there is still love “After This”: a book review

A note to local Boston readers: Claire Bidwell Smith will be at Brookline Booksmith to talk about her book tonight at 7pm. According to the website, the event is free and open to the public.

It is easier for me to discuss Monty Python than suffering. I know this because when I am suffering and a friend asks me how I am doing, I respond, “I’m not dead yet!”, in my best fake British accent. I often relieve unwanted tension this way, matching a situation with a corresponding Monty Python skit, like a strange tic.

In After This: When Life is Over, Where Do We Go?, Claire Bidwell Smith holds up a mirror to our awkward responses to suffering and death, “…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.” I am a birth doula focused on welcoming new life into this world. But the longer I work in this field, the more connected I feel to helping the living depart, and it was this desire that brought me to Smith’s book.

Smith’s lyrical prose is breathtaking and bittersweet, demonstrating a rare Monty Python-esque capacity for bringing to light the truth behind the seemingly absurd, and vice versa. Having lost both her parents by the age of 25, and two of her close friends to illness, her struggles—and her expertise as a grief therapist—lend credibility to her insights about grief and the afterlife.

I read an advanced review copy of After This a few months ago. In the days since, I have spent more time staring off in space than I can recall since adolescence. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his introduction to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, “If a book has one passage with the power to change a person’s life, it should be read and reread.” As my many highlighted passages can attest, After This deserves some quality rereading time.

“There’s a pathway to life enhancement that comes with thinking about death,” Smith tells us. Her permission to ponder death and to dwell on it—even consider it a positive thing—has been a revelatory gift to me. The sublime truth, after all, is that death is a part of life; perhaps Viktor Frankl was right that it is how we handle our response to this fact that dictates the meaning we derive and our capacity to cope with suffering. The topic of the afterlife tends to lean on sentimentality, but Smith pulls off a tone of hope without cliché, neither promising answers nor assuring us that everything happens for a reason. Instead, she offers a gentle, persistent reminder that ignoring the inevitability of loss doesn’t make it any less inevitable.

Smith visits psychic mediums as part of her attempt to grasp the concept of an afterlife. An avid follower of hers on Instagram since I read her excellent memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, I’ve been excited to read about her experiences with mediums ever since I first saw her photos of days spent in Cassadaga, Florida—a community of psychics and Spanish moss. In the book, I find some of the passages about mediums difficult to swallow. But Smith is a clever writer, encouraging thinking from all angles on the subject and offering up her own hesitation early on: “In my mind, [visiting a medium] seems to be a choice that must be born out of desperation.” (I wrote in the margin: Are psychic mediums just the latest magician fad?). She allows the reader to accompany her on an emotional, spiritual journey in which she puts her own social mores aside and approaches the subject of the afterlife with an open mind. I appreciate the candor it must have taken to bring readers along on such a leap of—dare I say—faith?

After attending one particularly enlightening session with a medium, Smith writes, “Maybe she was reading my mind, I think then. But even so, that’s kind of phenomenal, right?” Phenomenal, maybe, but the skeptical part of me is still concerned about the potential to take advantage of such a vulnerable audience. In an article that debunks one of the mediums she visited in her book as a hustler, I read this quote by Harold Houdini: “It is not for us to prove the mediums are dishonest, it is for them to prove that they are honest.”

Putting mediums aside, there are many interviews to love in this book, such as with Dr. BJ Miller, director of the progressive Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, who asks the profound question, “Why wait to be dying to have palliative care?” I agree with Smith’s assertion that, however it is accomplished, “there is something therapeutic in… shared grief, in the desperate desire to connect.” Ultimately, perhaps the why and how of a person’s reconciliation of grief doesn’t matter as long as it is managed in a way that promotes acceptance.

As my own beloved grandmother continues down a treacherous path of Parkinson’s-induced dementia, and I face the possibility that I may not be able to mark the exact moment I have lost her, I am comforted by the notion that I can continue talking to her after she is gone. Whether she is able to receive my communication or not is no longer the point; it is, instead, that our “love never dies.” What a beautiful idea that is.