In After This, acclaimed author, and therapist Claire Bidwell Smith confronts the question she encounters every day in private practice—what happens after we die?
In an exploration of the afterlife that is part personal, part prescriptive—Smith invites us on her journey into the unknown. She wonders: How do we grieve our loved ones without proof that they live on? Will we ever see them again? Can they see us now, even though they are gone?
Chronicling our steps along the path that bridges this world and the next, Smith undergoes past-life regressions and sessions with mediums and psychics and immerses herself in the ceremonies of organized religion and the rigor of scientific experiments to try and find the answers.
Drawing on both her personal losses, recounted in her memoir The Rules of Inheritance, as well as her background working in hospice as a bereavement counselor, Smith attempts to show how exploring the afterlife can have a positive impact on the grief process.
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Claire Bidwell Smith is the author of The Rules of Inheritance and After This. The Rules of Inheritance has been published in seventeen countries and is currently being adapted for film. Claire has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and is a therapist specializing in grief. She regularly teaches writing workshops and gives talks on both writing and grief. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon.com, Chicago Public Radio and BlackBook. She lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. www.clairebidwellsmith.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
For my daughters’ second and fifth birthdays, which fall just a week apart, I gift them a butterfly kit. A week later we receive a small jar of live caterpillars in the mail and watch with fascination as they crawl around their tiny plastic habitat, eventually making their way to the top, where they spin themselves into little ethereal cocoons.
My youngest, Juliette, is entranced by the caterpillars. She has a natural affinity for any kind of living creature, constantly distracted by the sight of a dog walking down the sidewalk, or even a roly poly crossing our path as we make our way to the garage before school.
Every morning we check on the cocoons. Three of the four caterpillars have spun a chrysalis, but the fourth hangs from the side of the jar, looking a little thinner and drier each day. I don’t think that one’s going to make it.
Finally, following the directions, I carefully transfer the cocoons to a netted habitat that came with the kit. We peer at them each day, waiting with anticipation to see them emerge as butterflies. The fourth caterpillar has made it to the top of the jar, but has not formed a cocoon and has now turned black and stiff.
One morning after I drop the girls at school, I return to the house to find that one of the butterflies has emerged. It perches gently outside its now-empty cocoon, on the side of the net. A splash of what looks like blood is smeared on the paper to which the cocoon is attached, and I read that this is normal and that it is called meconium, a by-product that the butterfly did not need as it made its physical transformation.
When I pick up the girls that afternoon I excitedly tell them that one of the butterflies has arrived. We stop at my friend Joan’s house to gather some flowers from her garden, as the kit suggests placing some at the bottom of the net, along with some sugar water for the butterflies to feast on.
When we arrive home the other two butterflies have also emerged, and enthralled we watch them, all of us seated around the dining room table. They are beautiful and delicate, their wings opening and closing, their antennae swiveling about as they take in the world.
“Mom,” my oldest, whom I have nicknamed Vera, asks, “how did they become butterflies?”
I read a bit to her from the guide that was included with the kit, about the actual physiology of how caterpillars become butterflies, but the explanation seems stiff and scientific compared to the miraculous transformation we are witnessing in front of us. It seems nearly impossible that these elegant insects with their patterned wings were once fuzzy little caterpillars.
For two days we observe the butterflies, feeding them flowers and fruit and sugar water. I explain to the girls that we cannot keep them, and that the next morning we will take them out in the backyard and release them.
“They deserve to live in the world,” I tell the girls. They nod at me solemnly, agreeing.
The next morning when we wake up, only two of the butterflies are perched on the side of the net. I find the third one immobile at the bottom of the enclosure, obviously dead. I feel a great wave of remorse that this butterfly did not make it to our release day, never getting to experience what it would be like to fly into the sky.
“One of the butterflies died,” I tell the girls, unable to hide the note of sadness from my voice.
“Oh, no,” Vera exclaims. “What do we do with it?”
“Well, I think we should first release the other two, and then we’ll bury this one and have a little ceremony for it,” I tell her.
The girls nod at me with serious looks on their little faces, and I’m struck by how easily they absorb the ideas I offer them.
Outside in the backyard we open up the netted habitat and watch as the two live butterflies soar up into the bright blue California sky. We watch them until we can’t see them anymore, and Jules dances about excitedly.
“Flying, Mama!” she says, over and over again. “They’re flying!”
“They are, sweetie,” I say, smiling.
Finally, I remove the third butterfly from the bottom of the enclosure and I let the girls hold it gently in their palms, all of us marveling over its intricate beauty.
“Where should we put it, Mama?” Vera asks.
“I think we should bury it over there,” I say, pointing to a bush full of flowering white roses in the corner of the yard.
Together the three of us walk over to the bush and kneel down in the dirt. Jules holds the butterfly carefully while Vera digs a shallow grave with one of my salad serving spoons. Gently we place the butterfly in the soil and then we cover it with fallen rose petals that we have collected.
“Let’s all say a few words of thanks to the butterfly,” I say, and we take hands, closing our eyes.
“Thank you for allowing us to be part of your life, butterfly,” I say. “I’m sorry that you didn’t get to fly into the world, but we are so grateful that we got to see you transform from a caterpillar.”
“Thank you, butterfly,” Vera says. “You were very pretty.”
“Thanks, buttafly,” Jules says quietly.
Inside, the house feels a little emptier.
“Buttafly died,” Jules murmurs, over and over again.
I squat down in front of both girls, tugging at their hands, knowing that they are already shifting direction and ready to disappear into their room to play.
“The butterfly did die,” I say to them. “But remember how the butterfly was first a caterpillar?”
They nod at me.
“And then it went into its cocoon?”
They nod again.
“Well, now it’s in the ground, which is like another cocoon, and it’s going to go through another transformation. It will emerge into something else eventually,” I explain.
“Like into another butterfly?” Vera asks excitedly.
“Not exactly. But it will become part of the earth again, and its energy will go on to be something else. Maybe a flower in the rosebush, or maybe something we can’t even imagine.”
“Is that what happens when we die?” Vera asks.
“I think it is,” I say. “And either way, the love we have for the butterfly doesn’t change. Just like when a person dies, that love we feel for them doesn’t disappear. And neither does theirs for us.”
“I still love the butterfly,” Vera says, mirroring my statement.
“Love the buttafly,” Jules mimics.
“Yes, we all love the butterfly. The one in the ground, and the ones that flew up into the sky. That’s what’s important.”
I release my daughters’ hands and they scamper off to play. I stand up and watch them from the doorway for a moment, thinking about how the only thing I really want them to understand about death is that it does not change love.
In her later years, after she had done extensive research on the afterlife, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came to the conclusion that “death is but a transition from this life to another existence.” I believe this to be true as well.
Like Kübler-Ross, I’ve been thinking about death for a long time. First as a result of the personal losses I’ve experienced, and now as a result of the work I do helping people navigate their own grief processes. What happens when we die? I’ve been asking myself this question for most of my life.
Thinking about what happens when someone dies is a natural part of the grief process. But not only that; it is part of the life process. How we make sense of our time here has an enormous impact on how we live our lives, how we develop relationships, and how we plan for the future. Death is a part of life, but one that we’re not always so good at looking at.
My mother died when I was eighteen, and one of the aspects I was most troubled by in my grief process was how little the people around me were able to talk about death. And while it’s normal for grieving individuals, and the people surrounding them, to want to move forward rather than dwell on the loss, it’s inevitable that thoughts of death become more present than ever. How does someone reconcile this experience within a culture that tends to shrink from the idea of death?
I began losing people at a young age. When I was fourteen both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. I was an only child and facing the reality of being on my own in this world before I would even reach adulthood.
So while most of my peers were reveling in a youthful sense of immortality, I found myself asking big questions about life, and what happens when it is over. After my mother died I found myself adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Why did she die? Where did she go? Would I ever see her again? Did I still matter now that the person I mattered most to was gone?
I floundered in this place. I felt a great sense of meaninglessness. I struggled to find purpose in my existence. I worried that at any moment I might die too. I wasn’t sure if I should live every day as though it were my last, or if I should be more practical, working and sacrificing to create a solid foundation for a long existence. Most of all, I didn’t know whom to turn to with these questions.
I was twenty-five when my father died, and reacting differently than I had with my mother’s passing, I worked to embrace his death. I cared for him in his home with the help of a hospice team. I sat with him day after day, fed him by spoon, emptied his catheter bag, and held his hand during our final conversations. I acknowledged that his life had come to an end and that I had to say good-bye.
Losing him was just as painful as losing my mother, but because I had found a way to be present to the end of his life, I did not feel the same guilt and remorse I had following my mother’s death. I still yearned to know where he had gone, and if I would ever see him again, and I felt great sorrow and loss over the absence of him in my life. But I knew that I had done everything I could to face this very real truth about life: We will all die.
Following my father’s death, I fell into a deep depression for more than a year, and I began to emerge only when I found ways to assign meaning and purpose to my life. I volunteered for a homeless organization. I worked with underprivileged schoolchildren. I went back to school, earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and began working as a bereavement coordinator for a hospice. I became a wife and a mother.
Yet the question continued to plague me. What happens when we die?
For those of us who do not have some kind of resolute faith or relied-upon religion—a large majority of our younger generations—and even for some of us who do, life after loss can take on a hollow sort of feel. Purpose and meaning are thrown into question and a general anxiety permeates our days. I remember standing in the cereal aisle in the grocery store the week following my father’s death, staring at all the brightly colored boxes in front of me. What is the point of all this? I kept asking myself.
And while it’s true that if we were to spend our lives paralyzed by these philosophical questions there truly would be no point, because we would never get anything done, I do think there needs to be room in our culture to allow for a bigger conversation about death and how it relates to the way we live our lives today.
The idea for this book came to me in the shower, of all places, one day. I was getting ready for a day working with grieving families and I was thinking about my friend Julie, who died of leukemia when we were both in our early twenties. Julie and I had talked openly about death on many occasions during the year she was sick, both of us musing on different ideas we had about what might happen.
Before she died, even though I had never done such a thing, I promised her that I would go to see a psychic medium after she was gone and try to find out if she was okay.
It was a youthful promise, but one that began to nag at me around the ten-year anniversary of her death. That day in the shower, I decided it was time to make good on my promise. And not only that, but to go on a quest to find out more about what happens when we die.
It wasn’t just about fulfilling my promise to Julie, but also about quelling this insistent hunger inside me to know more, and to feel more peaceful about death. It was about finding answers not just for myself, but for the people I counsel as well.
Although I began my journey with a visit to a medium, I eventually branched out into many different arenas, including shamanism, past-life regressions, astrology, Judaism, and Buddhism. I knew as soon as I got started that I could probably spend the rest of my life delving into this realm—and I still might—but for the purposes of this book, I simply followed my own interests and the paths that each new experience opened up for me.
When I initially began to foray into the experiences outlined in this book, I struggled to open my mind to them. Countless times I ran up against constructs that had been thrown at me since I was a very young child. Notions of heaven and hell, rules that we must abide by during our lives, and statutes that affect where we go next. I realized that my own grief had been shaped by these messages, and that my feeling of connection to those whom I have lost relied upon the ideas I had in my head about where those people are now.
In order to pursue a new myth, a new belief system, I had to deconstruct my old one, and in doing so I came to understand that this is very much a part of the grief process. We must examine our preexisting ideas about death in order to find new ones to rely upon. As I embarked on this journey I forced myself to open my mind, and to let go of long-held assumptions, fears, and hopes.
What I found was that the more I explored and the more I let myself ponder it all, the more peaceful I felt, even if certain questions went unanswered. I realized that in allowing myself to ask these questions and to search for the answers, I was finding a way to exist with an uncertainty that I had fought for a long time. And ultimately I realized that fighting the uncertainty was what had caused the anxiety in the first place.
My hope for this book is not to give you a definitive answer about what happens next, but rather to allow you, the reader, to give yourself permission to ask yourself questions you may have been afraid to ask.
My hope for this book is that you close its cover feeling as though death is something to be acknowledged, not ignored, and that you find the same kind of peace I’ve found, by simply allowing yourself to open up to the uncertainty of it all. We come into this world not knowing what the path before us holds, and we will exit the same way. But just because we don’t know doesn’t mean we can’t explore.
I board my flight to New York filled with anxiety. It is the spring of 2011 and I am living in Chicago with my husband, Greg, and our eighteen-month-old daughter, Vera. I kissed them good-bye this morning and climbed shakily into the taxi waiting outside our apartment by the river on Chicago’s north side.
I will only be gone for two nights, and it is not the being away from them so much as the mission I am embarking on that is making me nervous. I...
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