Signs and Wonders

LATER ON, listening to the scratchy tape, the transaction sounds illicit. At the beginning of the session I count out five 100 dollar bills. I’m paying for a 50-minute hour with a medium named Suzane. We’re in a room in a Courtyard Marriott hotel in central Connecticut. Suzane, in her late 50s, has short blond hair, nondescript clothing, and is barefoot. She starts by observing that my father is the first spirit to show up for our session. She definitely has him “on the line,” she says.

Though my father was an Ashkenazi Jew who didn’t believe in any sort of afterlife, I have been seeking his spirit since he died in 2002. At first, in the wake of his death, I sought to access him by saying the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. Every night for a year I looked up at the skylight in my temple chapel, hoping for a sighting. One night I swear I saw him looking down at me wearing his deerstalker cap, bundled in the winter coat that made him look his burliest. He gave me his trademark half-smile and vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared. He must have been amused that I was praying for his agnostic soul.

Not that I came to Suzane as a skeptic. My mother’s Sephardic Latino family has been in conversation with the dead for as long as I can remember. We are a people who open doors cautiously, as if expecting to come upon a random spirit. A few weeks after my grandfather died, my mother swore she saw him playing dominoes at our kitchen table. His white linen guayabera was crisp and pristine. “Like his soul,” she said.

And I’ve visited other mediums over the years. All of them identified some truth about my father, but they never developed a clear picture for me. That may be because my attempts to contact what my Judaism describes as “the next world” have never been as extensive or methodical as those of Claire Bidwell Smith, who has just published a book with the questioning title After This: When Life Is Over, Where Do We Go? Bidwell Smith is also the author of a critically acclaimed memoir, The Rules of Inheritance. In that coming-of-age story, she — an only child of much older parents — chronicled their devastating cancer diagnoses when she was just 14. By the time she was 25, both her mother and father had died. Eventually she received a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology and now works as a grief counselor in a Los Angeles hospital. Her two callings — writing and helping others confront death — dovetail beautifully in her latest book.

In After This, Bidwell Smith, an enchanting, knowledgeable, and candid guide, bravely describes her idiosyncratic journey through the various landscapes in which her grief has manifested. She travels the country in search of her dead and in pursuit of her own past lives, and the result is a book that records her experiences with the afterlife in discrete chapters. Throughout she holds herself accountable in love letters to her two young daughters, Vera and Jules, who are always front and center in her thoughts. It’s interesting to note that motherhood is always on her mind; whether it’s in sessions with mediums or in performing rites in which she regresses to a previous life, she almost always encounters her own mother’s spirit. A Los Angeles astrologer tells her that via this project she is fulfilling her destiny as a “psychopomp” — a person who bridges this life to the afterlife for others. He says, “you need to be writing about death, communicating about death, helping people to understand death.”

What makes Bidwell Smith so appealing and so credible are the doubts that she articulates throughout her narrative. At one point, in a session with a past-life regressionist, she makes up a previous life to satisfy him. However, later in the hour she has an intense vision of a grieving young mother that relates to her own experience of loss. While this sort of honesty — along with her skills as a writer — opens up the book for even the skeptical, Bidwell Smith is not on a mission to win over acolytes. She simply offers her explorations — most of them deepening her knowledge of and connection to the afterlife — as guideposts to this curious world of spirits. One of the more remarkable accounts of reaching across the divide between life and death happens during her visit to two shamans in Bozeman, Montana. She reports that she is able to let her mind grow so relaxed that she can “open up to the various images and stories that flow forth,” including her spirit guide, a big brown bear that brings her to a one-room stone cottage. Curled up in a corner is a girl, transparent and gray, whom Bidwell Smith discovers is a piece of her own soul that accompanied her mother to the afterlife. 

She continues to access the dead on a visit to Cassadaga, a community of “Spiritualist” mediums in central Florida founded in 1894. Founded in the 19th century, “Spiritualism,” writes Bidwell Smith, “holds the belief that the soul continues to exist after it leaves the physical body, and that after death, the soul continues to grow and evolve.” Though the contemporary setting is beyond kitschy, and Bidwell Smith has reservations about the mediums who have set up shop there, she persists until she finds one who contacts her grandmother.

Although not wholly successful in calling up the dead, the meeting with the medium in Cassadaga does support a study that shows “a positive meeting with a psychic medium could have stronger healing effects on the grief process than traditional psychotherapy.” Dr. Julie Beischel conducted her research under the auspices of the Windbridge Institute, and her findings also point to the psychic capabilities of many mediums. After sitting through Beischel’s PowerPoint presentation, Bidwell Smith concludes:

The bottom line is that grief is a reflection of how much we love someone. I believe that trying to reconcile the loss of that person in our hearts and our day-to-day lives can feel impossible at times. And so finding ways, no matter how far-fetched, to feel connected to that person is the very thing that can enable us to move forward.

Bidwell Smith’s credibility is further bolstered when she demonstrates that not every attempt to communicate with the spirit world works. At a less than successful séance in her Los Angeles home, the Ouija board fails, and the spirits are fickle, refusing to communicate. With good cheer, Bidwell Smith and her companions decide to end the session with wine and cheese. But then a couple of participants feel an outside pressure to move the planchette. The group takes one more shot at the Ouija board, but again without concrete results.

Ultimately, Bidwell Smith mixes memoir with reportage to paint bustling, often wondrous pictures of posthumous worlds, and her ongoing inquiry as well as the various conclusions it generates feel plausible to me. She never uses the term “life after death.” Death is simply a different form of existence. As she sagely asserts:

The beliefs I once held about this life being all there is seem naive and unnecessarily restrictive. I’ve had enough experiences now to know that I don’t know. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I now firmly believe that this physical form is not the end.

In its essence, After This strikes me as Bidwell Smith’s secular version of a mourner’s prayer for her parents and friends. In many respects, it is also an extended prayer on behalf of the people she has counseled through the death of a loved one.

As for me, I continue to be intrigued by the lore and fantasy of the Kaddish, which says that reciting the prayer faithfully enables a loved one’s soul to reach heaven. I want to ask Suzane if my dad’s soul arrived safely, if my prayer helped. When she offers that my grandfather was the first to greet my father when he arrived on the other side, I am glad to hear it.


Judy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, O Magazine, Cognoscenti, and other venues.