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Book Review: The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

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The Rules of Inheritance is a memoir of grief.

Claire Bidwell Smith found herself without family early in adult life. An only child of older parents, her mother died of colon cancer at 58 when Smith was 18, and her father followed seven years later, suffering from prostate cancer, when Smith was 25.

Just 14 when both her parents received their diagnoses in the span of a few months, Smith’s adult identity was formed amidst illness and death. So it is understandable that she became entangled in grief.

Smith’s grief drove her to drop out of college for a time and into a long-term relationship with an unstable boyfriend. She also drank heavily for many years, until a friend suggested she try AA. Although she did not join, she absorbed enough of the message to try quitting drinking for a while, and in that time, faced her pain. Now a married mother in her early 30s, Smith has found her calling as a hospice grief counselor.

Smith tells her story with unusual style. She uses no quotation marks around dialog, giving the book a free-flowing feel appropriate to memory. The structure is perhaps unique: instead of being a linear retelling, the narrative jumps around in time, always using the present tense, and is organized instead around Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Using this technique, Smith does not state explicitly but instead demonstrates the circular nature of grief. The stages don’t occur in order, and she revisits them until she finds a way to sit with her pain and then move on.

At times the skewing-nature of grief on Smith’s thought processes wears a little thin. The overall effect, however, is both absorbing and affecting. Now, after finishing, I still recall the plaintive sentences made completely of Smith’s longing for her mother: “Mom mom mom mom.”

I was puzzled by the title, because she does not dwell upon inheritance, either in the Mendelian or legal sense, at all. But then it struck me: what Smith inherited was grief. The rules of dealing with such a bequest are passing through the stages of grief and facing the pain or remaining stuck in its orbit.

Although Claire Bidwell Smith is still young, her memoir packs a lot of hurting and living and holds out the hope of healing. I am glad I had the chance to read it, and I’m confident Smith with achieve the goal she states for the book in her blog: that The Rules of Inheritance might help others dealing with grief feel a little less alone.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.