Five months ago, my son died.
As I write these words and read them over and over again, they are so incomprehensible that they might as well be in a foreign language. Again and again I read them, unable to grasp that they relate to me, that they form part of my story. These words belong in a fiction novel, or a sad news story about some poor family that I will never meet, but will take a moment to feel sorry for before going back to my life. They cannot be MY life. I cannot be the one that people look at and silently thank God that my life is not their own.
Needless to say, I am nowhere near the acceptance stage of grief. I continue to regularly flit in and out of the land of denial. Part of the challenge is the shocking way that my son Isaac died – in the Beirut blast, the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history. It all happened so quickly. One minute I was sitting with Isaac having dinner and singing nursery rhymes, the next I found myself sitting at my in-laws house in suburban Perth – about as far removed from Beirut as you can get – without him. I know there was a whole lot of stuff in-between, the explosion, the hospital, the challenge to get flights out of the country. But it is all a blur. Within seconds our whole life came tumbling down around us like a house of cards. What happened was so huge and so beyond the realm of imagination that my mind cannot compute that I lived through it. When I think of that day, and the immediate days that followed, I feel like I am watching myself in a movie, rather than remembering actual events.
The inability to wrap my head around the explosion and the way Isaac died, means I also can’t wrap my head around this new reality. I feel like an interloper in this world, an observer but not a participant. This life in suburban Perth seems surreal and unnatural. It is like I have slipped into a parallel universe and I am just waiting to slip back to the “real” one, the one where Isaac exists and our family is whole. On the occasions when it does hit me that yes, I am actually here in the suburbs of Perth and this part is real, it makes me wonder if my former life – and Isaac – were all just my imagination. Was life with Isaac simply a beautiful dream? Or am I currently in a never ending nightmare that I can’t wake up from? The contrast between my two existences is so stark, the events that led to me where I am today so surreal, the blow so cruel, that I simply cannot reconcile this new reality with my old one, so in my mind only one must be true.
The only thing connecting the two realities are the flashbacks I get while going about my day. A loud sound makes me want to duck for cover, the squeals of children playing conjures up the screams that filled the hospital corridors and a quiet moment brings to mind my last image of Isaac’s face, scared and confused. People around me go to work, attend parties and spend time with their children. They laugh, they cry and they worry about their own problems. Their lives continue as “normal”, unaware of the small things that immediately transport me back to that horrific night in Beirut. They live their lives, while I remain frozen.
Time doesn’t interact with grief the way we expect it to. Somehow the sun still rises every day. Somehow it still sets. But life as I know it stopped at 6:08 pm on 4 August and that is where part of me remains. The idea that five whole months have passed is as incomprehensible to me as the explosion itself. How have I survived five months without my little boy? Before his death, I spent a total of three nights away from Isaac. The first night, when he was eight months old, I was hospitalised with a bad stomach virus. I remember sitting up in that hospital bed at NYU, breast pump attached because I was still breastfeeding, and crying my eyes out. Isaac was no more than a kilometre away, safe at home with his Dad, and yet it felt like he was a million miles away. The second time was when he was 18 months old and I travelled to Kuwait for two nights for work. I cried all the way to the airport and vowed then and there – before I had even left the country – that I would not travel for work again unless I could take Isaac with me.
Each of those three nights away from Isaac felt like torture and yet I have now spent 154 nights without him and I have a lifetime to go. How have I gone 154 nights without reading Isaac his bedtime story? 154 nights without having him give me a big bear hug and saying “bonne nuit Mama”? 154 nights without sneaking into his room late at night just to double check he is ok? How have I survived 154 nights? I don’t want to move forward – each step forward in time is a step away from Isaac and our life with him – but going backwards is impossible. And so I am stuck. Life moves on around me, but I am stuck at 6:08pm.
The horror of what happened to Isaac, the grief that I feel, permeates every aspect of my being. It is all encompassing, suffocating even. I live in a permanent state of cognitive dissonance, on the one hand fully aware of what happened, on the other, unable to believe or accept it. Time and space do not mean the same thing anymore. Grief is not only dealing with the loss of my son, but coming to grips with the fact that our lives have fundamentally changed, and try as we might, time marches on whether we like it or not.