ATLANTA — Claire Bidwell Smith has experience with grief. An 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 age 22.
Her life seemingly was surrounded by death, so it’s not surprising she became a grief counselor. But she also became a writer. “The Rules of Inheritance” is her memoir.
“I thought I was going to write a book about grief,” she said. “Then ... I realized the best way for me to share my thoughts about grief was to use my own story.”
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously divided grief into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Smith uses that concept to structure her book. Smith struggles to come to terms with her loss. Along the way, she engages in careless behavior that becomes more reckless.
At one point, while on a writing assignment, Smith travels alone to a remote island in the Philippines to dive with thresher sharks. In a moment of clarity, she realizes her behavior is questionable. One of the problems, Smith said, is there’s no road map for grieving.
“A year is nothing if you’ve 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. It’s hard to face and it’s scary and sad.
“On the other hand, if we woke up every morning thinking about how we’re going to die, we couldn’t face the day. We need to find something in the middle. Unfortunately, I think we lean toward thinking we should get over it fast.”
Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” a best-seller, was a memoir about grief over the death of a parent. Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is about raising his brother after the death of his parents. Clearly, the topic attracts readers.
“There’s something about losing that parent, that guidepost, that forces a person to figure out who they are.”
Smith is at work on a spiritual memoir about the afterlife. “I don’t have a pre-existing belief system, and I have a lot of anxiety about losing my daughters or them losing me. So I’ve taken a Kabbalah class. I’ve seen a bunch of psychic mediums. I’ve done some past life regressions. And I just went to an afterlife awareness conference in Arizona,” Smith said. “I’m on a quest to figure out what I believe happens next.”