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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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.com
Read an Excerpt
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 am on my way to Long Island to meet with psychic medium John Edward.
My visit to John Edward is part of a promise I made to one of my best friends in the last days before she died exactly ten years ago, but it’s taken me all this time to get the courage to follow through on it.
Even though I work in the field of death as a hospice bereavement coordinator, I’ve never seen a psychic medium, never really forayed into the realm of the afterlife. Instead I’ve worked to help people understand their losses, and to understand my own, through a much more grounded perspective.
I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology, something I pursued after losing both parents by the time I was twenty-five. After I had begun to climb out of my own deep grief over those losses, I thought that maybe it would be something I could help others to do as well.
But the work I’ve been doing in hospice has had much more to do with helping people accept the finality of death, and move forward in their lives without the people who are missing. This work includes leading groups that help people navigate their grief, and I often meet with individuals for one-on-one sessions. In these sessions I work to help people face and accept the absence of their lost loved one. Seeing a psychic medium somehow feels like a betrayal of this.
Yet I find myself filled with a morbid curiosity. Will my dead parents come through? Will my friend Julie come through? Part of me hopes so, but the rest of me would rather they didn’t. I’ll be left with too many questions if I walk away from this experience thinking that it’s possible to communicate with the deceased.
I think about all of this as my flight takes off from O’Hare Airport, winding around the lake toward New York.
After my father died when I was twenty-five, officially leaving me parentless, I stopped thinking about death. I just couldn’t. By that time I had lost my mother, my father, and one of my best friends, all within a few years of each other. It was all I could do to get through my days. I barely knew how to be alive, let alone think about what happens when we die.
As much as I want to, I don’t feel connected to my lost loved ones anymore. I can’t feel them, I can’t hear them, and I can’t see them. I yearn to believe that they are still around me somehow, looking after me, sending me secret messages from beyond, but I just don’t.
Now it feels good to help others along a path I have struggled down myself. It helps me to see death and loss in a more three-dimensional way—to see it not just in terms of my own grief, but in the way my father always urged me to see it, as a larger part of life that we all experience.
And becoming a mother has brought everything even more full circle for me. The night my first daughter emerged from my body in a slick tangle of blood and pain and little outstretched limbs, I recognized something similar in the night my father had died. This coming and going into the world, it is a wondrous thing. I found myself marveling at how much effort we, as a culture, put forth into welcoming a person into the world, and how much we shrink from helping them leave.
In those early days, sitting in the nursery, rocking my tiny daughter to sleep, I thought a lot about Julie, who had died when I was twenty-one. Cradling my newborn in my arms, I wished Julie had been able to experience this part of life. She would have been an incredible mother. The love she would have poured into a child would have truly been something to behold. I struggled to understand why her life had ended so soon.
When my daughter was born I experienced a deeper connection to my parents than I had in years. In an instant, through my own love for Vera, I felt how profound my own parents’ love for me had been. Yet even after all the peace I had begun to feel about death being a natural part of life, her tiny existence chipped away at it, making life feel fragile and more uncertain than ever.
I lay awake at night in that first year after she was born, thinking about death incessantly. Ever since my mother died I’ve been fraught with anxiety about my own mortality. In the first few years after she was gone I was plagued with panic attacks. I couldn’t stop worrying that I would die as well—that my heart would just give out, or that I’d get cancer too, or that some horrific accident would befall me. While those fears had eased a bit as I grew older, they began to resurface as I moved into motherhood.
Where would I go if I died? Would I still be able to see my daughter? Would I be able to let her know that I was okay, that she was okay?
I stared up at the ceiling in my darkened bedroom, the little green lights from the baby monitor next to me casting a hazy pallor over the room. I had to find an answer.
A few minutes into my flight to New York to see John Edward, the plane hits turbulence. I clutch the armrests in terror, my heart pounding in my chest. I stare out the window frantically, trying to see the ground below through the pearling clouds. I have only left Vera three times since she was born and each departure has provided me with a new way to worry about something preventing my return to her.
As the plane evens out, my thoughts slow down and they turn to John Edward. I, along with fourteen other people, have an appointment this evening to meet with him, in a hotel conference room on Long Island. Will he have answers for me? I am vehemently skeptical. It just doesn’t seem possible. How can someone communicate with the dead? Where are they? Why would they talk to this or that medium specifically?
In the research I’ve done I know that John Edward McGee, known professionally as John Edward, was born in 1969 on Long Island. The only son of working-class parents, he was raised Roman Catholic. When he was fifteen years old he had a reading by a New Jersey intuitive, who advised him to cultivate his psychic abilities. In my research I’ve come to understand that intuitives and psychics use paranormal senses to see into a person’s past, present, and future. Mediums are those who use these same paranormal senses to also connect with the dead. It is said that all mediums are psychic, but not all psychics are mediums.
Edward claims that he met this advice with skepticism, but ultimately went on to do just as she had advised. He began conducting psychic readings, and in 1998 his first book, One Last Time, was published. Shortly after that he began to host a show on the Sci-Fi Channel called Crossing Over with John Edward, in which he gave readings to audience members. Exposure from the show and a growing pop-culture interest in mediums elevated Edward’s recognition.
He is currently one of the most well-known psychic mediums in the world, although his abilities have not gone unscathed by criticism, his proclaimed talents having been rebuked by various media outlets and skeptics, as well as independent investigative groups that regularly go after mediums. It does not seem to have affected his popularity or business.
I first heard about John Edward when I was twenty-one years old. I stumbled across One Last Time in a shop near my apartment in New York’s East Village. My mother had been dead for three years, and Julie was dying. The subtitle of the book, A Psychic Medium Speaks to Those We Have Loved and Lost, jumped out at me, and on a whim, I purchased it.
The book fascinated me, even though I had long ago decided that there was nothing after this life. When my mother died I could think only that she was gone and I was never going to see her again.
But something about Edward’s book began to push open a crack in a door I thought I’d slammed shut. Suddenly I felt ready to think about life, and death, in a different way. That same month, on a trip to visit Julie in the hospital in Atlanta, I told her about John Edward.
Julie and I had gone to high school together, and had grown particularly close in the years since we’d graduated. She was a bright and luminous person and everyone whom she came into contact with instantly adored her. Just a few months earlier, during her senior year of college at the University of Georgia, she had passed out one day and been rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a strain of cancer rare in someone her age.
News of Julie’s illness had hit our friend circle like an atomic shock wave, instantly flattening our youthful feelings of immortality and making us all take stock of our lives. We crowded into the hospital waiting room, paying visits to our beautiful friend while her family and a team of doctors swarmed around her.
On the occasions we had time alone together, Julie and I talked constantly of death. We kept our conversations secret, feeling that we would be admonished if we were to talk openly about the subject.
On one visit I brought John Edward’s book with me. I described to Julie the messages Edward claimed to receive, images and symbols from the deceased. For instance, he would see a teapot if you and your loved one had a history of drinking tea together; or a train, or any motif that had featured heavily in the person’s life. He claimed these images were confirmation that it was really that person coming through. He even claimed on occasion to have been given secret information about hidden safes or documents that a person had left behind.
Julie and I endlessly pondered this phenomenon of communicating with the dead. Where were the dead people? we wondered. And why did they talk to this man?
Julie had been raised by a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, both born in India. She had traveled there many times throughout her life, enchanted by the myriad differences between that country and the one in which she was raised. She told me long stories about the crowded streets, the cows wandering in between motorbikes, the poverty-stricken children who would press their palms against the windows of the cars she rode in.
For years, each time she had traveled to Mumbai, Julie spent time volunteering at a school for the blind. She told me about how those sightless children had changed everything about the way she saw the world. They had made her question what she thought was the purpose of our lives. They made her question God and heaven, and the meaning of everything, in the same ways that I had been beginning to question them.
Julie was afraid to die. She didn’t feel ready to let go of her future plans or say good-bye to the people she loved, and I didn’t know how to comfort her, other than by simply listening. I desperately didn’t want her to die.
One night toward the end of Julie’s life my mother came to me in a dream. I rarely dreamt about her, and this visit was so vivid that I sat up in bed in the middle of the night afterward, staring into the darkness for a long time.
In the dream I stood in a windowed anteroom furnished with two chairs and a lamp. I was staring at the door, wondering if I should open it, when my mother appeared.
I immediately broke into sobs, reaching for her. She held me for a moment and then released me. I pleaded with her not to go, and before she slipped through the entryway she turned and said, “I can’t stay, honey. I have to see your friend, Julie.”
And then the door closed behind her, the dream ending.
The next morning when I got out of bed there was an e-mail from Julie’s boyfriend. She’d recently had a stem cell transplant, but scans had just shown that the transplant had not worked. Julie was back in the hospital.
The night I arrived in Atlanta, I found her in her room with another of our high school friends, Channah. They both looked up and smiled when they saw me. “We’re planning my funeral!” Julie exclaimed with surreal delight. And Channah nodded at me, smiling through her tears.
I started crying too, a kind of rage building up inside me. All this time I’d been so open to the thought of Julie dying, but now that it was really happening, everything inside me resisted it. I wanted to shout at them to stop. I wanted to pick Julie up in my arms and carry her away from this place. I wanted to stop her death from happening.
But Julie beckoned me to her side and I joined Channah on the bed, listening as they told me about the songs they had chosen for the service.
The next day I stood in the hallway outside her room. Inside were her two younger half sisters, Mary Carson and Kathleen. They were ages seven and nine. They came out holding hands, their eyes wide, the way Julie’s would sometimes get.
I walked into the room and took my usual place on the bed at Julie’s side. She was crying.
“I just had to say good-bye to them,” she said, the tears flowing down her cheeks.
I took her hand. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of one single thing that would ease her pain. Julie and I were twenty-one years old and she was dying.
After a few minutes her sobs subsided and she looked at me. “Claire,” she whispered. “You know what I’m most afraid of?”
I struggled to come up with an answer. A number of things ran through my mind. A thousand things, in fact.
“I’m afraid that there won’t be anyone there on the other side to greet me.”
Hearing her say this caused a wave of sorrow to course through me. I shook my head. “Of course there will be,” I said, thinking about the dream I’d had about my mother.
“I don’t really know anyone who has died,” she admitted, her voice wavering.
“My mom will be there,” I said then, some kind of resolute faith rising up through me that this statement was fact.
Julie nodded, looking somewhat satisfied by the response.
“Will you tell her I love her? That I miss her every day?” I asked, tears spilling down onto my shirt.
“Oh, Claire,” Julie said. “She already knows.”
The next day was Julie’s twenty-second birthday. A group of us sat around in the waiting room that morning with flowers and balloons, waiting for Julie to wake up. After a while her mother came in.
“The doctors think she has gone unconscious, that she probably won’t wake up anymore.”
We took our balloons and flowers into her room anyway, took turns giving her kisses on the forehead as she lay in slumber. Then the group of us found a bar nearby and spent the day there, shaking our heads and toasting to our beautiful friend.
The following afternoon I sat by myself in Julie’s room. I had to go home to New York the next morning. My last semester at college was starting and my waitressing job was threatening to disappear if I took any more time off.
It was cold and bright outside and silvery light flooded in through the windows in Julie’s room. I sat on the bed and held her hand, watched her chest move up and down with each rasping breath. Her eyes were closed, and I turned her hand over in mine, admiring her long, elegant fingers, trying to memorize them. My tears dripped down onto the bedsheets and I tried to think of some way to say good-bye.
On that last day we’d talked I’d made so many promises to her.
“If I ever have kids, I’ll name one of them after you,” I’d told her. “And I’m going to write a book about all this one day, I swear.”
“Oprah will love it,” she’d said, laughing.
“I’ll still write you letters too,” I said, and she nodded, a smile on her face.
“And I’ll read them, wherever I am,” she said.
“Oh, and I’ll go see John Edward,” I told her.
After I had first told Julie about John Edward, we came up with two secret symbols. We vowed never to tell anyone what they were. “If you die,” I told her, “I’ll go see John Edward and you can come through and tell him those symbols and I’ll know you’re okay.”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “You have to.”
On that last afternoon, sitting in her room, while she lay unconscious, I stared out the window as I held her hand. I knew that even after she was gone, maybe more so than ever, I would continue on my quest to understand what happens when we die.
That night the moon was full and round and I went to sleep, the world feeling large around me. In the morning when I woke up there was a voice mail telling me that Julie had died in the night.
My beautiful friend was gone.
Sitting on the airplane, I try to determine my own level of skepticism. When I was packing my suitcase last night my husband jokingly said, “When you see John Edward, ask him where you can buy some snake oil.” I laughed, but part of me wondered, How much do I want to believe in this? And how much will that desire impact my experience?
John Edward’s level of popularity makes it difficult to obtain a private reading with him. His website boasts a lengthy list of events open to the public. Typically held in large venues such as hotel ballrooms and amphitheaters, these events cost $150 to $300 for an individual seat, and are offered throughout the year in places ranging from Orlando, Florida, to Perth, Australia. During these large-scale events he gives random readings to a crowd of hundreds.
To obtain a private or “small, intimate group” reading, you must sign up on a list through Edward’s website and wait to be contacted with further information. Private readings, if you can score one, run $850, and the small group readings cost $650. I suppose I must consider myself one of the lucky ones, as a few weeks prior to boarding this flight I was sitting in front of my laptop when an e-mail popped up from the John Edward wait list, informing me that there were several small group readings being offered in the next month. I had been on the list for several years, but had never actually received an e-mail like this one.
Without hesitation, and knowing that I had only seconds to spare before the reading was sold out, I picked up the phone and reserved a spot for myself. The woman I spoke with told me that I had just booked the twelfth of fifteen spaces. I made the reservation under a false name, using my husband’s credit card to hold my booking.
In preparing to research this book and to delve into experiences with psychics and intuitives, I knew that I would need to take precautions to protect my identity, not just for my own need to validate whatever came of the experiences, but in an effort to let readers also feel comfortable that I wasn’t being blatantly conned. My first book, a memoir about the loss of my parents, titled The Rules of Inheritance, has not yet been published, but I have maintained a blog for many years, writing about my parents’ deaths and my grief. It would take just a few simple keystrokes to unearth my identity and a wealth of details about my life.
I know that if I don’t strive to protect this knowledge before going into readings, I will always wonder if the information the mediums gleaned just came from a little research on their parts, or if it really came from their psychic abilities. I even go so far as to create a fake e-mail account under the name Phoebe James, and I make a point to pay with cash as often as I can. When I can’t pay with cash I use a credit card with my married surname, not the author name I use online.
I land at JFK unscathed, and hop into a taxi to the hotel on Long Island where I am due to meet with Edward in a few hours. I check into the Marriott, feeling more anxious than ever.
I throw my bag on the bed in my room and glance at the clock. I have two hours before the reading. I sit down at the little desk and pull out my notebook. I want to record all of my thoughts before going into this experience.
Ultimately, I don’t believe this guy can contact dead people, I scribble on the page. Even if he can, I don’t think any of mine will come through. I think about how I don’t have anything outstanding with any of them. There was nothing really left unsaid, nothing yet to be resolved. Wouldn’t that be the only reason they would come through?
I write about how one of my biggest fears is for the other people attending this reading. After working in hospice for the past three years, I can’t help but imagine the kind of pain people must be in to shell out $650 for a reading with a medium. I can only think that their longing to connect with their lost loved ones must be so great that it eclipses all else in their lives. I worry for their fragile states and I hope that Edward is gentle with them. In fact, in all my experience, I have yet to meet a client who has gone to see a medium. In my mind, it seems to be a choice that must be born out of desperation.
Lastly, I write in my notebook that if anyone does come through, I am hoping it is my mother. Since giving birth to my daughter I have felt incredible pangs of longing for her to know that I am a mother now myself. I have wondered if there is any way she knows this, or if she has seen my beautiful daughter.
When I checked in a couple of hours earlier I was embarrassed to ask the concierge where the John Edward reading would be held. But he appeared unfazed, answering matter-of-factly, not a trace of the sarcasm or sympathy I expected to hear in his voice. “Just around that corner by the main ballroom,” he gestured. “You’ll see a sign.”
I head in that direction at six forty-five p.m., feeling wobbly as I walk. There is a little table set up outside the small conference room where the reading is to be held, and I check in with a woman holding a clipboard.
“Phoebe James,” I tell her, and she scans the list for my name. I hand her an envelope containing $650 in cash, and she counts it out unabashedly before me. There are several people lingering nearby, waiting to see if there are any no-shows for tonight’s reading, hoping they’ll get a chance to walk into the room I now turn toward.
It’s a small room decorated with bland photos of lakes and forests. Two rows of banquet chairs are lined up before a podium. On each chair there is a pen and notepad and a little piece of hard candy wrapped in plastic. I choose a seat in the front row, as close to the far wall as possible. There is one other woman in the room and we offer each other tentative smiles.
Slowly more people begin to file in. A solitary, heavyset man heads to the back row. Two women with perfectly blow-dried hair settle in next to me. They’re both wearing expensive-looking shoes and dangly earrings, clutching tiny purses. One of them is pregnant. A handsome man in his thirties joins them, puts his arm around the one who is not pregnant.
A man and a woman, who appear to be father and daughter, join the heavy man in the back row. A gothic-looking woman in her late twenties skirts the edge of the room as she makes her way to the seat behind me. A woman in her sixties, wearing long, flowy hippie garb, stands in the doorway, surveying the room. “I’ve learned it doesn’t matter where you sit with these things,” she announces to no one in particular, before flouncing to a front-row seat in direct line with the podium. Two women in their fifties enter, sitting between the gothic woman and the father-daughter duo.
By the time all the seats are filled there are fifteen of us. The man in the father-daughter duo opens up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts doughnut holes and offers it around the room. To my surprise there are a couple of takers. The idea of eating doughnut holes in this moment is absurd to me and I almost laugh out loud, but instead I just politely decline when they are passed my way. I am far more nervous than I anticipated. My heart is pounding in my chest.
I think about my daughter and husband back home in Chicago. What am I doing here?
Finally, the woman attendant who collected our payment stands before the podium.
“John will be here in a moment,” she says, addressing the room. “Tonight’s session will last about two hours, but it may go longer. John will make sure to read every one of you. He talks fast, you guys, so write stuff down. There are pads of paper here and pens if you need them. It tends to get cold in here too, so I hope you all brought a sweater.”
I pull my hoodie closer around me, and shift in my seat, trying to get comfortable. I can’t decide if I want to be read first or last, or not at all.
Finally, John Edward enters the room with a flourish, and a discernible flutter moves through the rows. People are putting away their phones and doughnut boxes, sitting up straighter in their seats. I cross and uncross my legs, watching as he removes his jacket and takes a swig from a water bottle.
Edward looks just like he does on television—normal, a little tired, almost like a harried father you would see at Disneyland. He rolls up his sleeves, paces around for a minute, and then looks us over. Then he shakes out his arms and cocks his head from side to side. He looks like he’s warming up for a track meet, rather than getting ready to commune with dead people.
Excerpted from "After This"
Copyright © 2015 Claire Bidwell Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
With deep compassion, profound vulnerability, and transcendent lyricism, Claire Bidwell Smith embraces that which we so often run from in this culture: loss. This is a transformative book that will change the way you think about death, and by extension, life. --Jillian Lauren, New York Times bestselling author of Some Girls
Claire Bidwell Smith, with her writer's heart and therapist's mind, has written a stunningly generous book alive with curiosity, humility, skepticism, and bravery. In After This you will teeter on the edge of the Spirit world; and whether you believe, or wish to, or simply can't, Bidwell Smith has written one of the most inspiring books about death you will ever read. --Christa Parravani, author of Her: A Memoir
Praise for After This:
"With wisdom and grace, Claire Bidwell Smith navigates the mysteries of grief to show us that there is great meaning and even magic to be found in exploring the unknown."
—Maria Shriver, bestselling author of What's Heaven?
“Claire Bidwell Smith, with her writer’s heart and therapist’s mind, has written a stunningly generous book alive with curiosity, humility, skepticism, and bravery. In After This you will teeter on the edge of the Spirit world; and whether you believe, or wish to, or simply can’t, Bidwell Smith has written one of the most inspiring books about death you will ever read.” —Christa Parravani, author of Her: A Memoir
"A transfixing ode to the enigmatic cycle of life and death, After This will resonate with seekers and skeptics alike. Grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith explores in lyrical prose tricky existential terrain with compelling philosophical persistence, humility, and poise. You will not forget this book." —Aidan Donnelley Rowley, author of Life After Yes
“With deep compassion, profound vulnerability, and transcendent lyricism, Claire Bidwell Smith embraces that which we so often run from in this culture: loss. This is a transformative book that will change the way you think about death, and by extension, life.”
—Jillian Lauren, New York Times bestselling author of Some Girls
“In this eloquent, smart, funny and deeply thoughtful book, Claire Bidwell Smith takes us on a powerful journey of discovery. She asks the most important questions about life, love, death, and what it means to be human, and does so with equal measures of skepticism and a broken-open heart. By doing so, she becomes an utterly trustworthy guide. Reader, follow her. You’ll be so glad you did.” —Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion and Still Writing
Praise for The Rules of Inheritance:
“A brave and intelligent book about big loss and even bigger love. The gritty truth and hard-won grace in this beautiful memoir astonishes me.” –Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
“Gitty, poetic, and illuminating.” –O, The Oprah Magazine
“Vivid, real and gripping.” --Blackbook magazine
“Gorgeously written, compulsively readable, and heartbreakingly true, The Rules of Inheritance is a small masterpiece of honesty.” –Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters
A transfixing ode to the enigmatic cycle of life and death, After This will resonate with seekers and skeptics alike. Grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith explores in lyrical prose tricky existential terrain with compelling philosophical persistence, humility, and poise. You will not forget this book. --Aidan Donnelley Rowley, author of Life After Yes
With wisdom and grace, Claire Bidwell Smith navigates the mysteries of grief to show us that there is great meaning and even magic to be found in exploring the unknown. --Maria Shriver, bestselling author of What's Heaven?