KUOW journalist pens memoir on love, loss, and resilience
With nearly 600 thousand American lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people are trying to find a way to live with their grief as we emerge into a new landscape. For some of us, this grief is new. For others, it predates the pandemic.
Carol Smith is an editor at KUOW, and the author of the new memoir Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life. She shared her story with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Kim Malcolm: You lived with the grief of losing your son for quite some time before you decided to move ahead and write this book. What made you want to tell your story now?
Carol Smith: That's right. I lost my son, Christopher, when he was seven. That was more than 25 years ago. I think that at the time I was so searching for somebody to give me a bit of a roadmap about what might lie ahead. I was looking for somebody who could talk to the way grief plays out over time in your life. I ended up writing this book as somebody looking back and knowing how grief, at least in my life, had played out.
You wrote the book you were looking for?
Yes, I wrote the book that I was, in some sense, looking for earlier on. I mean, early on people said ‘Your life as you know it is over,’ but what I heard from that was ‘Your life is over.’ I needed to know that wasn't true, and I needed to know what it might look like. It will be different for every person, but as we all know, life does proceed. You have to figure out how you're going to go forward.
If I can start here, can you tell us about Christopher?
I would love to. He was just a joyful, funny, energetic kid. He loved life, and he was a kid who made others look at life a little bit differently. He spent a lot of his time in hospitals. He was born with some health challenges. He was also deaf, so we had communication challenges, at least in the beginning, as I learned how to sign.
He loved trains and T-ball. He loved watching videos. He adored going to school, I think because he had spent so much time in hospitals. Being able to do regular kid things was a huge thrill for him.
I mentioned he was deaf. That was a special bond we had because we really had to learn a language together. That changed how I viewed language, something I had always taken for granted until I didn't have it.
Not having the words to describe what I needed to for him, and then later not having the words to describe my grief, were things that really informed the writing of the memoir.
You and your family lost him quite suddenly. You write very poignantly about that time. Then, later on, you also talk about how your loss seemed to be compounded by this fear you had about losing your memories of him. Can you talk about how those two things are interrelated?
For me, especially early on, and working as a journalist, the way I was coping was to try not to think about him, because when I did think about him it was an overwhelming sense of pain. I would sort of stuff all of that down, but what happened over time is it got so deep that I couldn't recall things very easily.
At some point, I was afraid that I was losing him all over in a different way. In writing the book, one of the most rewarding things about it is was really going back and immersing myself in that part of my life and rediscovering a lot of those memories. It was pretty wonderful.
I've heard you say that you have this old grief, the death of Christopher, and new grief as well. Your mother passed away earlier this year. What would you say to someone who lost someone in this past year or recent past?
I think the main thing is to be patient with yourself. It is going to take time to figure out what will be hard for you, what will be comforting for you, how you're going to make sense or meaning of the things that are happening. All of that takes time.
I think one of the things I learned early on is that it's important to let yourself feel the hard things, and to know that you can survive them, that the pain won't kill you, but maybe not feeling the pain will interfere with your living. It's letting yourself feel the hard feelings, even if it's just a little bit at a time.
I really do believe our bodies only let us feel as much pain as we can tolerate at any one time, and it, in most cases, will start to pass. Then you will be in a slightly different place with your grieving. You will get back to that painful place, but you will also go forward. That’s been my experience.
People struggle with what to say to someone who's grieving. What are some of the better things someone can say or do for someone who's lost somebody?
I struggle with what to say to people when I know they've lost someone. At the end of the day, what was always most helpful for me is just the simple ‘I'm so sorry.’
It seems so inadequate, though.
I know. I think another thing that you can say in conjunction with that is that 'I'm here if you want to talk, and I'll be here if you don't want to talk, that's okay.' And just to signal to people that you are going to be able to be present with them while they're struggling and in pain, and that you're not just going to flee the scene or, or ghost them.
I think that's a very natural human tendency, to distance yourself from people who are in pain, but if you take the time to signal to someone that you are going to be there for them, that can go a really long way to being comforting.
Experiencing grief and talking about it in public has to be one of the more deeply rooted taboos that I can think of. Do you think the pandemic, this collective experience we've been through, is going to change it all?
I hope so. It is really true that everybody lost something or someone in the pandemic. I hope that as a result of the pandemic, there's more conversation around grief and loss. There is definitely a taboo around talking about losing a child. I think it's because it strikes such a nerve for people. It's so many parents' worst nightmare.
For a long time, I wouldn't talk about it because I was afraid of making people uncomfortable, or I could see them backpedaling really quickly, wishing they hadn't asked if I had kids. But it is really important to talk about grief and loss. That's how we come to understand more about each other, and what each of us is going through.
How is it now, talking about Christopher?
I was really, really nervous about talking about him, and it's turned into such a really wonderful, beautiful thing. I have people that I don't even know who talk about how Christopher's life has affected them, and made them smile, and maybe left them with a little different outlook on their own situations. That's been really rewarding.
I say this in the book, but it's almost like I found him again. I lost him twice. I lost him when he died. I lost him when I buried his memory so deep it was hard to recall him, and I found him again. Now I feel like other people are finding him, and that's been wonderful.
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