Granger Smith on How Son's Death Changed Him: 'I'm Going to Forgive Myself, but I'm Not There Yet'

A year after losing 3-year-old River in a drowning accident at his Texas home, the "That's Why I Love Dirt Roads" singer hopes to save lives by sharing the pool-safety lessons that he learned too late

It's been a year since Granger Smith lost his 3-year-old son, River, to a drowning accident, and the country singer now says, "I feel like I've died" — but, he adds, "It's not a bad thing that that 'me' died. In fact, I think it's all good. It's only good."

The 40-year-old Texan tells PEOPLE he feels like he's "truly shed layers. I feel wiser. I feel more in tune spiritually. I feel more aware of our present moment and the value in the present moment, the value in the current breath that we have."

Still, that doesn't mean he wouldn't trade this hard-won rebirth in a heartbeat to have a different outcome to the darkest day of his life.

Granger Smith, wife, Amber Bartlett Children: son, Lincoln Monarch Smith
Granger Smith and wife Amber with their children Lincoln and London. Jack Thompson

The evening of the accident, June 4, 2019, Smith was playing in the yard of their home outside Georgetown, Texas, with River, his brother Lincoln, now 6, and sister London, now 8, while his wife, Amber, took a shower inside. As his attention turned to his older kids, Smith didn't notice as River somehow breached the pool fence gate's child-proof lock and headed into the water.

"It's not like the movies," says Smith. "To comprehend that you could lose someone to drowning 20 feet from you doesn't make any sense unless you know how that process works and that it's so silent. There isn't splashing or gurgling or kicking. There wasn't even a splash going in."

Granger Smith, River
Granger Smith and late son River. Granger Smith/Instagram

He learned other cruel lessons too late: that children can drown in less than 30 seconds and that other safety precautions — a second lock on the pool gate, an alarm to signal an unsupervised entry into the water — might have saved River's life.

Now, in the summer months when child drownings peak, Smith hopes his tragedy can help save lives and help give his little boy a lasting legacy.

By the time Smith rescued River, he was unconscious and his lungs were full of water. For 10 endless minutes, Smith and his wife traded off performing CPR before help arrived. EMTs were able to restore the boy's heartbeat, but by then he had suffered catastrophic brain damage. Transported to Dell Children's Medical Center in nearby Austin, River was taken off life support two days later and his organs were harvested for transplant.

The gift of life to two donor recipients was just the Smiths' first step in what they know will be a lifelong journey to find purpose in their son's death. Just three weeks later, they took another step, donating $218,000 to the children's hospital, money raised from the sale of commemorative T-shirts to Smith's legion of fans, his "Yee Yee Nation." Since then, the couple has established a permanent River Kelly Fund to support a variety of causes.

The charity work is perhaps the easiest step they've taken as they've navigated their grief. Within a month of River's death, the family moved out of their "dream home," now only a reminder of their worst nightmare, and into a house nearby. Smith also resumed his touring, and for a time Amber, London and Lincoln came along to support one another.

Granger Smith, wife, Amber Bartlett
Granger and Amber Smith. Jack Thompson

Taking the stage again, Smith says now, "was terrible. But I knew that would be a critical part of my healing process, and my gut instinct was right." The worst part, says the artist, was facing an audience and deciding "they're staring at me like, there's the failed father up there." The outpouring of support he's received from fans over the months has helped him keep those thoughts at bay, but Smith confesses he still wrestles with enormous guilt over his son's death.

"I know that there's going to be a time when I'm going to forgive myself, but I'm not there yet," he says. Says wife Amber: "I don't know if we ever truly will be able to forgive ourselves. I pray that we can. I hope we can."

Both say their Christian faith has been their primary source of strength. "For me, that's pretty much all I've had," says Smith. "My brain is not capable of calculating that magnitude of a loss, and then I have to realize that I don't have to. I can lean on a higher power for that and know that my little boy is in a better place." Amber, 38, says she has "never felt closer to God than I did from the night of the accident on. I've never felt that he has left me or forsaken me."

Now sidelined from touring by the pandemic, Smith and his family have relocated again, this time to 11 acres of nearby land where they're living temporarily in a travel trailer inside a metal barn.

They plan to build another house on the property — but don't call it a "forever home," Smith says. "We realize now that even that term is silly. We only really have today, and making the most in the moments we have today is something that the year-ago Granger didn't have that vision into."

What Smith calls the "new version of myself" is also showing up in his music, he says. Fans can already hear it in his current single, "That's Why I Love Dirt Roads," a seamless combination of his familiar rural themes and fresh lyrical insights. An homage to his son is slipped into the second verse: "Chasing a painted sky and river winding curves / Can't help but feel like my heaven here on earth."

Granger Smith, River
Granger Smith and son River. Granger Smith/Instagram

Though other songs on the new project, due out in September, won't feature the word or name "River," Smith says, "There is a lot of feeling from him in this album."

Smith is anticipating the passion he's pouring into his new music is ready to spill out onto the stage. "It could just mean a passion to make people smile or a passion to make people feel something," he says. "I've always wanted that, but it really does take life to truly get it out of you, as a writer and as an artist and as a singer, as a performer."

Performing, he reveals, is when he often feels closest to the little boy he lost. "I could be on the stage now and there could be a lot of people watching me," he says, "and they don't know, but I've got my eyes closed and it's just me and Riv."

For more from Granger Smith, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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