"People think they're grieving wrong": How the anxiety you're feeling right now relates to grief

Author & grief expert Claire Bidwell Smith spoke to Salon about how the pandemic is time to make a space for grief

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2020 4:09PM (EDT)

Claire Bidwell Smith (Ron Purdy)
Claire Bidwell Smith (Ron Purdy)

Trauma transforms you. Grief uproots you. They rewire your circuitry. If you are fortunate and have the right combination of support and genetic predispositions and therapy and medication, you go on. You experience love and joy and gratitude. You deepen your relationships; you get better at comforting others in their hardest experiences. And you never, ever go "back to normal." You find a new one. Often a more fretful one.

By her mid-20s, Claire Bidwell Smith had lost both of her parents, a cataclysmic devastation. As an author and grief counselor, she has spent her adult life unlocking the mysteries of loss,  helping others work their way through an experience all of us will face at one point or another. And she keeps uncovering new aspects of how it affects us, including how — perhaps surprisingly — anxious it makes us. 

With a truly unbearable number of us grieving right now and no end of the heartbreak in sight, our current anxiety feels particularly cruel, acute and universal. So this felt like a good time to check in with Smith, to talk about her 2018 book "Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief" and about what we can be doing to identify and alleviate some of our collective suffering. In very sheltering-in-place fashion, Salon spoke to Smith recently while she was wrangling her toddler, who provided a lively third for the conversation, and a tangible reminder of how connected we all really are. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How is your practice evolving right now?

Everyone in the grief world has come together in the most remarkable way. We're collaborating, creating, and working on all these amazing projects and platforms to try to brace for and prepare for all the grief that's happening and coming. There's a whole coalition and consortium of people in the grief world who have come together. We're meeting twice a week on Zoom calls and coming up with all kinds of virtual platforms and offerings.  

That moves me, and that gives me hope in the midst of all of the fear and all of the cynicism.

I think we're seeing humanity at its bestand worst in some ways — but there's some really cool stuff happening. It's been so strange. I wrote this book a couple of years ago, and I could not have imagined that the entire world would at one point be going through it very soon.

Now everyone knows what it feels like to go through a major health crisis. Everybody.

I hope that it is a call to change, and a call to compassion. That's so much of what you are talking about in your book. What made you want to take on these other kinds of emotions that go hand in hand with grief?

I just wasn't seeing them talked about in the clinical professional world, or even just in the cultural world. I was seeing anxiety on the uptick for the last decade, for sure, in our world, but no one was really connecting that to grief. It was something I was seeing in my clientele. It was something I experienced for myself. I just felt like this book was really going to fill a hole that was missing that was out there.

I had written an article for Slate about six years ago with the same title of my book, and the responses I got to that article were far beyond anything I had ever received for any of my books. People were writing, "Oh, my God. Wait. Is this a real thing? Is anxiety related to grief?" Then they just started pouring into my office.

I got to see, over the last few years, this huge population of people who were experiencing anxiety while they were grieving or due to a loss, and really study it firsthand. I had been seeing it here and there. I had gone through it myself. But then when I got this influx of clientele because of the articles I was writing and putting out there, I really got to work with a lot of people going through it.

We know this very reductive model of five stages. People think that this is what it's going to be, and that you're going to go through them in a very linear way that is very finite. That's not at all what it feels like. The experience of grief comes with many other things. Very early in the book you say, "If my mother could die, anything could happen."  

When something like that happens, a health crisis, or a loss, or something just really unexpected, you suddenly realize, "I'm really not in control of how my future plays out or if things go well or not." That realization, when you are hit with it, just makes you feel uncertain. That uncertainty that we're all sitting in right now during this pandemic, that reminder that we're all having right now that, is that we can't always plan for the best outcomes, and we don't know what's coming, and we don't know how we're going to be affected. To sit in that space is what happens when you go through a big loss.

And the way that anxiety so often unfortunately manifests is catastrophizing. Because now you know that people can die.

You know that you can get that phone call. Once you know that, it's hard not to go to that place. One of the reasons we go to that place, too, is to try to brace for it once we know that's a possibility. I know when the pandemic hit, for myself and a lot of people I know either personally or clientele I've had, we immediately went to pretty catastrophic places. That's normal, and it's because we're trying to prepare for it in a sense.

Something else that feels relevant right now is the way that grief changes our relationship with time. Your future looks different suddenly, and your past looks different, and the days flow into each other. That feels so, so real right now.

One of the things that happens with time when we're grieving is we're not spending time in the present. We're spending time in the past, we're spending time in the future in our head and in our hearts.

Bringing ourselves back to the present moment is really valuable and healing. Anxiety is a lot about fear-based thoughts. A lot of those thoughts aren't really happening. We're dwelling on what could have happened, what we could've done differently, what we should have done. And then, we're also thinking about the future and what it's going to look like. But the future hasn't happened yet. Even the things we're thinking about that may happen aren't real. We're spending all this time and space in places that don't exist, either any more or at all. Bringing ourselves to the present moment is really important. We're also thinking about how we value our time now. It changes after you go through loss or trauma.

A thing that you said that was so good — because this is exactly what I have felt — is the catastrophic fear that, "I won't be able to survive another loss."

And again, it's a way of trying to prepare for it. But that just ends up keeping you in a cycle of anxious thoughts. You're just spinning over and over and over into this spaces. You're having physical reactions, behavioral reactions to that. And if we can really help ourselves step out of those cycles of anxious thoughts, and not continue to play out these disaster scenarios, then we can get ourselves into healthier space.

What you talk about is really retraining your brain, and different ways to do it. And one of the big ways is through writing your story. Why does that work? Especially for people who say, "I'm not a writer. This isn't what I do. This isn't how I process."

Whether or not we think of ourselves as writers, we all have stories. We have stories about the first car we got, how we met the person we're in love with, our first pet, whatever it is. We have stories around these things. That's how we make meaning of our lives, and that's how we share with other people what's important to us.

When we go through a loss, we internalize a story about it. I think it's really important to not only share it, but understand it and look at it. Sometimes we internalize a story that does not help us. I feel like that's where the intersection has come for me of therapy and writing. I've always been a writer, and I've always been interested in narrative, structure, themes and how we create a narrative. When people come into my office, that's also what we do. I want to know what is the story they tell about themselves. Are there ways we can change it, edit it, make it into a story that serves them in a better way or helps them create a healthier, more meaningful life?

What would you say to someone who does not do grief therapy, who has not even thought about that, who maybe can't even articulate or identify what it is that's going on? You talk about the guilt and the anger, all these things that we don't necessarily know or prepare for when we're experiencing a loss.

A lot of people don't give themselves permission to grieve. Some of that comes from cultural messages we get about grief, and the silence around it. Or they're uncomfortable to be around it. A lot of times people won't recognize very obvious symptoms and feelings of grief, and they'll try to attribute them to something else. Or on the flip side, they won't want it to be grief, because grief is painful and sad. They'll redirect it into something else — anger, or some kind of work obsession, or some other way that they excise their feelings while running away from the grief.

You use a phrase — resilient grieving. Sometimes we feel people are just predisposed to be resilient and are wired in a way where they can handle things "better," whatever better means. Especially because a lot of us are suffering so much more than we really let on, because we don't really have a lot of permission in our culture to suffer. Dispel me of that myth that resilience is something that maybe you have or you don't.

It's definitely something you can cultivate. It's not something you either have or don't. The number one thing I hear when people come into my office for the first time is that they think they're grieving wrong. They always come in and they say, the first thing they say when they sit down on the couch, "I think I'm doing this wrong."

That's heartbreaking.

It is heartbreaking. That's a lot due to the cultural messages that grief should be short, it should be kept to yourself or hidden, you should get through it quickly. Let's pack up those boxes. Let's move on. So people think they're doing it wrong. Or they think if they're not crying a ton, or moping around, if they are doing well, then they're doing it wrong.

But resilience is such an interesting thing, because I think it scares some people off. A lot of people think if they're going to be resilient, then that means they're not supposed to be grieving. Resilience does mean leaning into your grief. It means acknowledging your grief. It means giving yourself permission to feel all the things that come with it, but not letting your life completely fall apart.

People often think they have to pick one. They either have to have everything together and back at it, or they're grieving. They can't do both. I really think that you can be resilient and create a meaningful life, and still have functioning work and relationships, and still be grieving, like really grieving, truly grieving their person.

Two things can be true at the same time. You can be functioning and you can be grieving. You can have joyful moments and still also be actively grieving. You can have all of the feelings simultaneously. In our culture we don't really cultivate that kind of coexistence with our emotions.

It's always such an aha moment for people when I talk about that two things can be true at once. You can be really mad at your person and still miss them. You can be really amazed by the positive ways your life has changed in the wake of loss, and still wish they could come back. You don't have to pick one.

Most of the people I know who have gone through serious crises, whether it is a divorce, or death, or serious illness, or a challenged child, would say, "I am the person I am because this happened, and I'm probably a better person because this happened. But, of course I don't wish that it happened." There's so much taboo around saying those things.

People are so uncomfortable with vulnerability and pain in Western culture. It's hard for us to see people in pain and being vulnerable, and it's hard for us to feel pain and to feel vulnerability. But as we have been learning over the last decade or so as that's been more of a topic, we know now that that is strength, that is resilience.

We're seeing it right now, particularly because so many people are experiencing loss and yet simultaneously cannot experience grief. And not just people who've lost loved ones to COVID-19. People are still getting cancer. People are still having heart attacks. Whatever. People are still getting in car accidents. Having the experience of grief within this moment where we can't really grieve is so hard. You talk about creating rituals. We all feel so unmoored, and we don't have a regular schedule, and we don't have a regular foundation.

We can't have funerals. We can't sit shiva. We can't have wakes and have everybody come over and give us hugs and bring us food. It's a really interesting time to be grieving, grieving in isolation. There are people who are all by themselves in little apartments grieving. That's very difficult.

I think that this grief is going to take a long time. Maybe if we're not able to do some of the things that we're accustomed to doing right now, we will do them later and that's okay. Grief doesn't really go anywhere. It will be waiting for us when we're ready to do it.

I think we also need to be turning inward and finding ways to do some of those rituals and customs alone at home. Not necessarily relying on being able to go out and have public gatherings, but going ahead and finding new ways of our own to ritualize, memorialize, honor people. Whether it's just lighting a candle at night for the collective loss we're experiencing, or for someone you yourself, have lost. Whatever it is, we need to tap into that side of ourselves and get creative.

It's really important right now because there is so much loss. We have to have space for the grief of others while within our own grief. I'm wondering how we do that when we're all also still trying to school our kids, and get our work done, and we're grieving, and maybe our coworker or the person across the street from us is grieving. What do you think we can do to show to each other that we're here in a neighborly, community-minded way in the experience of this?

I think we need to make space for it. Whether we are observing a certain day with everyone around us, whether we're posting on social media that we are thinking of people out there, or that we're available for support, whether we're just checking in on individual people that we know need help.

This is also a beautiful time to teach our children a little bit about grief, and open up spaces to talk about it with them. They're seeing what's going on. They're feeling things. Even my 7-year-old woke up recently from a nightmare that her little best friend died from coronavirus. It's not something she's talking about during the day, but it's clearly something she's thinking and feeling. Opening up space for them to really be able to talk about it and explore it is important. That's something that we don't do as a culture generally either, and that's how we end up as adults not knowing what to do when it hits us because it's never been modeled for us.

We try to shield our kids from pain and suffering. And then we wind up not teaching them the skills that they're going to need to cope with this. But children can become a very unique support community for each other in grief, because children and teenagers can support each other and console each other in ways that we as adults cannot. And the only way that happens is if we give them the skills to do that, which is hard. I don't like when my kids are sad.

No, I don't either. But we can teach them the value of leaning into that sadness when necessary.

What I'll say last is that I really do think that grief affords us an incredible opportunity for transformation. I think there is beauty in grief. I think grief makes us remember and think about what's meaningful in our lives. It strips us down to our essence in many ways. It forces us to take a hard look at who we are, what's important to us, how we love, who we love. And in that, there can be really incredible transformation.

I think back on all the loss I've ever been through, and as difficult and painful as it was, and I wouldn't want to go through it again, it still made me the best person I can be. There's something really incredible about that. It's going to be really interesting to see how this affects the whole world on that kind of level, and hopefully we'll come out of this with more compassion for ourselves and each other.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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