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The Rules of Inheritance Reader’s Guide

By Claire Bidwell Smith

The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith


Questions and Topics for Discussion

A resonant memoir of the ways untimely good–byes echo through the years by a writer who has considered every nuance of grief.

At age fourteen, Claire Bidwell Smith–an only child– learned that both of her parents had cancer. The fear of becoming a family of one before she came of age compels Claire to make a series of fraught choices, set against the glittering backdrop of New York and Los Angeles–and the pall of regret. When the inevitable happens, and Claire is alone in the world, she is inconsolable at the revelation that suddenly she is no one’s special person. It is only when Claire eventually falls in love, marries, and becomes a mother that she emerges from the fog of grief.

Defying a conventional framework, this story is told using the five stages of grief as a window into Smith’s experience. As in the very best memoirs, the author’s powerful and exquisite writing renders personal events into universal experience.


Claire Bidwell Smith is a Los Angeles—based writer and editor. She writes for The Huffington Post, Blackbook, Yoga Journal, Chicago Public Radio, and the award–winning blog

Was writing this book in some respects part of your grieving process? Was it difficult to relive, and to put into writing, moments where you made choices you might now wish you hadn’t?

Writing this book was definitely a step in my grieving process. Before this version I wrote two other versions which were, in fact, much more a part of the grieving process. I worked out a lot of feelings and emotions in those drafts, and writing them helped me achieve the perspective I was able to have in this version. At times it was very challenging to relive some of the moments in my life that I wrote about. I found myself crying in coffee shops a lot! I don’t really have many regrets about the decisions I’ve made in my life. I feel that I’ve really come to terms with how and why I made those decisions and have been able to forgive myself for a lot of the sad moments.

You’re a mother yourself now. Has motherhood changed the way you think about your own mother? Your father? Are there any aspects of parenthood in particular you think you might have approached differently had you not lost your own parents at such a young age?

Becoming a mother changed everything I thought I knew about my parents. The act of becoming a parent myself both sharpened the pain of losing my own parents and also softened it. In some ways it has been more painful to realize exactly how much I lost, now that I know how much I love and give to my daughter. But at the same time, I’ve been given back my parents. I hear them every day in my voice and actions as I interact with my child, and I catch constant glimpses of what my early years with my parents must have been like. Over all, it’s been incredibly healing to become a mother. Because of the loss of my parents I am very present to the time I have with my daughter and husband, and for that, I am grateful.

What made you decide to structure this book nonlinearly?

I wanted to write a book about loss and grief that would be helpful to others who were experiencing something similar. In my line of work as a therapist, clients often approach me about the five stages. They have a lot of questions and concerns about how they are working through them. I wanted to illustrate exactly how fluid the five stages of grief are. They are meant as guides, not laws. A grieving person may experience all the stages, or just one. The feelings and emotions may not arrive in an orderly fashion, yet so many times people are thrown off by this. I thought that by using my own experience as an example it would be the most effective way for people to realize that there is no right way to grieve.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a book about the afterlife. I’m on a personal exploration to figure out what I believe happens next. From psychic mediums and rabbis to past–life therapists and near–death survivors, I am delving heavily into the realm of the other side. It’s fascinating so far!

  • This memoir is divided into five parts, each part structured around one of Elizabeth Kübler–Ross’s five stages of grief. What does this framing lend to the narrative?

  • In the passage where Claire and Michel are discussing his father and her mother, the author says: “But the thing I do not realize is that, no matter how I feel in this moment, I do not really think my mother will die.” Can you identify with this kind of denial? How do you think this affects Claire’s actions over the coming weeks?

  • When Claire describes her longing for Christopher, she says, “ I don’t even know why I want him so badly. Because I’m lonely? Because my mother is dying and touching boys feels like the opposite of that?” Why do you think she wants him so badly? Is it simply a distraction for her, or is it something more?

  • Claire dates Colin for a long time after her mother’s death. How did the course of their relationship change in tandem with Claire’s grief? Do you believe that they helped each other heal from their losses in some respects?

  • How do the three chapters that make up “Part 1: Denial” mesh with the epigraph for that part? Do you see a common thread running throughout these chapters? What about for the other four parts and their chapters?

  • The author remarks on “the power people have to unlock each other” more than once. Are there other examples of this in the memoir aside from the ones the she specifically notes? Have you ever had a similar experience?

  • In a passage where the author describes her her grief, “a giant, sad whale,” she writes: “Grief whispers in my ear that no one understands me.” Do you believe that it’s truly possible to understand another person’s grief? What techniques does the author use to illustrate her own grief, to draw the reader into it?

  • Consider the chapter where Claire travels to Malapascua. Do you understand her reasons for going there? In the moment, does she understand what it is that compels her to go there? What is it that finally stops her from diving with the thresher sharks?

  • More than once, the author notes that “we always have choices.” The idea of choice –– and whether we have it or not –– is a recurring theme in this memoir. What do you think its significance is to the book as a whole?

  • How does Claire’s relationship with her father change after her mother’s death? At one point she says that, had her mother not died, she never would have gotten to really know her father. How is her father’s death different from her mother’s death to her?

  • Consider Claire’s reaction to the news that she is pregnant with her daughter, Veronica, and also to the news of her cyst. Can you understand why she feels so sure that everything will go wrong? She says “everything I’ve done in the last few years, all the work I’ve done to find peace and stability and hope, is crashing to pieces around me. I’m shocked by how easily I am being demolished by this.” Why do you think this moment is so difficult for her?

  • The chapter where Claire goes to Chicago to meet Greg closes with a passage from the journal Claire’s mother left for her: “Find yourself and you’ll find your other self.” Do you agree? How does this resonate with part five’s overarching theme of acceptance? Do you believe that Claire has found herself?

  • Discuss the honesty of this memoir. Claire’s mother writes to her: “Get to know yourself deep, deep down, where no one knows you.” Do you think the author has achieved this kind of self–knowledge? Would it be possible to write a truly honest memoir without knowing yourself deeply?
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