Achingly beautiful.  Searingly raw.  The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith is terrifyingly honest.  It is like reading the journal of someone who has seen the nooks and crannies in life that we are all afraid of.  And lived to report back to us.  Claire draws back the curtains on a scenario that we all live in fear of.  Losing the ones you love, the ones you live for.

The Rules of Inheritance is a memoir.  It is an intimate look at the loneliness that grief ushers in, and in Claire’s case, the sheer terror of abandonment as she loses both of her parents at a very young age.

To be truthful, I wasn’t a huge fan of this story for the first 60 or so pages.  I found myself hating the young girl who couldn’t connect with her dying mother the way that I wanted her to.  I found myself silently yelling at the young Claire as she made choices that took her further and further away from the relationship that she wanted to have with the woman who was the most important to her.  But I realized that Claire wrote those early chapters that way on purpose.  As teenagers, we are disenfranchised.  We push away.  We fight against the very foundation that has helped us to grow.  We are angry, and afraid, and righteous.  It wasn’t Claire’s fault that her instinct was to push away, even as her mother’s life was ending.  Claire was 18.  It was supposed to happen that way.  Like teenage acne and binge drinking and sleeping with the wrong boys, the individuation process is a train that can’t always be stopped.  In those first chapters, Claire’s writing is detached.  It’s supposed to be.

The Rules of Inheritance is written through the lens of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief.  Claire alternates between past and present, drawing us in and allowing us to watch the trajectory of her life weave and bob, changed almost hourly by the looming presence of loss.  She describes grief as having an almost physical quality. “Grief and I are left alone a lot…grief holds my hand as I walk down the sidewalk…..grief whispers in my ear that no one understands me.”  As Claire describes her healing, she tells of lying in a hot bath, leaning backwards into the warm embrace of grief, then choosing to walk headfirst into her pain.  She embraces her memories, the hurtful ones, the ones that she is ashamed of.  It is in these final chapters that I found myself alternately cheering her on and wanting to hug her, and crying huge tears of pain.  I found myself drenched in the enormity of my own emotion as I plowed through page after page of Claire’s unfolding understanding of what grief had brought to her life.  It was in watching her journey unfold that I was gripped with the panic of impending loss.  It made me want to stop time and drink in every ounce of the people I love.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of Claire’s story is how she finds her way from realizing that “no one was ever going to save me”, to becoming her own “important person”.  Every one of us longs to have a spider web of support that invisibly holds them above their pain.  We all want to be someone’s important person.  As we struggle, that feeling gets buried by “The need, not just to be loved, but to be owned”.  What is the difference?  Each one makes you feel like you are whole, but not always healthy.  For Claire, her redemption of spirit happened as she sat with her father in his last months of life.  Bearing witness to his history, helping him to piece together the puzzle of his past, and holding his hand and loving him into his death, propelled Claire into the first steps of forgiving herself.  It is only by experiencing this ending that she is able to write, years later, “There’s another side to grief though, and I’m on it”.  It is a beginning.

The Rules of Inheritance is heartbreaking.  It is also necessary.  It is not often that you will read a book that propels you into the horizon of your own future.  This one does.  We are all born, and we will all die.  I know that someday I will be called on to sit by the side of my loved ones at the end of their lives.  I hope to God that it isn’t any time soon.  But Claire has reported back from the dark valley of grief, and her message is one of hope.  One of redemption.  One of love.  Claire’s memoir is not a story of death, but instead, of how to live.

{This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are my own.}


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