They say that in the English language there is a word for someone who has lost their spouse (widow/er) and for someone who has lost their parents (orphan) but there is no word for someone who has lost their child because the pain is too great, too unspeakable. It wasn’t until I lost my own son Isaac in the Beirut explosion that I understood how true this statement is. It is a pain that is so great that it is unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. When I first gave birth to Isaac, I knew without a doubt in my mind that losing him would be the worst possible thing that could ever happen to me. But the pain that I imagined was a mere drop in the ocean compared to the tsunami that is the real thing. It is the depth of the pain that makes it so unspeakable. How do you explain what it is like to grieve your child to someone who has never experienced it? And on the other side, how do you relate to someone who has lost their child when you can never really know what it is like? What do you say?
Before Isaac died, I had never really experienced grief. Sure, I had encountered death. The death of my grandparents hit me particularly hard. My grandfather, Opa, died suddenly at the breakfast table one morning, my Oma a few years later in her sleep. On both occasions I was overseas working at the time and only several weeks away from returning home to see them. I mourned their deaths and I still miss them all the time. But mourning is different from grief. I knew my Oma and Opa had lived long lives, good lives. I knew in particular that my Oma was ready to go. She wanted nothing more than to join my Opa. I was sad for my own loss, but not for hers. We are all familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – with the death of my grandparents it was easy to move quickly to the position of acceptance.
The death of Isaac, however, is a completely different beast. I am deep in grief and it is nothing like I would have expected. Sometimes it is suffocating and all consuming and sometimes it is something different. While it is largely accepted now that the stages of grief are not a linear, the model proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 has seeped into popular culture to the extent that it can feel shocking when grief does not follow that path. This is a product of our unwillingness to talk – really talk – about grief. It is easier to expect people’s feelings to fall into neat categories that they move through one at a time, only to come out the other end “all better”. David Kessler, who collaborated with Kubler-Ross, says that the global north is “grief illiterate” and that we “live in a time when we’re told we should feel like this for this long, and then you’re done.”
So what has grief been like for me so far? Complicated. Confusing. Painful. Scary. Exhausting. Lonely.
I still feel very much in denial. Although, I am not sure if denial is the right word because I know that Isaac is dead. Sure, I have had times where I have woken up in the morning and I have gone looking for him. Or I have heard my husband come through the front door and I half expect Isaac to come running behind him shouting “Mummy, Mummy”. But for the most part, I know he is gone. I just can’t believe it. You could say I am deep in disbelief. I can’t believe I am never going to see Isaac again. I can’t believe how he died. I don’t understand how so many people survived but not him. I don’t understand why we were assigned this terrible fate. There is so much I just can’t wrap my head around.
Amongst the disbelief there is a cacophony of other emotions. There is an anger burning in my belly. I’m angry at myself. Angry at those in power who allowed this to happen. Angry at certain friends and family who haven’t been there for us in the way we expected. Angry at God. I don’t know if I even believe in God, but if he exists boy do I have some choice words for him. Angry at people who don’t make time for their kids, angry that my husband and I never needed someone else’s tragedy to remind us that Isaac was the most important thing in our lives and yet some people who should have taken our horrific ordeal as a wake up call, haven’t. Most of all though, I am angry that Isaac missed out on everything.
There is fear, fear that I will forever be in pain and at the same time, fear that the pain, which feels like my only connection to Isaac, will fade. I am terrified that as each day passes Isaac becomes more of a memory than reality and that my memories will start to fade. There is also fear that comes with knowing that losing Isaac doesn’t mean we are immune from further tragedy. I feel a constant sense of foreboding, always wondering “what’s next?”.
There is overwhelming guilt, a guilt that is like a cancer that has riddled my body. People try to reassure me that I have nothing to feel guilty about. They say lovely things like “you were an amazing mother to Isaac”, or “there was nothing more you could have done”. While these words make me feel better momentarily, in the long run they are as useful as trying to treat cancer with a juice cleanse. They cannot compete with the aggressive beast that is the guilt gnawing away though my insides.
There is a sense of confusion, like I don’t know myself anymore. I get stressed much more easily, find it hard to concentrate, get in a state when I have to make decisions, and don’t know where I’m going or what I am doing with my life. I have gone from being someone who couldn’t stand having an idle moment in my day, to collapsing in exhaustion after the smallest of activities. I struggle to relate to people around me and when I look in the mirror I barely recognise myself.
I could go on listing the emotions that come with grief, not to mention trauma, but what does it actually feel like? To be honest, these days I feel mostly numb. There is certainly pain, a pain that is constant and ever present, but I don’t cry. I can’t cry. I want to scream and yell and smash things, but I can’t. The searing pain has given way to numbness. Perhaps it is because the body can only withstand so much pain and the numbness is necessary to function. Perhaps it is because I am still deep in disbelief and how can you really feel grief when you don’t believe what has happened? Or perhaps it is because I denied myself the time and space to truly feel my grief, to spend days on end crying, that now my body doesn’t know how.
In many ways, I was never really able to fully to experience my grief. That first morning, when I was told that Isaac had died, I was screaming and screaming, a blood curdling scream, and I clearly remember a voice saying over and over again, “Sarah, you have to be strong for the baby, Sarah, you have to be strong for the baby”. I am not sure who it was, the hospital room was jam packed full of people – I don’t know why there was so many people – I just know it wasn’t my husband, he would never deny me my reaction to the worst possible news. But, whoever it was, seeped into my consciousness. On that morning, those words caused me to panic – what if my grief over Isaac kills my baby? So I composed myself and I feel like I have been doing so ever since. In those early days, weeks and months I cried many times, but the tears remained surface deep. That voice remained in my head “Sarah, you have to be strong for the baby” and I held myself back, composed myself before I was ready. On the very few occasions I let myself really experience the pain, I would become hysterical and start hyperventilating. It terrified me, and I vowed that I wouldn’t let myself get to that state again. I couldn’t afford to lose my baby on top of everything else.
Once Ethan arrived, there wasn’t time to wallow in my grief. Not if I wanted to be the mother that Ethan needs and deserves. I say this without a hint of resentment. The only thing worse than grieving Isaac would be if I didn’t have Ethan by my side in the process. I truly fear for where I would be mentally if we had lost Ethan too. He is my lifeline. It is just a fact that grieving your child and mothering a newborn are two activities that are hard to balance. They both require enormous amounts of energy, different types of energy. Being a parent requires a positive, proactive type of energy where you are alert, responsive and loving. Grieving requires a deep, more introspective form of energy. It doesn’t lend itself to positive activity (at least at first) and can lead you to dark, negative places. So in deciding where to expend my limited energy, I direct it towards Ethan. And that means my grief to a large extent remains repressed and unexplored.
Today, the grief feels like a heavy weight that I carry around. I walk through this world like my head is in a fog and my legs are made of lead. The air feels thick and I have to move slowly and deliberately to push my way through. I can no longer imagine what it is like to have a “spring in your step”. I can still move, but I am slow and cumbersome. Sometimes, the grief creeps its way up through my body until it reaches my chest. Suddenly, I feel like a hand wraps around my heart and crushes it with an almighty force. My throat closes and I can’t breathe. For some reason this often happens when I am out walking with Ethan. I can’t give into it, I have to be present for Ethan. So I stop, wherever I am, and imagine a physical force pushing the grief down again. Once it is back in its place, down around my legs, I take a few moments to catch my breath, and I keep going.
I know I won’t be able to push the grief down forever, the force is too great. I am like a pressure cooker waiting to explode. I worry that one day I am going to have a meltdown in the supermarket or go off at some poor person who really doesn’t deserve it. Or maybe one day I physically won’t be able to get out of bed. I am scared of this moment arriving but at the same time, I want it to come, because anything seems preferable to the excruciating, empty numbness. I want to feel the pain in all its exquisite glory. I want to get it out. But in the meantime, I wait.
I write and I wait.
I go to counselling and I wait.
I don’t write any of this to gain sympathy. In fact, I hate, hate, hate that I am the object of people’s pity. I have never been the type to play the victim card or milk my problems for attention, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Instead, I write about grief so that people can really understand what it is like. We are in a time when the world is collectively grieving for loved ones, for our future plans, and for our lives as they once were. There are people out there who look “normal” but every cell in their body is aching, screaming in pain. People who just don’t have the words. So I think it is important to be honest. This is what grief looks like. For me at least.