This is an excerpt from Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life, a Memoir (Abrams Press, 2021), by Carol Smith.
This is a book about trauma and grief. But it’s also a book about love, about living, about persistence and joy. It’s about reinventing, finding purpose, and discovering strength you didn’t know you had until you were called upon to use it.
Every one of us fears there is something we could not survive. For me, it was the death of my only child when he was seven years old. He died suddenly, during what was shaping up to be the best year of his life. A kidney transplant had given him a second start on a healthy childhood.
That dream ended when, without warning, he collapsed in cardiac arrest at his grandparents’ house. I was not with him when he died. After his death, I woke in shock to an utterly changed world, one I no longer had a map to navigate.
In a similar way, the coronavirus pandemic has forced so many of us into unfamiliar territory. And its signature wound is that people die alone without their loved ones near, the very thought of which still brings me to my knees.
The feelings in those early days of the pandemic, the way time blurred, 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.
So, too, does the panicky sense that we don’t know yet what we’ve lost, only that it’s something we didn’t know how much we’d miss. Or the sense of foreboding that even if something awful hasn’t happened yet, it will soon—what I heard one person call “the grief before the grief.” And there is this, too: the grief after the grief, the way one trauma calls back another in the echo chamber of the heart.
Hope Can be Learned
People can’t give you hope, can’t dispense it on an as-needed basis like a prescription. But I believe hope can be learned, and it’s learned through the experience of others. It happens through our shared stories. After my son died, I needed hope. I found it through reporting the stories of others who had faced down hard circumstances of their own. These were stories of survival and transformation, of people confronting devastating situations that changed them in unexpected ways.
I learned how to live after loss from their stories. Many more of us are facing unimaginable losses in the long tail of the COVID-19 crisis. I hope these stories will provide as much courage and insight for others as they did for me.
Read more from Carol Smith: How Child-Loss Feels: A ‘Fugue of Grief’ – Open to Hope