space. And you know, he’s done for you know, he’s gonna run out of oxygen, and he’s just gonna float off into space forever. That’s what I felt like after my mother died. So as I was finishing my undergrad, my father’s cancer came back. And everything felt terrifying to me, the whole world felt scary, being a person felt scary. Then I was 25 years old. And he was 83. And we were together in his little condominium. And we had a lot of conversations. We had a lot of goodbyes; we had a lot of time to acknowledge what was happening.
And he was amazing. He, in his kind of last parenting efforts tried as best he could to prepare me for his death. And he made me make lists of what to do right after he dies, which I you know, it’s like Dad, this is so morbid. And he was like, Well, the first thing you got to do, we got a call the mortuary and he made me write all these things down, you got to write an obituary, and I’m sitting there crying, writing these things down. And then after he was gone, I went got that list. And we’re so grateful to have it and to feel him still guiding me through the world in that sense. But when he died, I was holding his hand and we had said goodbye. And it was very different from my mother’s death. But then I was all alone in the world. It felt like this big, wide existential nothingness. Things felt kind of meaningless. I couldn’t figure out what my purpose was why I was here. I didn’t feel connected to anyone I didn’t feel important to anyone. And I didn’t feel like I was headed towards anything. And with that, came anxiety but more so depression. And just this sense of disconnection.
I just felt like I was no longer in the world I once knew and I was never going back to it. And I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive the new one. And it felt like that for a long time. And there are a lot of layers that came with it, I began to suffer from panic attacks and incredibly deep anxiety, I would sit up in bed at night, just convinced that I was going to die at any moment, I was going to have an aneurysm or a heart attack, I became afraid of flying any like little tic or anything happening with my body, I was sure it was something that I was about to keel over from. And then there were times when anxiety would just come out of nowhere, I would be having a regular day and I would suddenly just get tingly all over or I would start to breathe really fast, or I would have a weird pain in my head. And it would just set me off into this kind of hyper vigilant state and my heart would be racing and my thoughts would start racing and my hands would get sweaty.
You know, a funny thing when I was working in hospice with them, which was my first job out of college, I got pregnant for the first time I was married and I was going to have my first baby and at the time somehow I was thrown five baby showers. So much preparation, so much of ritual and excitement and reverence for it. And then there was this very hushed other side of the end of life and nobody talking about it and these quiet homes and you know these quiet funerals and these quiet moving’s on of letting go of people and I really think that we could learn a lot from how we welcome people into the world. We should also see them out. My name is Claire Bidwell Smith, and I am a grief therapist, and I’m the author of three books about grief and loss. This episode of GOOD GRIEF is dedicated to the memory of my parents, Sally and Jerry.
And despite my awareness of my grief, and knowing how much I was grieving and feeling grief on certain levels, I still didn’t connect the anxiety to it. I’ve, for a long time just thought there was something wrong with me. And it wasn’t until I was in grad school that I was studying psychology that I came across trauma and trauma reactions. And I started to put the pieces together. And in all the reading I had ever done about grief, I had never seen anyone talk about anxiety. So that was part of the reason I hadn’t linked it together. But it also just hadn’t been obvious to me, except when I began to read about PTSD. And it was this lightbulb for me it was this real aha moment. So I think that we have work to do as a culture when it comes to death and dying and grief.
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