Claire Bidwell Smith Reveals The Beauty of Entering and Exiting the World
Ten years ago I was working in hospice as a bereavement counselor when I became pregnant with my first child. I spent my days driving around the snowy suburbs meeting with patients and families who were grappling with the end of life. I would wake up in the morning, scan my list of patients, and drive to each of their hushed houses where I would sit at bedsides and kitchen tables in somber-toned homes, doing my best to help people figure out how to say goodbye.
I was only 30 years old, but I already knew grief deeply. As an only child I lost both of my parents to cancer by the time I was 25. The experience had devastated me, but it had also spurred me on to make meaning of my pain and to find a way to help others heal through their own grief. I went back to school and earned a masters degree in clinical psychology and immediately began working in hospice.
But it was a strange experience to find myself pregnant during that period of my life. At the same time that I was helping people prepare to leave the world, I was also preparing to help my daughter enter the world. My friends and colleagues threw me baby showers. I had a team of midwives that monitored my weekly progress. I attended birth classes, decorated the nursery in my home, and enlisted the help of a doula to help me have a conscious birth.
Throughout it all, I was continually struck by the contrast of how little we do to help people exit the world. The hospice patients I visited daily were living out their last days in a quiet, almost secretive manner. There were few people willing to participate and visit these families to help them prepare to say goodbye to their loved ones. I couldn’t help noticing that there was fear where there could have been intention. There was sorrow where there could have been reverence and there was regret where there could have been peace. It was the opposite of what I was going through as a young mother preparing to birth her first child.
Today, ten years later, I am pregnant with my third child, and once again preparing to bring a person into this world. I have now been a therapist specializing in grief for over a decade and what I thought I knew about grief when I first began working in hospice all those years ago has grown exponentially. I know that as a culture we need learn how to better prepare for and face death. I know that we need to do a better job making space for grief and for honoring our lost loved ones. And I am reminded that there are just as many ways to leave this world as there are to enter it, that the process of dying can and should be just as beautiful as the process of being born.
The work we need to do around end-of-life care, death, and grief is immense. But it’s also not impossible. You can begin today. Reach out to a friend who is grieving and let them know you are thinking about them. Ask yourself what you think happens when we die. Do something to honor someone you’ve lost. Think about preparations for your own death (wills, medical wishes, conversations you’d like to have). Recognize that it’s okay to feel scared of death, and that the best way to conquer that fear is to face it.
People ask me all the time how I do the work I do. They often remark that it must be depressing. But I find the opposite is true. Grief is a reflection of the love we had for someone. And what a gift to love someone so much that it hurts when they are gone. The more we can lean into our grief, the more opportunity we will find for great transformation and healing.