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Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life, A Memoir

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A powerful exploration of grief following the death of the author's son that combines memoir, reportage, and lessons in how to heal 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 A powerful exploration of grief following the death of the author's son that combines memoir, reportage, and lessons in how to heal 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. This is a beautiful and profoundly moving book, an unforgettable journey through grief toward hope, and a valuable, illuminating read for anyone coping with loss.  


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A powerful exploration of grief following the death of the author's son that combines memoir, reportage, and lessons in how to heal 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 A powerful exploration of grief following the death of the author's son that combines memoir, reportage, and lessons in how to heal 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. This is a beautiful and profoundly moving book, an unforgettable journey through grief toward hope, and a valuable, illuminating read for anyone coping with loss.  

46 review for Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life, A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    I would read in the New York Times that in the Khmer language, the term for giving birth — chlong tonle — means “to cross the river”. The phrase startled me. I put the paper down, then picked it up and reread it. Exactly, I thought. This gave me a way to describe my life back then. Losing Christopher was like having to make the dangerous journey back across the river. Every day felt like drowning. There were times I wanted to yield to it, to go into the stillness below the rush of the current an I would read in the New York Times that in the Khmer language, the term for giving birth — chlong tonle — means “to cross the river”. The phrase startled me. I put the paper down, then picked it up and reread it. Exactly, I thought. This gave me a way to describe my life back then. Losing Christopher was like having to make the dangerous journey back across the river. Every day felt like drowning. There were times I wanted to yield to it, to go into the stillness below the rush of the current and watch the light fade from beneath the surface. Reporting stories like Seth’s became my lifeline. It kept me above the waves, kept me from giving in. These people I reported on were the ones who showed me the way back across the river. Crossing the River is a memoir of grief by Carol Smith (*not the same Carol Smith that Goodreads has identified as the author of this book*), who was blind-sided by the sudden death of her son when he was seven years old. Although born with health challenges (and declared by doctors at the time to be suffering conditions “incompatible with life”), Christopher defied the early odds and was growing into a sweet and capable little boy when his life was cut short. The grief that descended onto Smith was overwhelming and lasted for decades, but as an award-winning newspaper journalist who specialises in medical stories, she would eventually write about many people who were facing incredible health challenges that would show Smith a pathway for dealing with her own pain. This was a hard book to read (perhaps a harder book to rate), but I truly appreciate the honesty, humanity, and vulnerability that Smith displays here. Her voice is clear and engaging, and through the stories of the seven individuals about whom she writes, Smith eventually relates her own entire history — before and after her time with Christopher — and besides being a moving look into a difficult life, I can see how this might be a useful resource for others suffering debilitating loss. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.) There is something called complicated grief, or in clinical terms, persistent complex bereavement disorder. It’s when you cannot accept a death. When you cannot resume your own living after a “normal” period of sorrow. I don’t know whether a clinician would apply this term to me. I do know this. After Christopher’s death, I lived in fear. I was afraid of forgetting who Christopher was, of letting go of him. Afraid I had failed him in his life and death, that I hadn’t been there to say goodbye. I lived warily, avoiding entanglements of all kinds, especially relationships, especially children. I dissociated from my own life, living in an orbit that let me slide frictionless through my days, interacting only with my small circle of close friends, who were exceedingly patient with me. Carol Smith’s story of losing her son is profoundly moving and the stories she shares of seven of the people she profiled over the years (a burn victim, a double amputee, a boy with a terminal illness) each provided her with a lesson that she could apply to her own life (on resilience, gratitude, recognising that Christopher had made the most of the days he had been given). Smith obviously connected deeply with these people — she writes about continuing to visit with some of them long after their stories had been published in her newspaper — and her compassionate writing style brings all of these people to breathing life. If I had the smallest of complaints it would be the slightest sense that these people and their suffering were somehow intentionally put into Smith’s path in order to teach her these lessons. In the chapter on General John Shalikashvili (a United States Army general who served as Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1992 to 1993 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997) and the stroke that forced him to relearn basic functions, Smith writes: Strokes are one of the great levelers in life. A stroke strips you of control. It forces you to start over, relearn basic skills from how to chew and swallow to how to read, speak, and walk, depending on which area of the brain is damaged. Grief, in some sense, had done the same to me. Everything required deliberate effort. Eating, sleeping, getting up in the morning. Nothing was by rote. I moved in slow motion, executing the daily mechanics of life against the weight of water. Grief had knocked me off balance. Forced me to rewire, reexamine my relationships, reconsider my future. It had removed the illusion of control. But the nurse’s words to Shali were strangely hopeful to me. Only when the body understands, he’d said. Not if. Obviously, this is Smith’s memoir and it’s appropriate for her to relate everything she experiences back to herself but if these were my experiences, I wouldn’t want them treated as universal object lessons instead of something more deeply and uniquely personal (if that makes sense?) At any rate, Crossing the River is moving and thought-provoking, and ultimately, inspirational. I am grateful to Carol Smith for sharing Christopher with us.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Four and a half stars. Smith's debut is a powerful and unflinching look at loss, grieving, and finding life afterwards. It is not for the emotionally faint of heart; not only did Smith lose a young child but her subjects include a double amputee, burn victims, fellow bereaved parents, a stroke survivor, and more. Smith's own story is revealed slowly over the course of the book, and while I have read books by bereaved parents be I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Four and a half stars. Smith's debut is a powerful and unflinching look at loss, grieving, and finding life afterwards. It is not for the emotionally faint of heart; not only did Smith lose a young child but her subjects include a double amputee, burn victims, fellow bereaved parents, a stroke survivor, and more. Smith's own story is revealed slowly over the course of the book, and while I have read books by bereaved parents before, Smith's view is unique as her loss unfolds over decades - there was something particularly gutting about reading accounts of memorializing adult birthdays and events - such a crystal clear reminder of how losses like this live within us forever. Still, there is strength, there are moments of hope and optimism, and much inspiration to be found within this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Overmoyer

    "Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life" is a sort of memoir in the form of a collection of essays. If you are looking for something hopeful and uplifting, this is not the memoir for you. If you are looking for something heavy and oppressive, this is the memoir for you. And is that because, in a way, it's almost like a survival guide. Carol Smith lays out the tools she discovered amidst all the pain and grief, the tools that helped her get from one day to the next. Because, and I ag "Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life" is a sort of memoir in the form of a collection of essays. If you are looking for something hopeful and uplifting, this is not the memoir for you. If you are looking for something heavy and oppressive, this is the memoir for you. And is that because, in a way, it's almost like a survival guide. Carol Smith lays out the tools she discovered amidst all the pain and grief, the tools that helped her get from one day to the next. Because, and I agree with this thinking, sometimes it is all you can do. Ms. Smith immersed herself, as a newspaper journalist, in struggle and tragedy after the personal struggle and tragedy she had endured, and would never really not be enduring, that came with the severe illness and eventual death of her small son. Some people can't do that, some people can't read that. Some people need to put their grief There and move to Other Things. In a way, it seems like Ms. Smith needed her grief to be always right Here while she lost herself in stories cut through with undercurrents of grief and struggle, because in seeing others survive, shew as able to remind herself that she could do it too. None of the seven stories are easy to read, easy to digest and appreciate. But there is a raw beauty in the pain in them, and that's what makes tomorrow possible... the painful beauty that living can be. Publication Date: May 4, 2021 (Thanks to NetGalley and Abrams Press for the chance to read an early copy of this book. All thoughts are my own.)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Fiona

    This book was an exceptionally challenging book to read. Smith details her journey to coping with the passing of her child by throwing herself into work and telling the stories of others. She then turns those experiences into her book and each event/person helps her grow and cope with her loss. This book was exceptionally gut-wrenching and I found it difficult to get through. Whilst I appreciate writing as a process to cope with trauma, this book felt at times like a therapy journal or request f This book was an exceptionally challenging book to read. Smith details her journey to coping with the passing of her child by throwing herself into work and telling the stories of others. She then turns those experiences into her book and each event/person helps her grow and cope with her loss. This book was exceptionally gut-wrenching and I found it difficult to get through. Whilst I appreciate writing as a process to cope with trauma, this book felt at times like a therapy journal or request from a therapist. I have read and enjoyed many memoirs of grief and loss and other challenging reads, but I could not finish this. Perhaps it was the fact that I was reading this during lockdown in 2020, but I found myself distressed reading it and did not want to pick it up to finish it. The book was filled with a sense of foreboding and doom and the loss was too much. I could not connect with the idea of an eventual emotional pay off in order to get through this. I'm sorry for Smith's loss, but I would turn to Joan Didion or Max Porters if you wish to explore grief combined with beautiful thoughtful prose/poetry. I have experienced loss this year and I reread Didion and felt peace. This book just made me feel anxiety, sadness and stress.

  5. 5 out of 5

    readers creators

    Memoirs let you be a part of someone else’s story; and when someone is sharing the most tragic phase of their life and you become a part in their grief, you also evolve through that phase and fall into a new bright one with them. The resilience of author, bring a similar kind of power in the reader too. Being a journalist by profession; Carol Smith’s memoir is a journey through her grief & estrangement, following her son’s death; presenting reports of people who are going through same phase as he Memoirs let you be a part of someone else’s story; and when someone is sharing the most tragic phase of their life and you become a part in their grief, you also evolve through that phase and fall into a new bright one with them. The resilience of author, bring a similar kind of power in the reader too. Being a journalist by profession; Carol Smith’s memoir is a journey through her grief & estrangement, following her son’s death; presenting reports of people who are going through same phase as hers at the same time. More than half the book, will let you feel the depth of pain, loss of a loved one, feeling like the end of world, loneliness, broken, defeated and surrendering to all these catastrophic situations. But the climax will lead you to an opposite path, where the vague images of betterment will start getting clear; and your heart will attain the strength of hoping again. Practical examples like this book; are best motivation. No matter how dark it gets, no matter if it seems like an end; there will be no end until there will be the end. Life is hard and it can get harder sometimes; but there’s always a beam of light peeking through one corner, we just have to search for that and we will never be lost again.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Reid

    Nothing is more devastating than the loss of a child, I suspect. I suppose this is open to debate and pondering a hierarchy of pain is a fruitless exercise in any case. But we are hardwired to protect and love our children, to the point that even the sacrifice of our own lives to save theirs is something most parents assume they would be willing to do. I know that, though my "little boy" is 38 years old, I would be leveled if he was no longer in my life. Carol Smith went through a hell of loss an Nothing is more devastating than the loss of a child, I suspect. I suppose this is open to debate and pondering a hierarchy of pain is a fruitless exercise in any case. But we are hardwired to protect and love our children, to the point that even the sacrifice of our own lives to save theirs is something most parents assume they would be willing to do. I know that, though my "little boy" is 38 years old, I would be leveled if he was no longer in my life. Carol Smith went through a hell of loss and pain even before her son's sudden death. Christopher was born with a developmental malfunction in his kidneys which led to further complications and eventually to a kidney transplant. And just when he appeared to be reaching for a somewhat normal life following this procedure, an unrelated malformation took his life at the age of seven. Smith is a journalist and, soon after her son's death, moved back to Seattle to work on a newspaper there. In the course of her reporting, she found many people who inspired her to look on her grief and suffering in different ways, to find inspiration and hope in some of the most unlikely places. She slowly emerged from her isolation and pain to welcome people back into her life. It is exceedingly difficult to read about something as precious and delicate as a mother's grief and provide an objective review of the book that contains it. Such feeling seems as if it should be sacred and sacrosanct, but the reality is that, no matter how much respect I have for the person and the feelings conveyed, not every such memoir is created equal. Sadly, Crossing The River is packed with cliches, self-pity, and sophistry and, despite the fascinating stories it contains, is not a well-written book. The metaphors and analogies are quite often stretched out of all proportion and don't rise to the level of inspiration or hope Smith is clearly intending to convey. And despite how she seems to be centering the stories of others, every word is intended to convey how very courageous she is, which both belabors the comparison and puts her in the spotlight, the reflected light of other people's courage lighting her up. Yes, it makes me feel guilty to write a negative review of this courageous and heartfelt memoir. But it would be a disservice (and condescending) to give it a pass because of the its content. I am glad that Carol Smith is finding a road out of the valley of the shadow of death and admire her for sharing her journey with us. I could only wish that the effort had yielded a better book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Pramod

    CROSSING THE RIVER: SEVEN STORIES THAT SAVED MY LIFE A MEMOIR BY CAROL SMITH PUBLISHED BY ABRAHAM PRESS #netgalley, # abrahamspress, # carolsmith I rate it as a 5 star read. Carol Smith has written a memoir about the loss of her son and the grief and trauma associated with it and how she recovers from it. It is about mothers love and the joy of living. She lost her son, Christopher at age 7. He was born with a congenital developmental defect that blocked his urinary tract, damaging his kidneys. With ad CROSSING THE RIVER: SEVEN STORIES THAT SAVED MY LIFE A MEMOIR BY CAROL SMITH PUBLISHED BY ABRAHAM PRESS #netgalley, # abrahamspress, # carolsmith I rate it as a 5 star read. Carol Smith has written a memoir about the loss of her son and the grief and trauma associated with it and how she recovers from it. It is about mothers love and the joy of living. She lost her son, Christopher at age 7. He was born with a congenital developmental defect that blocked his urinary tract, damaging his kidneys. With advanced medical intervention and a kidney transplant he survives the disability. She gives up her solid newspaper job and moves to LA, where she could get remedial therapy and support for Christopher. With a mothers love for her child, they create a life that is beautiful and memorable and hoped that it will never end. Being a mother for the first time, she is totally swamped with love and happiness. And manages to enjoys life with him. Just as any parent would do. Finally, Christopher succumbs to his illness. This devastates Carol. She could not accept his death, more so because she was not present at his side when he died. It is devastating to lose a son so young, though medically compromised. Grief overtook her, medically termed Persistent Complex Bereavement Syndrome. She goes into self imposed exile. She goes into a withdrawal mode. Every moment she just thinks of her life with Christopher. After some time , Carol realizes that life must go on. As she notes “To overcome grief, one has to accept the loss of the person and adjust to life without that person.” She moves back to Seattle near her family and back to her newspaper job. There she gets the opportunity to report on medical matters. In this book, Carol chronicles 7 cases that she reported on that changed her outlook to life. Reporting on these stories and the people, she got emotionally involved. These stories become s her lifeline. And as she notes “they showed me the way back across the river”. They showed how to find balance, how to move forward and make peace with what we don’t control. These 7 persons with medical problems made her realize that “the art of life is in the mending broken dreams, broken promises, broken bodies”. “You have to choose to have hope” These are all inspirational stories. Carol has written a beautiful page turner of a memoir. I would recommend this book to all, especially those grieving over a loss of a dear one.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    This book is at the same time personal and universal. Carol Smith smoothly intertwines narration of the tragedy of her own life – the death of her young son – with stories about tragedies in other people’s lives. Being a medical reporter puts her in a unique position to find people who are facing challenging circumstances and become immersed in their lives over a period of weeks or months. I found the book readable – it kept me interested from chapter to chapter. Her own story and those of her i This book is at the same time personal and universal. Carol Smith smoothly intertwines narration of the tragedy of her own life – the death of her young son – with stories about tragedies in other people’s lives. Being a medical reporter puts her in a unique position to find people who are facing challenging circumstances and become immersed in their lives over a period of weeks or months. I found the book readable – it kept me interested from chapter to chapter. Her own story and those of her interviewees are tightly woven together. It was heartening to watch as she grappled with her own grief, drawing solace and courage as she spent time with others who wrestled with different, but equally devastating, situations. For me, the main takeaway was that suffering painful circumstances is part of being human and that a path toward healing is formed by being present with other’s pain, as well as with ones own. Smith grew more open, with herself and others, acknowledging the joys and pain her son had brought into her life. As she did so, she was able to move forward in her own life. And I hope that reading her story will help others to do the same.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Janine

    Wow! What a poignant, painful journey into hope and acceptance. This is an intense but worthwhile read. Beautifully written, the author’s journey to “cross the river” is so moving. No doubt her pain is visceral over the loss of her son as you feel it when you read. But with each story she shares of others who are experiencing a loss of some kind, the author draws closer to insight in understanding how to move on but not lose her son. I found myself gaining insights into my life as I read her str Wow! What a poignant, painful journey into hope and acceptance. This is an intense but worthwhile read. Beautifully written, the author’s journey to “cross the river” is so moving. No doubt her pain is visceral over the loss of her son as you feel it when you read. But with each story she shares of others who are experiencing a loss of some kind, the author draws closer to insight in understanding how to move on but not lose her son. I found myself gaining insights into my life as I read her struggles of acceptance, so this book goes beyond being a simple memoir. I will be keeping this book in my library for future reading.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Howard

    A good read, heart-breaking at times but also inspiring in equal measures. After the death of her 7 year old son Christopher, Carol uses her work as a journalist to meet up with some people, who have also encountered life changing situations, to help in her own healing process. This is a very powerful, well put together story and makes for a satisfying, if uncomfortable at times, read.. Often, people become cocooned in their own little world - and books like this can maybe help to extricate them A good read, heart-breaking at times but also inspiring in equal measures. After the death of her 7 year old son Christopher, Carol uses her work as a journalist to meet up with some people, who have also encountered life changing situations, to help in her own healing process. This is a very powerful, well put together story and makes for a satisfying, if uncomfortable at times, read.. Often, people become cocooned in their own little world - and books like this can maybe help to extricate them and perhaps enable them to see a bigger picture - recommended. Many thanks to Abrams for my ARC copy through Netgalley for an honest review.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Donna Nanna

    This is a book I never would have chosen,but it had a terrific impact on me and it is one I will always remember and quote. We all face loss of a loved one differently and yet there are so many similarities..I am so glad Carol wrote this book and I didn’t put it back on the shelf...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    Absolutely beautiful memoir!   As Carol Smith navigates the grief of her young son's death, she reflects on the stories of people throughout her life.  These stories help her to see a way to balance holding onto her grief while navigating towards happiness again.   I appreciate how much consideration she puts into the individuals in each story and the lessons she learns from each of them.  This book is certainly heavy and can be difficult to read, but the journey into these lives is a beautiful on Absolutely beautiful memoir!   As Carol Smith navigates the grief of her young son's death, she reflects on the stories of people throughout her life.  These stories help her to see a way to balance holding onto her grief while navigating towards happiness again.   I appreciate how much consideration she puts into the individuals in each story and the lessons she learns from each of them.  This book is certainly heavy and can be difficult to read, but the journey into these lives is a beautiful one.  

  13. 5 out of 5

    Deby

  14. 5 out of 5

    Madison

  15. 4 out of 5

    Madison Graber

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  17. 4 out of 5

    Makenna | KenniReads

  18. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Tett

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sydney Stockton

  20. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie McGarrah

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cassidy Morgan

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dipali

  23. 4 out of 5

    Susanne

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stacey A. Prose and Palate

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jella Erhard

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sydney Gregson

  27. 4 out of 5

    Grace

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  29. 4 out of 5

    Maria

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Ward

  31. 4 out of 5

    Amelia

  32. 4 out of 5

    Steph Briggs

  33. 4 out of 5

    Edelgard

  34. 4 out of 5

    Ashcroft Taylor

  35. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  36. 5 out of 5

    Frederick Rotzien

  37. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  38. 4 out of 5

    Tabatha

  39. 5 out of 5

    Susan The Book Dragon Campton

  40. 4 out of 5

    Kye Cantey

  41. 5 out of 5

    Judy

  42. 4 out of 5

    Beverly

  43. 5 out of 5

    Kim Ellis

  44. 4 out of 5

    Natasha

  45. 4 out of 5

    Brenda Maki

  46. 4 out of 5

    Leah

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