In an ideal world, all children would outlive their parents, because no parent should have to go through the pain of losing a child. But we don't live in an ideal world, and so that pain often persists, bringing with it a sorrow that can be overwhelming. The question becomes, is there hope in the midst of such sorrow, and if so, how do we access it?
Amber Smith is wife to country music star Granger Smith and the mother of three children. She's a city girl turned country--cowboy boots, pickup truck, and all--and lives on a farm in Texas with her family and lots of animals, enjoying the peace that country life can bring, and teaching her kids how to raise those animals and embrace the outdoors.
And she's also one of those parents who has outlived a child. In fact, it's one of the things she and I share in common--the experience of seeing our young child go to heaven first. But as we've both learned, healing from such a tragedy is possible, and there is a path forward towards overcoming loss.
You can hear the full interview on my podcast, Overcoming With Auntie Anne, or keep reading below for the highlights.
Struggles and Heartache
The process of overcoming is just that, a process. Because as much as we'd like life to give us a break, there always seems to be something. For Amber, her struggles started as a young child when her parents divorced. She felt like she was being pulled in both directions, and as a people pleaser, she did what she could to please both of her parents and keep them from fighting. It was hard for her and her brother to go back and forth between their parent's houses on the weekends. And when Amber's mom remarried, she struggled with upsetting her biological father with the love she had for her new stepdad. All of this compounded with her never wanting to get married--because she never wanted to go through a divorce--or at the very least on the off chance she did get married, make sure it lasted forever.
Eventually, she took that step into forever and married Granger in 2010. They had three beautiful children, London, Lincoln, and River, and for all intents and purposes, the Smith's had what many people would say is a perfect life. Amber admits that nobody's life is perfect, but theirs was good. She and Granger had a great marriage, his musical career was booming--he was touring all over the world--and the kids were happy. For their first nine years of marriage, things were going well. But that all changed when the biggest struggle of Amber's life struck.
On a June night in 2019, Amber was inside taking a shower while her husband was outside playing with the kids. Their boys, Lincoln and River, were playing with water guns, and their daughter, London, was doing gymnastics. Amber had just finished her shower and sat down on the bed when she heard London scream. All Amber could make out was "River" and "pool." The house they were living in had a pool with a large, four foot, iron gate around it. Amber's first thought was, "How could River have gotten into the pool with the locked gate?" Her second thought was, "He's in the water--I'll run out, grab him, and he'll be fine." But by the time she got outside, Granger was already performing CPR on three-year-old River.
Somehow, River had gotten through the pool gate and fallen into the water without anyone noticing. There was no splash. There was no struggle. There was no sound of the gate opening or closing. In fact, just a minute or two earlier, Granger had been squirting water guns with River. But after he turned around to watch London, he soon realized things were a little too quiet. That's when he found River in the pool and started administering CPR. River died in the hospital a few days later.
Grief and Guilt
The grief that comes from a loss like this is astounding. And I can relate to Amber when she says that an experience like this, as with all tragedy and loss, forever changes who we are. A piece of us dies. We're no longer who we were, and we'll never be that person again. The spark that was once within us grows very dim, and we don't know if we'll ever get it back. We never forget, and we never truly move on. In fact, it's natural to go backwards, to wish for things to be the way they were. As Amber conveys, our thoughts drift towards what was and what could have been--and at some point, you realize what could have been is never going to happen.
Oftentimes, going backwards brings a sense of guilt--guilt that you could have done things differently to change the outcome. Amber remembers that night, remembers taking River out of his highchair after dinner and thinking she should just put him to bed. But he wanted to play, so like any mom who wants to see her kid happy, she let him. And so he joined his siblings outside. After some time, Granger asked her to bring the boys in. But she had been with the kids all day by herself. She was tired. She needed a break. She needed a shower. But what if she had brought the boys in? What if she had put him to bed in the first place? Would things be different?
And Granger has carried guilt too because he was the one outside with the kids when it happened. He often says that if it had been Amber outside, this never would have occured. She's so much more observant. She would have noticed, would have seen something. As parents, Amber and Granger carry that sense of guilt, that feeling of failure. And even though it's natural to feel that way, especially as parents who want to protect their children, it's something they fight everyday.
Questioning and Surrender
When tragedy occurs, we tend to look for someone or something to blame. Prior to this tragedy, Amber and Granger had been growing in their faith, living for the Lord, doing devotionals, and reading their Bibles. They were living a life of faith, and so naturally, they questioned God. "God, we're living for you. How could this happen?"
Oftentimes, as Christians, we feel we should be exempt from suffering, as if our faithfulness to God gives us a free pass to not suffer in this life. But as Amber shares, it's all but promised that as Christians, we're going to suffer. If you're walking with the Lord, times of suffering will come. So what do we do when it does?
For Amber and Granger, the answer comes in surrendering. Amber likens it to living life with her hands open. So many people in this world are holding tight to whatever it is they have--a job, a relationship, a child, anything. And the process of surrendering is taking those closed fists, opening them up wide, and saying, "Lord, my life is not my own." One of the biggest things Amber has learned through her suffering is that her children are not her own either. They're borrowed, and it's God who has entrusted them to her.
Amber says that when she was in the hospital with River, when she should have been losing her mind, should have been screaming and going crazy, she had this sense of peace given to her by God. Everyone was saying that God was going to perform a miracle, that He was going to heal River. But Amber had this sense that River was already with Jesus. She whispered in River's ear, "If you can fight, fight and come back to us. But if you can't, I'll give you back." In the midst of her suffering, she surrendered.
As odd as it sounds, suffering and surrender go hand in hand. When we learn to surrender to God in the midst of suffering, that's when healing comes. Unlike those who suffer without surrendering, those who sit with their anger and never truly move forward, Amber and Granger have found peace through their surrender. Amber admits that she wasn't sure if they'd ever find joy again, if they'd ever smile or laugh again. But through their surrendering, they have, and she says it's because of Jesus, and she's thankful that God is good. There are still hard days, and everything isn't perfect. But God hasn't abandoned her, and she believes He'll always remain close to the brokenhearted.
And through their surrendering, the Smith family has stayed intact. They made the decision that day leaving the hospital without River that they were going to trust God and some good was going to come from this. They did what they had to to move forward--therapy, never blaming one another for the death of their son--but ultimately, they surrendered to God and trusted Him to hold their family together, and He has.
Sharing and Freedom
While surrender is one step in the healing process, sharing is another. The Smith family is very active on social media, and Amber says that after the accident, they had a choice--they could shut it all down, grieve alone as a family, and never talk about it, or they could be vulnerable, share their story, and be a hope for others going through difficult situations. Thankfully, they decided to share their story.
It's natural to think that the process of talking and sharing about the difficulties we've gone through will only bring more pain as we unearth those painful memories. But in fact, it has the opposite effect. While not sharing leaves us tied up in knots, keeps us in the darkness, and allows the anxiety to remain, sharing brings freedom.
There's a verse in the Bible, James 5:16, that I've built my life around, and it says, "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed." I like to embellish that a little and say confess not just your faults, but your struggles, your heartaches, and your suffering as well. Because when you share, healing and freedom will come. It's about being authentic, about opening your life and your story up to the world. It's about not isolating but instead, walking alongside others and allowing them to walk alongside you.
This doesn't mean it won't come without difficulty. Amber says that 98% of people have been supportive of their openness and honesty, while 2% haven't. But as she rightly says, those 2% are likely hurting in their own lives and just need someone else to lash out at. So they're focusing on those who are supportive, and the response has been incredible. Not only are people thanking them for their vulnerability, the Smiths are also hearing stories of healing from others-- others who never shared their struggles and pain, but now have done so, and are experiencing the freedom that comes with it.
Amber admits that while they've been vulnerable, and while God has given them peace and joy, grief is not linear. They still fall back at times and have those hard terrible days. And that's life. But they grieve with hope. Because, as she says, her relationship with Jesus is the foundation of her life. And when that's the case, it truly transforms who you are, and you're able to have hope in the midst of suffering.
Going Forward and Remembering
Since the passing of River, Amber and Granger welcomed their fourth child into the world, Maverick Beckham. But that doesn't mean they've moved on from River. Because a parent can never move on from a child. In fact, they're in the process of writing a children's book based on what River believed he would see in heaven. At one point before his passing, River mentioned to Amber that in heaven, he's going to see a T-Rex, and it's going to be nice and soft. So the book is about that, about childlike faith, and according to Amber, it's whimsical and beautiful, with incredible artwork.
I was so blessed to spend time with Amber Smith and hear her story. Thank you, Amber, for being honest and vulnerable and for demonstrating what it means to overcome the greatest loss of your life.
Remember that if you're willing to be vulnerable, confess to a friend and trust the process, you have a story, and your story matters.