How do you continue to parent your child after they have died?
One of the first things I noticed after the death of Isaac was the silence. The past two years had been filled with laughter, music and the occasional tantrum. Then all of a sudden, it was just so quiet…
Isaac was an outgoing, rambunctious little boy, certainly not what my husband would call the “sit down, keep quiet” type. He loved to talk, having a good jibber-jabber with anyone who would listen. His daycare teachers recounted that whenever someone entered his daycare room, Isaac would ensure they were aware of his presence, seeking to engage them in a chat. He was also prone to launching into monologues, proudly showing off all the words he knew in a multilingual soliloquy that made sense only to himself.
When Isaac wasn’t talking, he was tearing around our oversized Beirut apartment on his scooter, deftly maneuvering around corners and dodging furniture before purposely crashing into the wall. Or he was dancing along to his favourite songs, climbing on the furniture or seeking to take on his Dad in a pretend light saber duel, shouting “zoom zoom” as they battled. After two years of beautiful chaos, the silence was deafening.
The second thing I noticed was how much time I suddenly had on my hands. For Craig and I, the sun rose and set with Isaac. Our days had been centered around his needs, filled with meal times, activities, stories and cuddles. Even after he was in bed, I would be cooking his meals for the next day or preparing his bag for daycare or swimming lessons. There was never a down moment, never time to rest.
In the early months after his death, I continued to wake very early in the morning, unable to get out of the habit. One morning, after a particularly fitful sleep, it hit me that I didn’t have to get up at 6am, I could sleep in if I wanted to. That realisation, rather than being a relief in my exhausted state, caused me to break down. I didn’t want to be catching up on much needed sleep, I wanted to be up at the break of dawn, singing along to “baby shark” or playing hide and seek. But now, there was nothing but time.
Two and a half months after Isaac’s death, I gave birth to his little brother Ethan. Once again my days are full, revolving around feeds, nappy changes and tummy time. But it isn’t the same. I was preparing myself to be the mother of an energetic toddler and a newborn. Those newborn cries, as sweet and as welcome as they are, do not make up for the constant shouts of “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!” While the newborn smiles and cuddles are the fuel that keep me going, they do not replace the feeling I got when Isaac squealed with delight when he saw me and bounded towards me for a hug. Life still seems quiet and slow.
Ethan does not replace Isaac, and nor should he, he is his own little person with his own needs. My love for Ethan is independent of my love for Isaac. I never want Ethan to feel like my grief for Isaac means he is not enough, especially since he is literally what has saved me from falling into the abyss. But I have also come to recognise that just because Isaac is no longer physically here with me, it does not remove my need to keep parenting him. Being a mother is not something that can be instantly switched off. Isaac fundamentally changed my world – nothing before Isaac matters and nothing after him quite makes sense. It may not look like it, but I am STILL the mother of a two year old and a newborn.
So how do you parent a child after they have died? This is something I have been exploring these past months. In some ways, it is small and personal things. It is the time each day I sit by Isaac’s photos while breastfeeding Ethan, spending time with my two boys, cradling one in my arms and talking to the other. It is the way I still say goodnight to Isaac every single night, telling him how much I love him and how I am right here if he needs me. It is the Sunday journey to the cemetery. And it is the personalised Christmas stockings I am sewing for both Isaac and Ethan so we can create new traditions that still include Isaac.
In other ways, my continued parenting of Isaac is more public, in the telling of his story and ensuring his memory is preserved and shared. It is showing people that he was not just some cute kid important only to his parents, but that he was SOMEONE. A little man with a huge personality. A boy so loving, outgoing, brave and ridiculously smart that Craig and I knew he had more potential than the two of us combined. That his life had value.
Finally, and in some ways most importantly, I am continuing to parent Isaac by joining the fight for justice. This is something I have grappled with over the past few months. At first, I felt so defeated, so beaten down that I didn’t see any point. Isaac’s death was the result of insidious corruption and negligence so extreme that it is evil. How do you take that on? How do you even begin hope that those with the power and resources to cover their tracks will be held accountable? What is the point? The bad guys won. The bad guys always win. Or so I thought.
As I have come through the initial fog of grief, a fire has been lit within me again. Perhaps we will never see real accountability, but I have to try. I have to try for Isaac, and for all the other victims, to remind the world that their lives had value. I have try so that those whose actions contributed to the explosion know that we will not take this injustice lying down. Perhaps they will not end up behind bars or paying compensation, but at the very least they will know Isaac’s name. They will know his face and I hope it will haunt their dreams. I have to try, because not doing so would be giving up on everything that I have stood for, and what I have devoted my life and career to, at the time it matters most. I have to try, so that when I look at Isaac’s photo, I can honestly tell him that I did everything I could to stand up for him.
As the world is consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has quickly forgotten the atrocity that happened on 4 August 2020. We cannot allow that to happen, nor can we allow the investigation to be bogged down in the murky domestic politics that characterises Lebanon. So I am joining other victims to continue to shine a light on what happened in Beirut and to call for an independent, impartial and transparent investigation. I will not stop talking about what happened in Beirut. I will not stop reminding people of the innocent lives lost. And I will not stop contacting those with any sort of influence – diplomats, politicians, media, international human rights organisations – to implore them to keep up the pressure for an independent, impartial and transparent investigation. This will be a marathon, not a sprint, but it is one I am willing to see out – for Isaac’s sake.
I remember one day a little girl at Isaac’s daycare hit him in the face. It was the first time Isaac had been hurt by someone and upon finding out, the protective mama bear in me came surging to the fore, outraged that anyone could hurt my little boy. I quickly learned the daycare centre dealt with the situation very well, so I let it go without a fuss. What I learned, however, was that any perceived injustice against my little boy brought out a protective instinct in me so strong, it surprised even myself. While Isaac is no longer here, that protective instinct is alive and well. I am still that fierce mama bear, wanting to show my love for him in any way that I can and ready to leap to his defence. These instincts now just have to find new avenues and I have to learn how to parent my boy in new ways. From the incorporating small rituals to ensure he is always part of my day, to the joining the bigger fight for justice, I will always be Isaac’s mama.
(For more information on the need for an independent, impartial and transparent investigation into the Beirut explosion, please see this report from Legal Action Worldwide: http://www.legalactionworldwide.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/REPORT.pdf)