Everyone deals with grief in their own way. Helen Macdonald found solace in training a wild goshawk. Cheryl Strayed found strength in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. For Carol Smith, a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist struggling with the sudden death of her seven-year-old son, Christopher, the way to cross the river of sorrow was through work.
In Crossing the River, Smith recounts how she faced down her crippling loss through reporting a series of profiles of people coping with their own intense challenges, whether a life-altering accident, injury, or diagnosis. These were stories of survival and transformation, of people facing devastating situations that changed them in unexpected ways. Smith deftly mixes the stories of these individuals and their families with her own account of how they helped her heal. General John Shalikashvili, once the most powerful member of the American military, taught Carol how to face fear with discipline and endurance. Seth, a young boy with a rare and incurable illness, shed light on the totality of her son’s experiences, and in turn helps readers see that the value of a life is not measured in days.
Crossing the River is a beautiful and profoundly moving book, an unforgettable journey through grief toward hope, and a valuable, illuminating read for anyone coping with loss.
Lara Lillibridge: I was just looking over my file of quotes from your book, and your writing is, just so beautiful—so heartbreaking and beautiful.
Carol Smith: Thank you, I really appreciate that.
LL: It’s interesting to me because you are a journalist, right? And I don’t think of journalists as giving in to poetic language. And yet your book is so incredibly rich with lyrical sentences.
What is your story as a writer?
CS: I owe that to my mom, I think. She encouraged all our reading growing up, especially poetry. And I also got it from my dad, who was a scientist. A lot of what I learned from him later became this descriptive and metaphoric vocabulary I could draw from. A way of looking at the world and being able to draw connections through language.
I didn’t come to journalism through a traditional path—I was a student of the sciences. And so I didn’t have that sort of journalism voice instilled in me. I had to come to that voice organically. And then I came to this voice—the voice in the memoir—organically as well. It was hard, in the beginning, to be the subject of my own writing. When you’re reporting, you keep a certain detachment. I had to close that narrative distance to write about myself. I remember a conversation I had with someone really early on where it became clear to me that in my earliest drafts, I was leaving myself out of the memoir. So, the trick was learning how to put myself in there. How to be vulnerable on the page.
LL: You wrote,
I had to take this journey through stories, had to report out my own life by interviewing people who were going through something hard of their own. Their stories let me put my experience into words, the words I couldn’t find in the beginning.
When did you decide to write this book? Did you always know the form it would take? Meaning, did you start out with the first draft knowing you wanted to intertwine these stories? Or how did it evolve?
CS: I knew I wanted to write something not long after my son died, and I think a lot of people who are newly bereaved feel that—feel very compelled to write something right away. It’s partly the impulse to want to memorialize the person you loved. I remember about a year or two after he died, I took what I’d written in my journal and pulled together what I thought could be the start of a book. And I remember back then, an agent telling me that there was just too much pain in there, that I didn’t have enough distance, there was too much raw, undistilled pain for readers to be able to absorb this experience. She told me to just keep going and to collect my writing in a big box and look at it again in a few years. She told me I would know when I was ready to write the book.
That turned out to be really great advice. It ended up that it took more than 20 years for me to have the distance to write this book and also to understand how the experience of losing Christopher had played out in my life. That earliest writing was just about me and about Christopher. But as I moved forward as a working reporter, I gradually realized that my experience with Christopher was informing everything that I did. I realized, sometimes after the fact, that the stories I was most drawn to reporting —the ones I spent the most time on—were calling me because I had some kind of a question that I was trying to answer about moving through grief and rebuilding a life. How grief transforms you. And that realization became the spine of the book.
LL: And that ties into my question of how you decided which stories to include.
CS: It’s interesting—that was both difficult and easy to do. At first, I approached it that way—asking myself how am I going to choose? Almost as though I were putting together an anthology. I’d met a lot of people with really compelling stories over the years. Stories of strength and hope and survival. But as I sifted through them, I kept coming back to the same ones—the ones that are now in the book—and I realized that there had been something specific I needed to know when I was reporting each of these stories. And it was that question that I had to unearth for myself. Those ended up being the ones I included. So in a way, they chose me.
LL: Something that surprised me was how embedded you were in the lives of the people you interviewed—much more than a single conversation. Is that normal?
CS: It’s not normal. I think they were surprised, too. I mean, most of the time, especially as a newspaper writer, you’re in and out of people’s lives, and you’re doing things that are fairly quick-turn. Then you’re on to the next one. But as a reader, I was always drawn to longer, narrative features. I wanted to spend time with the characters in a story and move with them through something that was happening. To experience with them how their world or their views had changed. So that’s what I aspired to for my own writing. Not every story lent itself to that kind of narrative approach. But when there was one that did, I would pitch them that way. I’d have a sense of how long I’d want to spend with the stories, then I’d have to convince my editors it was worth doing.
Like with the Seth story, I knew right from the very beginning that I wanted that to be a Year in the Life kind of a story. But I also knew I couldn’t just, like, not do anything but that story during that time. I was a daily reporter, so I would have to sort of weave the reporting of these stories in and out of my other responsibilities. And then as I did more of them over the over the years, I got a reputation for delivering on those kinds of stories. So my editors were more inclined to let me do them and do that kind of documentary-style reporting.
CS: Yeah, I felt extremely fortunate. I had very supportive editors.
LL: And how sad is it that that isn’t how newspapers work anymore?
CS: It’s very hard to find that now. So many papers have closed, including my own, or cut their staffs way back. But obviously, a lot of long form has gone online—there’s wonderful long form out there. It still exists, just not so much in the newsroom.
LL: So the story of your grandmother was very different to me. First of all, it’s personal to you. But it’s not so much about adapting or accepting, as much as it was about telling the untold story, gathering memories while there was still a chance for not just her, but really a generation of women that had gone unrecorded.
And it was, I thought, really important and really shocking—like, I really don’t always understand just how sexist the world used to be. But it was also really inspiring. I liked the description you had of Titanic meets Saving Private Ryan. But it is I think, very different from the other stories. How did you decide to include that one?
CS: That was a really interesting, compelling one for me to do. And I felt really lucky that I was able to do that before she passed away when she was 105 years old.
CS: Yes, we were lucky to have her so long. I think it became really clear to me as I was writing the book, that this book is a meta story about the power of sharing our stories. And for me, hers embodies that. It’s so hard for so many people under vastly different kinds of circumstances to tell their truth—tell their story. That was true for my grandmother, who didn’t talk about hers until she was in her 90s. I knew I wanted to share it. And that story, more than almost any other I did as a reporter, just struck this nerve for readers.
She and I got so much mail—back in the days when people sent mail—from people who connected with it, for whom it unleashed their own experiences. They were talking about their own stories and wanting to share and tell me about their mother or grandparent or their father who was in the war. So that was really touching.
And for me, personally, my grandmother had always been somebody I looked to as a model of resilience and strength, and someone who had taken that kind of early exposure to trauma and gone on to lead a very wonderful and pragmatic life and do interesting things and break out of the mold of what was expected of her. She was a very formative figure in my life.
So, I felt that not only did telling her story represent the overarching theme of the book, but it was a way of honoring her as well. I thought about writing her story as its own book. That was one of the earlier things that I was looking at.
LL: I was just going to ask you that!
CS: Yeah, I’ve actually sometimes thought about doing it as a young adult novel. Who knows? We’ll see.
LL: You have a quote, “In Khmer language, the term for giving birth—chhlong tonle—means ‘to cross the river.’” Can you speak about that, and the title of the book?
CS: After the paper closed, I would haul myself up to the local coffee shop, and I’d sit there for hours. And I’d be writing my own things and reading and one of the things I really loved doing was getting a physical copy of The New York Times, especially on Sundays, and I’d read it front to back. And I think it was in a Sunday story in the New York Times. It made a reference to this phrase: chhlong tonle—that means giving birth, but in translation means ‘to cross the river.’
I think I literally jumped out of my chair and had to walk around with that nervous energy you get when something really strikes a chord for you. And I realized that, in the context of losing a child, it in a sense conveyed something I’d been trying to find words to express for years. I mean, giving birth is a dangerous thing for any mother in the same way crossing a river is. There are dangerous currents. There are hidden rocks. There’s always a possibility that you won’t make it to the other side. And if it’s a first child, you’re also entering an unknown world. You don’t know what you’ll encounter on the other side. But that’s also exactly what losing a child was like for me.
The river was a metaphor for that boundary between two worlds. And when you cross the river, you’re in an utterly different and changed place. When you give birth to a child—you are in a very different, strange land where you’re having to figure everything out for the first time.
And there’s that idea of passage, that it could go both ways. With the death of a child, you’re also suddenly in an utterly changed place and having to figure out how you’re going to navigate. And so that image of a river runs through the book, and it’s because of this boundary and this idea of crossing and trying to cross safely from one world to another. Does that make sense?
LL: Perfectly. You know, when you talk about unnavigated territory, you wrote,
I was Christopher’s mother and always would be. That was who I was in the world. Becoming his mother had altered my state, and those changes hadn’t disappeared with his death.
And you wrote about how there’s no word similar to widow or orphan for a parent who’s lost a child. My sister lost her son a few years ago and she asked me, how do I answer the question of, ‘you how many kids do you have?’
Your book delves into that struggle for language. There was another line:
‘Loss’ is such a weak word, the soft sibilance of its final s’s vanishing wisp-like into the ether. Its definition is “a failure to hold,” as though loss were like letting go of a balloon, a gentle disappearance. But the word itself derives from the ancient root leu, meaning ‘to cut apart.’ This was what loss felt like to me. A butchering.
There’s just so much there to me that resonates. And then when you talk about signing with Christopher and not having the word and you came up with sun picture for shadow, which was so beautiful.
I don’t know what the question is, really, but I just sort of feel this theme of loss of language or being beyond language, or the need to find meaning in language that I’d love to discuss.
CS: I’m so glad that that hit you. And also I’m so sorry for the loss of your sister’s child. It’s really—I keep coming back to that word unspeakable, you know, and that’s kind of the essence of it. When you lose a child, you just don’t know what to say, or how to describe it.
For me, that idea of how to put this into language and into story was the heart of the book. I think everybody always imagines when they’re having a child, especially their first one, that they’re going to teach them how to talk, teach them to read. But Christopher, my son, was Deaf. And suddenly, I had to learn how to talk and read along with my child. And that changes the relationship, and it changes your own relationship to words. I loved learning sign, which is a beautiful, metaphorical language. A lot of signs are descriptive of the idea that they’re conveying. But it’s also a complex language and I never became as fluent as I hoped.
It was really challenging not to be able to specifically articulate what it was I needed to convey. I sort of joke in the book that I got fluent in all the things that a six year old wanted to know, like the names of dinosaurs and so forth. But any bigger concept, like why you shouldn’t get in a car with strangers, that was a struggle for me to communicate.
Of course, I had wonderful people in my life who were fluent signers—he had Deaf teachers and friends. I always had people to help me interpret. And in a way, that’s what these people in the book became—people who were helping me interpret what I was feeling by being able to observe them going through and feeling similar things. That idea of learning language together was really a key for the book—that idea of navigating the world and needing a new language.
Early on after my son died, people would ask me, ‘How are you doing?’ And I would say, ‘Fine,’ because I didn’t know what else to say, or more specifically, how else to say it. When you do talk about losing a child, people kind of back slowly away, because it’s such a taboo—it’s such a hard thing, it’s something nobody wants to face, and they don’t want anybody in their family to face it—so it’s like no one wants to curse themselves by even thinking about it.
So, what I would say is ‘fine.’ And I really wasn’t fine, and I also really did want people to know what I was going through, because for me, when I knew what someone else was going through, it helped me. It was actually a very humbling experience in the very beginning to discover how many people that I knew in my own circles, or people I worked with, had been through something like this, or had relatives who had, and they had never talked about it. I think a lot of people don’t talk about it.
LL: I remember being awake one night after I was divorced and just looking out the window, thinking that this whole city is filled with other adults looking out their windows trying to hold it all together—feeling hurt and alone. I don’t mean that in a depressing way, rather I felt comfort to think that a lot of us are struggling to just get by right now.
CS: Exactly. Yeah, it’s true.
LL: And you wrote,
The stories weren’t depressing to me. They were testaments to the enormous transformative power of loss. The people who shared their lives with me showed me that. Their experiences had changed them, and in turn changed me. They taught me empathy. They taught me courage. They taught me humility. They saved me
And, you know, that’s, that’s the other side to just saying, “I’m fine.” To take that risk, maybe they’ll back away, and maybe you’re just what they need to hear.
CS: I appreciate you connecting with that.
LL: l connected with so much in your book. On another topic, but on that theme of connections, you wrote:
The feelings in those early days of the pandemic, the way time blurs, the obsessive search for any bit of news that might change the outcome, the sinking realization that control had slipped from our grasp, the sense of dislocation, the daily struggle to breathe—all these perfectly mirror feelings of grief.
And I’ve been actually reading about how as a society we’ve collectively gone through a traumatic experience and that we have trauma from the pandemic, so I was really fascinated to find that in your book, which was written obviously, before the article I read came out. Can you speak more about that, and that connection to the present moment?
CS: Yeah, it was really startling. During the pandemic, I talked to a lot of people who had had previous traumas of various kinds in their life. And the pandemic just, I think, triggered a lot of various levels of PTSD for people because you suddenly were feeling exactly the way you felt back then, where all of a sudden, you’d lost control. You’re wondering what happened to my life? Where did it go? You’re bracing yourself for the worst possible outcome. Or, you know, in some cases, that outcome happened. And there were a lot of parallels to the physical experience of those early days of the pandemic.
Everyone experienced some kind of loss—everything from loss of routine, or contact with people, all the way up to the deaths of loved ones. It shook everyone in some way, I think. And the body reacts physiologically to trauma in very specific ways—releasing stress hormones and other kind of havoc—and it doesn’t always differentiate between when the trauma occurred, or what the nature of the trauma was. It’s interesting, because I was just reading a story about how trauma mimics a brain injury in how it disrupts your ability to process information and focus and remember things.
And it’s true. When you’ve had a traumatic loss, you’ll suddenly get lost when you’re driving, or you can’t find the words, or you sort of forget where you are in time. There’s something about the way that our brain processes those big disruptions that kind of dislocates us. It feels like floating in a state of – disorientation, I guess, is the word I’m looking for. I mean, I was feeling it. And, you know, also you cry at the drop of a hat. Like, you look outside your window and a bird flies by and you start to cry. For me, it was all those commercials about essential workers—I would cry every time.
CS: You’re just feeling all your emotions right there at the surface, right under your skin and you just feel super sensitive, like anything can touch a nerve.
LL: Well, thank you for saying that. Because, you know, it’s makes me feel better about myself and my own response.
CS: All of us, especially women, pride ourselves on always coping and always getting through and we pull ourselves together and do what needs to be done. And so when something happens that kind of shakes your faith and makes you feel really vulnerable—I guess that’s what it did. At the end of the day, we just all felt so vulnerable at the beginning of the pandemic.
LL: And there’s that moment of feeling like the world as I know it is no longer going to be the same.
CS: Yes, and you don’t know what it’s going be, it’s like you’re falling off a cliff and you just don’t know if you’re going to land right.
LL: Yeah. So, let me go back. You wrote, “what sustains us and what endures are our stories.” And, you mentioned the book The Little Prince several times. What other books have been influential in your life?
CS: I love to read memoir. I read a lot of memoir and grief memoir in particular. I loved all the big ones: Wild and H is for Hawk and The Year of Magical Thinking but there are a lot of others that are less well known, like Sarah Manguso has a beautiful book called Two Kinds of Decay, about living with a chronic illness. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is about a French magazine editor who had a rare kind of stroke. He could think—his brain functioned perfectly fine, but he was paralyzed and couldn’t speak. So he wrote this entire book by blinking his eyelid. And it’s beautiful prose. I mean, speaking of lyrical prose, it’s just a beautiful book. And it’s just kind of amazing to think how he was able to express that.
I love Terry Tempest Williams—I love all her stuff. When Women Were Birds and Refuge, both beautiful books about grief in the natural world, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water was just amazing. It was one of the first and best things that I read about what losing a child really feels like. I’m interested in how grief informs and transforms people. That’s the reason I keep being drawn to those sorts of books.
LL: Oh, that’s interesting. Another line that I keep returning to is,
Pain, she told me, is what makes us wise. I didn’t believe her then. Pain was something I was doing my best to run away from.
I think running from pain is completely natural—I think our instinct is to run away. And can you expand on this idea that pain has something to offer us or is something that we have to face.
CS: I think so many people have said this—that you can’t avoid pain, you have to go through it. But it’s something you also have to learn for yourself. At least I did. And, again, there’s this idea of passage—that you have to go from one place to another, and it’s going to be dangerous and hard, but you will get to another place.
There are a lot of different kinds of pain in the book. One of the things I write about is how I spent so many years trying to kind of tamp down my memories of Christopher. I was afraid that if I thought about him too much, the pain would be too great and I would stop functioning altogether.
I was trying to rebuild a new life. And so I suppressed all of that. But that created another kind of pain, which was, oh my God, I’m forgetting him. And that was worse.
I didn’t want to forget the stories of the things that happened to us. And I didn’t want to forget the way he smelled, I didn’t want to forget the way he sounded. Even though he was Deaf, he vocalized a lot—he was a very excited and animated little boy. So writing the book, for me was a way of reclaiming those memories and kind of writing them back into the world and back into my present mind. And that ended up being a really good thing. So I had to experience both of those kinds of pain in order to get to that place where I was comfortable with it again.
LL: I love that line, that you had to write him back into the world.
I think writing a book for me changed me in a way I didn’t expect. Do you feel that you have a different perspective or became a different person?
CS: Well, and I think you alluded to it in that line you read earlier, but I do think it’s made me more empathetic, it’s made me feel more connected to people—it’s given me an ability to connect with people whose experiences are different, really different than mine, and see the commonality of it. It was really just the whole process of coming to terms with his loss that built that muscle for me—that ability to understand at a different level what people are going through.
And the other change, I think, is that I’m not afraid to think about Christopher anymore. I’m not afraid to talk about him. Although I did have an experience—the very first time I read the prologue of this book was at a reading in New York last year. And I thought I was fine, because that was one of the earliest pieces of writing in the book. And I’ve seen those words a million times, so I didn’t expect to have any emotional reaction, and I got up there and the lights went down. And I said, the first sentence, I started to cry. I couldn’t recover. And I’m like, ugly crying tears. But the audience was wonderful. They just held me up and made me keep going. I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t finish,’ and they made me finish and it was really wonderful.
Right as I got off the little dais and was walking back to my seat an older woman in the audience stood up and hugged me. And she said, ‘Christopher’s in all our hearts now.’
And so it was all worth it, the public humiliation of ugly crying and all that. It was just such a beautiful moment. And I didn’t ask—I didn’t have an opportunity to find out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had had that experience somewhere in her family. So that ability to connect to the hearts of other people has been really a gift.
LL: Now I’m crying. (Pauses for water.) Okay.
In the acknowledgments you mentioned HippoCamp:A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, and you said that Lancaster was your book’s birthplace in some ways. Can you talk about that?
CS: I’m glad you asked that. In 2015 I won the Remember in November contest for an essay, “Object Lessons,” And Donna [Hippocampus founder] asked me to come read that at the conference in 2016. I remember how wonderful that was because I think it’s one of the first conferences I’ve ever been to that was all built around memoir. So many great sessions.
One of the things I heard said differently in various ways in various sessions was ‘write what you’re afraid of writing.’ And I knew at some level, I was afraid to write about Christopher. But I wasn’t sure if that was really what it was. And so I remember I was on a plane flying back to Seattle. And I just was free writing and I kept thinking, you know, what is it that I’m afraid of?
And then this phrase came to mind: that I’m a bad mother. At some level, every mother I think fears that they are failing, that they’re not good enough and that they’re always falling short of their own expectations and other people’s. On an intellectual level, I knew I wasn’t a bad mother, but there was something in me that was still afraid of that. And so I just was writing and all these secret fears came tumbling out. And then in the process, it kind of unblocked me.
So it was that little key or that cue to go to the place that you think you’re hiding from that helped me get started. Because it’s not really hidden. It’s motivating you at an unconscious level.
There’s actually a remnant of that writing—a passage that’s a remnant of that —that survived all the revisions.
And the other thing that happened at HippoCamp is it forced me to focus my vision for the book and how to pitch it. I had had the idea that I was going to weave my own story through the other people’s stories, but what I didn’t understand yet was what my journey was going to be in it, and I think that’s what crystallized for me at that conference.
I ended up doing a speed pitch session with some of the editors who attended, and I got nice response. They were like, I would read that. So I came away encouraged.
LL: Gotcha. So you sort of came with one idea, and it solidified it and refined it and maybe pushed it in a slightly different direction.
CS: Yes, exactly. Originally it was this idea that the story was really about the other people, and not about me, and flipping that script so that the story is really about me, and the other people are part of my story.
LL: I loved how, at the end of your book, you caught us up with all of the people mentioned. And I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t go into it. But as I was reading it, I was hoping you would connect us back and let us know what happened.
CS: It was really wonderful to reconnect. One of the gratifying things about reconnecting was that I was able to really share with them for the first time what it was that had motivated me to do their stories to begin with. And I think they all expressed back to me in some way that their interactions with me as I was doing the stories was also helpful for them, so that was good to know.
I think for both of us, reporter and subject, it was this whole idea of being able to step outside of yourself and kind of look at your experience a little bit from a distance. When a reporter or interviewer asks you about something, you’re forced to think about it and articulate it, sometimes in a different way than you usually do. And I think that’s part of how we process this kind of overwhelming experience—being able to take those little baby steps backwards and say, Okay, I got through that day, what does it mean? How am I going to get through the next day? And so, as I’m talking about how their stories had changed me, some of them shared ways in which it was helpful for them to have told their stories. So that was really nice. And it was really nice to see where their lives had taken them next.
LL: And in terms of moving on, what are you working on now? Are you taking a moment to pause and digest this book? Or do you have the next project planned?
CS: I’ve been working on a collection of essays about memory and identity. My mom had dementia. And actually, her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was one of the triggers for writing Crossing the River because she had been the holder and keeper of so many memories of him. When I realized that she was losing those memories, and I wasn’t going to be able to access them through her, I thought I better get what I can down on paper.
So along the way this existential kind of question came up for me, which is: who am I without my mother’s memory of me? The essays look at that. They’re linked and braided. They look at how we make memory and how we store it, how we keep it, how it changes our relationships to ourselves and to other people. So I’m really excited about that
LL: I’d love to read that! Well, thank you so much for talking to me.
CS: Well, thank you! This was really fun. Have a good day.
LL: You, too!
More about Carol: Carol Smith is an award-winning journalist and editor for NPR affiliate KUOW in Seattle. Previously she worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Los Angeles Times. Her newspaper work has won dozens of national and regional awards and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize seven times, and her writing has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals. Smith was recently named Editor of the Year by Public Media Journalists Association.