Death follows Claire Bidwell Smith around. So does her 3-year-old daughter, Jules. One asks Smith to bring a greater understanding of it into the world. The other asks her to wipe her bottom.
Together these two mysterious entities represent the grand duality of the existence that Smith tries to parse in her new book, "After This: When Life Is Over, Where Do We Go?" (Hudson Street Press, $25.95). Although Smith doesn't profess to know the answer to the question the title proposes, she is firm on one thing: You can't have the beautiful messiness of humanity without the promise of the unfathomable other side.
"I think there are as many ways to be dead as there are to be alive," says Smith, 36, sitting on the sofa in the breezy living room of her Santa Monica home while towheaded Jules plays on the carpet beside her. "I've come to understand that I'm having a very human experience, and it will not be my only experience. It's very humbling and comforting to me in some ways."
Smith lost her mother and father to cancer by the time she was 25 — something she documented in her 2012 memoir, "The Rules of Inheritance." Both were sick for years, and Smith spent high school in hospitals while her peers were chasing dates and going to the mall. One of her best friends died of leukemia when she was in college, and last summer another dear friend died of breast cancer.
Smith examines these staggering losses with the clarity of vision of one on a mission. Over the course of the five years it took Smith to write and research her new book, she dove into the hereafter in every way she could in order to honor those she lost and to find them again — in one way or another.
She saw mediums; tried past-life regression and astrology; went on a shamanic journey in Bozeman, Mont.; interviewed rabbis, priests and hospice workers; attended an afterlife conference; and traveled to the famous spiritual camp of Cassadaga in Florida.
She began her journey as a skeptic and ended it a believer.
"I'm obsessed with Gahl [Sasson, a past-life regressionist] and astrology," Smith jokes. "I'm such a California flake now. It's really embarrassing."
The previous night, she had spent the evening sitting around her dining room table talking spiritual shop with a medium named Fleur; Jonas Elrod, a filmmaker and host of a spiritual series called "In Deep Shift" on the Oprah Winfrey Network; and author Christa Parravani, whose memoir, "Her," examines the death of Parravani's twin sister.
"We're all tattooed and thirtysomething, and I'm a mom, and I spend half my time going to Target — but I'm really interested in the afterlife, and I believe in it," says Smith, who also works as a grief counselor with a private practice in Beverly Hills. "I do feel like I have a path and a calling. A lot of the mystical people I've seen have reiterated to me that this is my work." Those same people call her a psychopomp — someone who acts as a link between this world and the next for others.
"Right now I'm a bridge between all these gurus and religions and the layman," she says of her work writing the book, adding that she now hopes to open a center for death and dying. "I wanted to bring this stuff down to a certain level where you can take bits and pieces of it and explore it to decide" what's what.
Smith broke through her own sense of disbelief after seeing mediums who told her unknowable things about those she had lost. She then became convinced that those who have passed are still there in some way.
Before readers freak out, wondering just what exactly their loved ones have seen, Smith wants to make something clear: They're not watching you go to the bathroom.
People inevitably ask that question, or something like it, when she talks about her beliefs, and the answer is always no.
"They're not watching us because that's creepy," says Smith, laughing. "My sense is that the other realm is too hard for us to imagine because it doesn't use the same kind of time and space dimensions that we have here. We think about everything linearly, but I don't think it's like that. I think they're connected to us in a way that we can't perceive because we're having this really limited human experience."
As if on cue, Jules stands up on wobbly toddler legs and asks to whisper something in her mother's ear. She wants to make it clear that she is potty trained and now wears underwear instead of diapers. Not that anyone up there is watching.
Claire Bidwell Smith at Festival of Books
What: "Mortality: Death & Conversations About Life" panel
Where: USC, Norris Theater
When: 3 p.m. Sunday