ó Claire Bidwell Smith has a lot of experience with
only child, she was 14 when both her parents were
diagnosed with cancer. She was a college freshman when
her mother died; her father died four years later. Her
first serious relationship was with a man falsely
accused of killing his sister. A close friend died at
life seemingly was surrounded by death, so itís not
surprising she became a grief counselor. But she also
became a writer. "The Rules of Inheritance"
(Penguin Group) is her memoir.
thought I was going to write a book about grief,"
Smith said from her home in Los Angeles shortly before
Christmas. "Then, the more I wrote, the more it was
about my own story. And I realized the best way for me
to share my thoughts about grief was to use my own story
as an example."
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously divided grief into five
stages ó denial, anger, bargaining, depression and
acceptance ó and Smith uses that concept to structure
her book. Jumping back and forth in place and time from
her childhood in Sandy Springs to college in Vermont to
waitress jobs in Manhattan to writing gigs in Los
Angeles, Smith struggles to come to terms with her loss.
Along the way, she engages in careless behavior that
becomes increasingly more reckless.
one point, while on a writing assignment, Smith travels
alone to a remote island in the Philippines to dive with
thresher sharks. During a moment of clarity, she
realizes her behavior is questionable. "I have no
idea what it is Iím trying to prove to myself with
this trip," she writes, "but Iím about to
find out." One of the problems, Smith said, is
thereís no road map for grieving.
year is nothing if youíve lost a parent or a spouse or
a child," she said. "It takes a long time to
heal after a loss like that. Death is hard to talk
about. Itís hard to face and itís scary and sad.
the other hand, if we woke up every morning thinking
about how weíre going to die, we couldnít face the
day. We need to find something in the middle.
Unfortunately, I think we lean toward thinking we should
get over it fast."
her careers as grief counselor and writer was a natural
fit, Smith said.
both involve storytelling and personal narrative,"
she said. "As a therapist, you help people figure
out their own personal narrative."
credits her English teacher at the Galloway School,
Pearl McHaney, now a literature professor at Georgia
State University, with helping her envision a future as
would always bring amazing writers into school and she
would introduce me as the school poet," Smith said.
"When I sold my book to Penguin and I called her to
tell her; it was one of the greatest moments of my
Strayedís "Wild," one of the biggest
literary breakouts of 2012, was also a memoir about
grief over the death of a parent. Dave Eggers launched
his career with "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering
Genius," a best-selling memoir about raising his
little brother after the death of his parents. Clearly,
the topic strikes a chord with readers. But that doesnít
think that narrative has always been appealing. My
daughter is 3 years old, and Iím always reading her
fairy tales and stories where there is a dead parent or
a missing parent. Itís incredible how many of them
there are," she said. "Thereís something
about losing that parent, that guidepost, that forces a
person to figure out who they are. To triumph from that,
to make it out of that is so challenging, and it can be
inspiring." Smith is at work on her second book,
also informed by death. Itís a spiritual memoir about
donít have a pre-existing belief system, and I have a
lot of anxiety about losing my daughters or them losing
me. So Iíve taken a Kabbalah class. Iíve seen a
bunch of psychic mediums. Iíve done some past life
regressions. And I just went to an afterlife awareness
conference in Arizona," Smith said. "Iím on
a quest to figure out what I believe happens next."