It's somehow fitting that I've been reading Claire Bidwell Smith's The Rules of Inheritance for the past few weeks.
Last night I dove into the final chapters, my mind still swirling with sorrow and joy that lingered from a quick trip to Houston for my cousin's funeral. Sorrow for friends and family wrapped tight in grief for the recent loss of their loved ones, including a dear friend whose husband just died, and joy from time spent with my parents, sister, and cousins I rarely see.
I arrived home just in time to attend Ash Wednesday services, where Father Don reminded us of our mortality, of the importance of not squandering the gift of life we've been given, but to find a way to give back.
Through all of this, Smith's book was on my mind, because it deals with life and death and grief. Mostly her own grief. When Smith was fourteen, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Her mother died when Smith was eighteen and then, just seven years later, she watched her father take his last breath.
Smith takes us along on her heart-wrenching and courageously candid journey, but as tragic as it is, underneath is an unspoken glimmer of hope that kept me turning the pages. I knew she survived this dark passage of her life... I could tell that she was writing it from a patch of light that gave her strength to venture back in, in order to share her story with us.
But I couldn't imagine how she did it. I wanted to know. I needed to know.
How do you face the grief without letting it swallow you? How do you continue when you've lost your "most important person"?
I've felt grief and loss. Two sisters-in-law. My oldest brother. All of my grandparents. Aunts, uncles, cousins. Close friends.
But my parents and my husband's parents are all still alive... still voices on the other end of the phone... still just a hop in the car and a few hours' drive away. Except for my brother, we have all ten of our siblings. All of our children.
Mostly, we still have each other.
But life is so fragile. In little over a year, six of my friends have become widows. Several of my classmates from high school, former co-workers, and now my cousin have died in the past year as well, while others have lost their parents.
Smith was young when she lost her parents, but is there ever an age when you're prepared for that void in your life?
I feel blessed. Grateful. And lucky. But I also feel a twinge of guilt that makes me stumble over the right words. Smith says "If you haven't been through a major loss, then the truth is that you just don't know what to say to someone who has."
She talks about the friends that gathered around her in her father's last days. Just their physical presence, their touch, helped her get through it. I remember how much it meant to me when I looked up at my brother's funeral and spotted my girlfriends.
Even if I don't know what to say, I'll try harder to be physically present.
I also won't pass judgement. I won't tell anyone it's time to get on with their lives, but will try to just listen. "Our grief is as individual as our lives," Smith says.
Simone Weil said "All sins are attempts to fill voids."
Smith's reactions to her parents' illnesses and deaths certainly proves this to be true. She relates with raw honesty her futile attempts to fill the void. I'm amazed she not only survived, but managed to settle her father's estate, get her degree, and hold jobs while traveling the dark and gritty path of her teens and twenties.
I recommend this book to anyone who is actively grieving, but also to anyone who has struggled with depression, loneliness, bad relationships, trying to find the right path, or just trying to figure out who they really are. They'lll be able to identify with her story, too, whether or not they've suffered loss such as hers.
It's not until years later that Smith allows her grief to bubble to the surface or is able to recognize Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief in her dark journey.
Now a grief counselor, Smith used the stages of grief as the framework for her memoir. It isn't a linear story, but jumps from one episode in her life to another, back and forth, but told in the present tense, allowing us to experience the moment through her eyes.
Some of the episodes are repeated with slight differences; I didn't understand this until near the last chapter when she explains the stages are just a frame to work with. "You may never experience all of them. You may go through them out of order or sometimes find yourself in more than one of them at the same time."
Life and death go hand in hand. Personal loss is waiting for each of us around one of the corners, just ahead. I believe reading Smith's book will help anyone prepare for the inevitable grief that comes with life... and to believe that it's possible to eventually get to the other side of grief and continue on.
At the end of the book, Smith describes walking in on her husband and young daughter having a tea party. She wants to freeze that moment, but knows she can't. She knows time will pass, along with many others, that they'll all grow old and die.
But her father's words, spoken shortly before his last breath, resonate through her words. I know she believes them and I do, too:
"Life is worth living."
This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are totally my own.