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April 25, 2012

Claire Bidwell Smith On Choosing a Non-Linear Structure for Her Memoir

Posted by tbrmaureen

By the age of 25, Claire Bidwell Smith had lost both of her parents to cancer. In her recently published memoir, THE RULES OF INHERITANCE, Bidwell Smith shares her harrowing experiences, breaking the book down into the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Below she outlines her step-by-step process for how and why she chose to do this. 

Originally I intended THE RULES OF INHERITANCE to be more of an instructional book about how to move through the grief journey. I’d been working in hospice as a bereavement counselor for four years when I decided to write this book, and the most common thing I encountered during my tenure was confusion over Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

I thought it might be helpful if I broke the stages down to show how fluid and dynamic they really are. When I began to do this though, I realized that the best way to illustrate this concept might be if I used my own story as an example. My parents were both diagnosed with cancer within months of each other when I was fourteen. My mother died when I was 18 and my father when I was 25.

The years leading up to, and following, both of their deaths were terribly lonely and confusing. I didn’t know anyone my age who had been through anything similar and I had no guideposts to help me find relief from all the grief I was experiencing. It took me many years to figure it out on my own.

When I did, I realized I had a lot to share with others who were traversing a similar journey, and I sat down to write this book. I broke my story down into Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, as outlined in her book ON GRIEF & GRIEVING, and I began to earnestly examine my own path along these concepts. In the first section of Denial, I revisited my mother’s death when I was 18 followed by the dual cancer diagnosis my parents received when I was fourteen, and then the return of my father’s illness when I was twenty-five.

The rest of the book moves back and forth in time like this, revealing how the five stages of grief can come and go throughout the grieving process. One of the biggest misconceptions is that you need to move through them in perfect order, or that you have to experience the weight of each one equally. Some people may never experience all five stages, and even those who do will find that they come and go as needed to move through mourning.

As a writer, I found this structure to be particularly effective in writing a memoir. I think one of the struggles with narrative nonfiction and with memoir in particular, is figuring out what to leave out of the story. So often superfluous information and events work their way into the story simply as a means of getting from point A to point B. Using the structure I did, I was able to avoid this conundrum completely, the end result being a distillation of what was most important to the arc of the story.

Also in the end, I believe I was able to effectively demonstrate the message that there is no right way to grieve. There is no perfect formula or magic recipe for complete healing. No matter how universal the act of losing someone may be, we all have to create our own path to the other side of grief.