A conversation with Claire Bidwell Smith
Losing a mother is a profound experience for any woman, and Molly Sims is no exception. This kind of loss filters into all aspects of our lives— marriage, motherhood, and even our sense of identity. However, grief affords incredible opportunity for transformation if we are willing to walk through the fire of it.
In my twenty years of personal and professional experience with grief, the one thing I know for certain is that we need to continue breaking the silence around it. When we lose someone we love, it’s often difficult to know where to turn. Grief can feel lonely and isolating. Anger, anxiety and depression are normal. Yet still, it’s hard to talk about. During a time when so much of the world is going through grief and loss, it is more important than ever for us to share our stories. I’m so grateful to Molly for sharing hers.
Molly lost her beautiful mama this spring and opened up about the experience. Grief changes us forever. It’s not something we ever get over. Instead, it’s something we learn to live with. Grief transforms us, makes us evaluate what is meaningful in our lives, and helps us embrace the gift of the present moment.
Molly Sims is a beautiful example of transformation in the face of loss.
Claire Bidwell Smith: I would love to start by having you tell me about your mom, Molly.
Molly Sims: I’m not going to lie, Claire. It’s been rough losing my mom. She was my best friend. She was my cheerleader. And she just loved being a grandmother. She worked hard. She owned two companies, a recycling company called Bluegrass y and a wholesale book company—South Eastern Book company. She was the woman that would buy your books back at the end of the year when your teachers were doing a second edition or a third edition. She was just awesome. She was a working mom, but she was a great mom.
She would always say to me, “I’m your mom. I’m not your friend.” And then when I got a little older, she was like, “Now I’m both.” She was like a vault. Somebody asked me what I took away from my mom—my mom could always keep a secret. If I told her something, she wouldn’t tell my dad, my brother, her friends. She was just so incredible in that way.
In my speech at her funeral, I wrote about how loyal and supportive she was. Someone would be mean to me, she was just like, “Don’t worry.” She always said, “Don’t go out and borrow trouble.” She reminded me, “You’re your own person.” She told me, “Always be different, Molly. Always be in your own shoes.” She was just such a force in my life.
CBS: How long has it been since she’s been gone, and what was her death like?
MS: It’s been eight months. My mom had a really bad stroke on August 16th of last year. She was diagnosed the year before with Parkinsonism, a vascular dementia. Then a year later, she had a massive stroke, and she was paralyzed on one side.
I went back and did the funeral by myself. What was crazy, Claire, is that I hate death. I hate anything that comes with it. But I did it. The most surprising thing was how I handled the funeral with my kids, because I never ever would have thought I could open that casket. I never thought I could talk eloquently and celebrate her. She looked so beautiful. My kids touched her hair. We sang her songs. We wrote her letters. I mean, I thought I was going to lose my mind because of so much unknown and the kids asking so many questions. But I did it.
CBS: Figuring out how to talk to kids about death can be so hard. What were those conversations like?
MS: They knew something was wrong, even though they were only three, five, and seven. I said, ‘Big Momma died.’ I’m from Kentucky and that’s what we called her, Big Momma. We had a butterfly release celebration so that whenever we see a butterfly, it’s a like little angel coming down with wings. But then more recently, they’ve asked me hard questions like ‘Does she still have skin and does she still have her bones?’ We were writing a letter to put in her coffin and Gray, my littlest, was like, ‘Can you write ‘Please wake up’?’ That about put me over. But at the same time, I did want to celebrate her. But then it was over and the reality hit that she’s really gone.
CBS: What have these months been like for you? What has grief been like for you?
MS: In the beginning, I stayed really focused. I had to be a mom. I had to be a wife. I had to be a friend. I had to be a partner. Otherwise, I could just sink so low. I don’t think I started grieving as much until there was nothing else to do. The main thing is that I’m just worried about the kids all the time. I’ll see an ambulance and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, something has happened.’ I just worry a lot. I’m not an anxious person. I’m a busy person. I’m a Gemini. I get a lot of shit done. I think I’ve become a little anxious since my mother died though.
CBS: That sounds like catastrophic thinking, which is really common after a big loss. We lose someone important in our life and suddenly we begin to worry all the time about more loss, about other bad things happening.
A certain level of anxiety is normal but when it starts putting us in a perpetual state of stress then we need to make some changes. Anxiety is our way of trying to prepare ourselves and trying to brace for something happening. And we feel like if we’re not thinking it through and not preparing for the worst-case scenario, then we’re going to be caught off guard. But when we do that it just keeps us in a perpetual state of alert that’s not very good for us. What has helpful for you in the grief process? Exercise is great. Are you doing any meditation or mindfulness?
MS: I exercise a lot. I used to meditate but then I start thinking about her. I journal a little bit.
CBS: Have you written your mom a letter? That’s one of the things I always recommend to grieving people: Sit down and write their loved one a letter. What would it feel like to write Dear Mom and just pour everything out to her?
MS: I want to, one day. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, Claire.
CBS: Well, it’s because you miss her. She was the person who held you steady. As a mom yourself you know what that means. Think about your kids. Every step they take, they look back to see if you’re watching, to see what you think, and now you’ve lost the person who does that for you. It’s so huge. Do you feel connected to your mom now?
MS: I saw a cardinal bird the other day. I haven’t seen a cardinal here since 1999. The cardinal is my state bird from Kentucky. It makes me feel like she’s here. I do think those little signs get people through things. Now, whether they’re signs just to make you happy, or just to hold on to something, who knows. But you know what? They work. I do know that I don’t want to worry so much anymore. I don’t want to do the catastrophic thinking. I don’t want to become anxious. I cry at the drop of a hat.
CBS: It’s really understandable. It’s hard to go through a loss like this and not develop some amount of anxiety. When you lose someone you love you have to reckon with your mortality. You’re also just grieving, and it’s painful. You’re vulnerable, and you’re in this tender space. So it’s like having a raw wound. Of course, everything makes you cry, like things on the news or other deaths. That amount of vulnerability can cause anxiety, too.
I think what happens when we go through a big loss is it really scares us. We realize that terrible things can indeed happen. So we start imagining them, and really what it is, is your brain’s way of trying to brace for it if it were to happen again. It’s like a traumatic response, right? You’ve gone through a traumatic event. This is your brain’s way of trying to brace for the potential of another one, even though it’s not real. It’s important to break that cycle of catastrophic thoughts, because otherwise you kind of get stuck in them. Your brain creates new ruts almost that automatically go to those catastrophic places. Someone’s late coming home and you imagine the worst.
My biggest fear is that I’m going to die young like my mother did and leave my kids. Whenever I have a pain in my side or feel ill in any way, I automatically start thinking catastrophic things, picturing myself dying. When I find myself in that space, I make myself reroute, and I’ll make myself picture being at my daughter’s wedding 20 years from now or some kind of totally opposite scenario. It’s really helpful. So every time you find yourself kind of going down that rabbit hole, reroute and make yourself really picture with just as much intensity and detail and energy that you were doing with the catastrophic version, do a healthy, optimistic, beautiful version. It really helps to kind of change those brain patterns, because otherwise you start to create these loops that you get stuck in. Anxiety can be kind of insidious, but it’s also really easy to get rid of it and to kind of get a handle on it.
MS: I love that. I’m a very positive person. I always say to people just change your verbiage. I get to have dinner with my family. I get to do homework with my children. You don’t have to, you get to. I get to go to dinner with my girlfriend. I get to go to work. Just that change, just in terms of your intention, I think it makes a huge difference.
CBS: That’s so beautiful. It sounds like you are really embracing your life. Talk to me about grief and marriage. One of the questions I get from clients a lot is about how to navigate going through such a huge personal experience within your partnership.
MS: I think my husband has definitely been by my side. He knows grief as well. But it’s just that sometimes I don’t want him to see me cry in my closet, you know? It’s a little bit lonely, but at the same time, you just want to keep those little parts to yourself.
CBS: What do you think your mom would think of how you’re doing, if she could see you right now?
MS: I think she’d be proud of me, Claire. I do. I think she would be proud of me. I feel like I’m a really good mom. And I’m very in my kids’ lives, very tuned into who they are. That’s how my mom was. Even though she worked, she was very tuned in. I struggle a little bit though. I’m always with the kids, and I’m always doing so much. And sometimes lately, since she died, I just want to sit down and just have a moment. And I wasn’t like that before. Maybe that’s a little bit of depression, I don’t know.
CBS: That’s okay, that’s normal. Grief is a really tender space, and it’s also this beautiful opportunity to honor the person that we love and the relationship we had. What advice would you give to someone who is feeling lonely in their grief?
MS: I think to reach out, even if it’s just to one person. And give yourself space to grieve. Make sure you have that moment, whether it’s in the pantry, or in your closet, or just saying to your family “I need half an hour. I’m going to go for a walk.” Or tell them, “I’m going to sit and take a photo album out and drink a glass of wine and cry my eyes out.”
I would hope that if I could pass on one thing it’s to live in the moment. Don’t have regrets. Because it’s really final, you know? Grab those little moments, even if it’s just in the end. I think it’s going to be a ride, it’s going to be a roller coaster, but sometimes that roller coaster is inevitable. Some days you’re going to cry. Some days you’re going to be happy. Try to set yourself up with a support system or a grief system, like just talking to someone or reading a book. I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy.
But I think the one thing that I’ve learned in all of this is that I can handle more than I thought I could. Opening that coffin and hugging her, and being there for my kids… She would’ve just been so happy. She just would be really happy that we celebrate her and continue celebrating her.
Claire Bidwell Smith is an internationally renowned author, speaker, and grief expert. She is the author of three books of nonfiction: The Rules of Inheritance, After This: When Life Is Over Where Do We Go? and Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief. Her books have been published in 18 countries and Claire offers grief support and online courses at www.clairebidwellsmith.com.