Claire Bidwell Smith buried both of her parents by the time she was 25.
At an age when most young adults celebrate newfound independence, Smith had it thrust upon her. She realized her parents would never see her fall in love or welcome her children into the world. She also understood that she could mold herself without the glare of her parents' spotlight.
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"Entering young adulthood without parents was a certain kind of journey that a lot of my peers weren't experiencing," she said. "In some ways it was freeing. While all my friends were worrying about post-college jobs and dealing with their parents and trying to push away from those ideals, I had all the freedom in the world to do and be whatever I wanted. I wasn't afraid to live a little bit of a less conventional life."
Smith describes that atypical life in her memoir, "The Rules of Inheritance," recently released in paperback. The book traces Smith's life from childhood to marriage to giving birth to her first daughter. She describes the grief she felt after the deaths of her parents: Her mother succumbed to colon cancer when she was 18; seven years later, her father died of prostate cancer.
The memoir comes in five parts, each corresponding to one of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Within each part, the story jumps backward and forward through time.
Sitting in The Grind, a Lincoln Square coffee shop where she wrote the majority of the book, Smith said the finished version came out of two failed drafts.
"I have been writing this book for a decade," she said. "The first two versions just weren't good. There was a lot of stuff in those drafts that people didn't need to read, but I needed to work out."
After the first draft, Smith waited, letting time and reflection heal wounds and provide insight and direction. In 2006, she began attending Antioch University Los Angeles and graduated with a master's degree in clinical psychology. She moved to Chicago to live with her husband after graduation and started working in a hospice. There she helped others slogging through bereavement and got the idea to use the five stages as the foundation on which to hang her story.
"I wanted to write a book that wasn't a clinical take on grief, but was a fresher look at Kübler-Ross' five stages," she said. "Everyone who came to me as a client had a lot of confusion over the stages. I wanted to show how fluid and how dynamic the stages are."
Smith achieves that in "The Rules of Inheritance." Her memoir reads like a diary, with detailed entries that illuminate her pain, struggle and acceptance. Short, staccato sentences move the reader forward. She explores death and dying and opens up about stumbling through youth without the mooring of parents. She discusses bad jobs and even worse boyfriends. And she touches on undergoing an abortion and dealing with an alcohol addiction.
Smith's frankness connects with readers.
"I felt inspired as a writer and also grateful as a reader that (Claire) shared her story," Julia Tuchman, a 45-year-old writer in Manhattan who has been dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome for more than 25 years, wrote in an email. "There is a healing in her story for anyone who deals with loss and I think the healing is recognition of grief and the love that can hold us up through what is the hardest of human emotions and experiences. ... She inspired me to write my own story in truth and from the depth of my being."
Shana Duncan, a 31-year-old marketing director, found the memoir helpful in dealing with her father's death.
"Claire's writing is particularly moving because, although there is a reflective maturity in her voice, the vulnerability of the young woman she was when she lost each of her parents leaps off the page," Duncan wrote in an email. "After all of the years that have passed since losing my father, reading Claire's book brought me back to myself as a lost 17-year-old, and reminded me of the great importance of sharing our experiences, so even one person feels less alone."
Smith is working on a new book about various cultural and religious beliefs about the afterlife. The idea sprung from her 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Veronica, who asked about Smith's parents. "I don't have any particular religious background and I don't know what to tell Veronica about where they are, so I am trying to find out."
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
"The Rules of Inheritance"
By Claire Bidwell Smith, Plume, 304 pages, $16Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times