In June 2019 country music artist Granger Smith and his wife, Amber, experienced the worst thing that can ever happen to a parent. After what was meant to be a fun-filled session in the family’s back yard, their youngest son, River, was pulled unconscious from their pool. And as River lay unresponsive in the hospital, doctor after doctor told Granger and Amber that their child had no chance of ever recovering. But the situation escalated even further – meaning the parents were then faced with a truly terrifying decision.
That month, a grieving Granger took to Instagram and posted about the harrowing event. He wrote to his fans and followers, “I have to deliver unthinkable news. We’ve lost our youngest son: River Kelly Smith. Following a tragic accident, and despite [the] doctors’ best efforts, he was unable to be revived.”
There was naturally a vast outpouring of sympathy for the devastated couple, too, and the bereaved parents did their utmost to ensure that their son’s legacy would live on. Then, the month after River’s death, Amber spoke out on social media about a life-changing event that had taken place after the little boy’s passing.
But before we discover exactly what Amber revealed, let’s learn more about the family’s life before they were struck by tragedy. For his part, Granger Smith has a devoted following in the country music world. He’s been a professional singer since the age of 19 and has sung at the White House no fewer than three times. And in 2008 the star also staged shows for troops in Kuwait and Iraq. Evidently, then, it’s pretty safe to say that his career has been a successful one.
Granger has enjoyed a run of good luck in his personal life, too. He’s been married to actor and casting director Amber Bartlett since February 2010. Adorably, the couple first met on the set of Granger’s music video for the song “Don’t Listen to the Radio.” And together they’ve had three children: daughter London, middle child Lincoln and, of course, River.
Throughout River’s short life, Granger and Amber would post updates about him on their respective Instagram accounts. The couple uploaded pictures of their family on holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, for instance, as well as casual images that offer glimpses into their everyday lives. But it was also through Instagram that the Smiths made the tragic announcement about River’s passing.
“Nothing can prepare a mother to deliver this kind of news. We’ve lost our youngest son, River Kelly Smith,” Amber wrote on the social media site in June 2019. Granger shared a similar statement via his own page. And both parents’ posts ended with identical requests for donations to the hospital that had tried to save River’s life.
You see, Granger and Amber both wrote, “There has never been a more difficult moment for us than this. In lieu of flowers or gifts, please send donations to Dell Children’s Medical Center in River’s name. The doctors, nurses and staff have been incredible.” And for their part, well-wishers on Instagram posted messages of sympathy on both parents’ Instagram accounts.
The country music world also showed its support for the grieving family. During the 2019 CMA Fest, for example, Dierks Bentley dedicated his hit “I Hold On” to his fellow singer. Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard also released a video in which they ask fans of Granger and Amber, “Please keep them in your prayers, and help us wrap them up with love and support.”
Then, in the weeks after River’s death in June 2019, Granger and Amber released their own video in which they both opened up about their loss and thanked fans for their kind words. In the YouTube clip, Amber says, “We’re seeing all of your comments, and we’re getting all of your letters. We’re receiving the outpouring of love that you guys have given us these past couple [of] weeks.”
The footage also sees Granger heartbreakingly reveal that the family had been experiencing a moment of happiness just before River drowned. He admits, “We were doing gymnastics in the yard, and the boys were playing a water gun fight. I remember thinking – I was looking at London as she was doing gymnastics – and I thought, ‘Soak up this moment, because it’s not going to last forever.’”
And in the video Granger adds that money had indeed been raised for the Dell Children’s Medical Center; hundreds of thousands of dollars had been donated, in fact. So, in late June the couple gave a check for nearly $220,000 to the hospital, with Granger saying, “Let this be a small token of the gratitude that we’ve got for you guys.”
For their visit to the hospital, Granger and Amber had donned red T-shirts – River’s favorite color – in honor of their son. They had been selling the same shirts online as another way of raising money for the medical center. And Amber had confided to the hospital staff, “I pray that nobody else ever has to go through what we’ve gone through, but if they do, I hope they come here because y’all were incredible.”
Meanwhile, River’s tragic death led to some discussion in the media about what could be done to prevent any more children drowning in swimming pools. Sadly, the Smiths aren’t the first family to have suffered such a loss. In June 2018, for instance, Olympian Bode Miller grieved the passing of his 19-month-old daughter, Emmy, who also drowned. And the Millers subsequently reached out after River’s passing.
Morgan Miller – Emmy’s mother – posted about the Smith family’s tragedy on her Instagram page in June 2019. She wrote, “My heart breaks. Another baby gone too soon. It can truly happen to anyone.” Following the death of their daughter, Morgan and Bode are now campaigners for water safety awareness.
Tragically, infant death by drowning is all too common. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has estimated that almost 1,000 children every year die from water-related injuries. And according to the organization, drowning is the number one cause of injury-related death among one- to four-year-olds. Terrifyingly, a young child can drown in something as small as a bucket.
In June 2019 Dr. Sarah Denny of the AAP – who was head author of the organization’s drowning prevention policy – told USA Today, “Many of these deaths occur when children are not expected to be swimming, or when they have unanticipated access to water.” Furthermore, she advised that parents “must implement other strategies, such as pool fencing and door locks.”
In fact, USA Today published a comprehensive list of things that parents can do to reduce the danger of water. And Dr. Linda Quan offered some advice of her own in the article. She said, “Families can talk with their pediatrician about whether their child is developmentally ready for swim lessons and then look for a program that has experienced, well-trained instructors.”
But swimming lessons should be only the first step when it comes to keeping kids safe in the water. The publication advised, for example, that young children should be dressed in life jackets when close to water – even including family swimming pools. What’s more, any containers filled with water should be emptied straight after use. And, again according to USA Today, even restrooms should be locked when they are not occupied.
Furthermore, whenever a child is in the water, the AAP recommended to USA Today that parents should conduct “touch supervision,” meaning the need to ensure that their offspring are always within touching distance. That way, if an infant’s face should go under the water, an adult will be able to quickly pull them out.
The USA Today article additionally suggested that parents should watch for signs of “active drowning” whenever a child enters a body of water. There is at least one difficulty with this strategy: it may not be immediately clear when an infant is in danger. But if your offspring isn’t making any noise, looks stressed, has pushed their head back or is waving their arms downwards, then those are signs that they may be in trouble.
And while part of River’s legacy may be this increased media focus on water safety, his untimely death has had another huge effect. You see, after the little boy passed away, his parents made a difficult – but ultimately uplifting – decision. Specifically, they chose to donate a number of his organs so that someone else may have a chance at a better life.
In July 2019 Amber posted a long message on her Instagram about the decision. She wrote, “I’ve always known I wanted to be a donor if anything were to ever happen to me. I just felt that if I had viable organs, why would I go into the ground with them? My spirit would be in Heaven, so why not save a life if I could?”
Yet in the end, it was Amber’s son for whom she had to make that choice. She added, “Never in a million years did I think I would be making that decision for my baby. When three different neuro specialists told us that River had 0 percent chance of brain recovery (yes, 0 – not 10 or 1 percent – 0), after shock and reality set in, I thought, ‘How can we bury our sweet baby and not try to help others?’”
Fortuitously, River’s organs were still in good condition. Amber continued on Instagram, “His body is perfect, [and] his organs are perfect; we had to do something. There are so many people waiting for [organs] to save their lives. The doctors said donation was quite a process.”
“We would have to search for viable recipients, and it could take days,” Amber went on. “We knew River’s spirit was in Heaven, but we couldn’t bear to watch his tiny, earthly body be pumped full of all the medicines for three or more days while they searched.”
But while the doctors were apparently respectful and kind, it was still a dire situation for the bereaved couple. Amber said, “They tried to expedite the process so our family could be in peace [and] told us they would take him back to operate the next morning, but we wouldn’t know what organs could be used until after. With such a small body, [the] organs had to be measured physically – not just by X-ray.”
And fortunately Amber got to spend some precious last moments with her child before his organs were taken to be donated to critically ill patients. The grieving mom continued, “I spent the night [lying] in bed with him, crying and talking to him while they kept running tests and taking blood. The next morning family and staff lined the hall for the ‘walk of honor.’”
The walk of honor, or honor walk, is a hospital practice that is meant to pay respect to those whose organs will be used to help others. Family members and medical staff gather in the hospital corridors to observe the body of the patient being wheeled to the operating room.
Honor walks can serve as a send-off for the patient, too, and they sometimes include an individual’s favorite music, military honors or a nod to an activity that they enjoyed doing in life. Amber wrote on Instagram, “We told them [that] River liked to go fast, so to honor him they pushed him down that hall faster than they had ever pushed anyone. Granger and I held each other and cried.”
In the end, River’s organs transformed two people’s lives. And, touchingly, a message was sent to his parents to inform them of this incredible fact. Amber said, “We got the letter that our tiny, red-headed hero gave life to two adults: a 49-year-old woman and a 53-year-old man. I cried when we opened it. [I] cried out of sadness and cried out of love.”
Amber continued on Instagram, “I’m so proud to be River’s mama, and I’m so grateful to God that he gave him to us for those incredible three years. I pray these two recipients live healthy, joy-filled, full-throttle lives just like [River]. It was one of the hardest, yet easiest, decisions we’ve ever made.” The grieving mother then ended her post by calling for others to consider organ donation.
Yes, Amber concluded her message by saying that over 113,000 people need organs at the moment, while 20 die every day while waiting. And although one person’s donated tissue can potentially transform as many as eight lives, the need for organs currently outweighs the number of donors.
Then in August 2019 Amber posted another video on YouTube, called “Honest Life Update.” In this recording, the mom talks more about River and her mourning process. She says, “Grief is weird. One minute you’re completely fine. Well, not fine – you’re in a state of calm, and then you’re a mess. [It] comes and goes, and it hits you out of nowhere and it’s an ocean of waves.”
Amber also adds in the video that she and Granger are spending some much-needed time with their other children. At the time of filming, Lincoln was touring with his father in Iowa, while London was with Amber. The mom continues, “I make myself get out of bed for my kids, and I make myself be a good mom for them – because London and Lincoln deserve that.”
Amber goes on, “Granger and I have made a pact to not let this tear our family apart – because it can. These kind of things tear families apart, and we are not going to let that happen. So while we will have our moments, and we will let our children see us cry… on the other hand, we have to get up, and we have to fight, and we have to be their mom and their dad.”
Amber’s video also takes viewers through a day in the life of the Smith family. The footage shows Granger taking Lincoln to watch NASCAR, for instance, while Amber and London eat Oreos and indulge in some retail therapy. The children seem to be doing well, too, and at the end of the video Amber talks about how strong they have been since their brother’s unexpected death.
Amber says to the camera, “I guess one of the good things that’s kind of come from all of this is that our kiddos seem to be doing relatively well – considering. And we’ve started them in counseling, so they go once a week to a [grief counselor]… We just tried to get in with that as soon as we could.”
Amber mentions that she and her husband will be undergoing counseling, too. In the video, she says, “Granger and I [are] going to start talking to somebody as well. Because regardless of how we feel and how much we lean on our faith… and we lift each other up… we don’t know how to go about this. It’s always better just to talk to somebody, I guess, so that’s the route that we’re going to take.”
What’s more, in the comments section below the video, lots of people left messages of support. One user wrote, “Thank you for being brave enough to share your feelings and your grief during this time.” And it must have taken a huge amount of bravery for the Smiths to decide to donate River’s organs – and make a life-changing difference to two people with their act of courage.