On 4 August 2020, I lived through something that defies comprehension – the Beirut explosion, which destroyed most of the city and took with it the life of my two-year-old son, Isaac.
I can recall the moment when the scale of what we had lived through, and lost, in the Beirut explosion really started to dawn on me. It wasn’t a moment I would have expected and it was the smallest thing. It was about 10 days after the explosion and we were on our way back home to Australia. At Dubai airport, as we made our way to the gate, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and was shocked by what I saw. I didn't recognise the reflection looking back at me.
It wasn't just my physical appearance, as startling as it was to see myself heavily pregnant, being pushed in a wheelchair, wearing old track pants donated by a colleague, half my face black and blue, the signs of where the glass had embedded itself in my face still evident. No, it was the pain etched on my face. I saw in the mirror a grieving mother and it took me a while to realise that the grieving mother was me.
Of all the labels I thought I would wear in my life, “grieving mother” is not one of them. But it is actually one that I had worn before, prior to Isaac entering my life. Four years ago, I lost my first baby, also a boy, in a miscarriage. I remember it like it was yesterday. The excitement my husband and I felt on that cold New York winter day as we went for the first ultrasound. The silence and look of concern of the face of the ultrasound technician as she searched for a heartbeat. My voice, quivering, as I asked if everything was okay. Her whispering gently that it did not look good. Suddenly being shuffled into the doctors’ office to discuss “termination” options. Finding myself back at work shortly afterwards because I honestly didn’t know what else to do and I had a presentation to give that afternoon.
My miscarriage hit me harder than I ever expected. I felt alone – at that time I didn’t know anyone else who had suffered a miscarriage – I was grieving and terrified that I would never be able to have children. I have always been the type to push through any challenges thrown at me and carry on. But this loss brought me to my knees. I could not stop crying. I cried first thing in the morning. I cried at work in secret. I cried openly on the subway. And I cried myself to sleep at night.
I knew I needed help. So, for the first time in my life, I sought counselling. Talking about my feelings in depth for the first time, and ultimately putting those thoughts down on paper, changed the way I approach challenges. Ordinarily I am a closed book, but writing enabled me to open up and in the process I discovered I was in fact not alone. Many women in my life had suffered similar losses. I no longer wore the label of grieving mother in secret, but carried it in the open.
When Isaac was born, 15 months later, I gently packed away the label of grieving mother. I didn’t get rid of it – the loss of my first baby would always stay with me and I would still have moments where it brought tears to my eyes – but I no longer wore it so prominently. The changes that the loss instilled in me, however, remained. I continued to share more and connect with other women over our shared struggles to become mothers. My loss had brought new meaning to my life.
The death of Isaac is vastly different. I recently spoke about the idea of finding meaning in grief with United Nations Under-Secretary-General of Global Communications Melissa Fleming on her podcast Awake at Night. As I said to her, there is no meaning, no lessons, no personal growth or changes, that have any value to me because nothing comes remotely close to making up for the loss of Isaac.
Someone told me shortly after Isaac’s death that great things await me in the future, some sort of reward for the suffering I was experiencing. In my numbness, I smiled and nodded, but inside I was screaming, “I don't want it! I don't want anything but Isaac!” There is no meaning, no reward.
While I may not find personal meaning in Isaac’s death, I do know that it has fundamentally changed me. It has rocked me to my core. Like it or not, I am that woman I saw in the mirror at Dubai airport. I don’t know what all of those changes are yet, and may not for years to come, but I have come to realise that I do have some control over the direction that they take. I could give up, wallow forever and drown my sorrows, or I could find a way to keep going. I have chosen the latter.
Isaac’s death means that my life will never be as good as it could have been, as it should have been. But I refuse to make it worse than it has to be.
The reason I will keep going can be summed up in one word: Ethan. Less than three months after losing Isaac, I gave birth to his little brother, Ethan. On that fateful day in August, Isaac was presented with a battle that was too big for a little boy to fight. No matter how hard he tried to hold on, his injuries were too severe. But with Ethan, it could have gone either way. The stress alone could have killed him, but he hung in there. And so I must hang on for him. I have already lost two boys. If I lose myself to grief and anger, I will be losing Ethan, too.
I know it won't be easy. Every moment with Isaac was pure joy for me. I had been so scared that I would never be a mother that when he came along, he felt like my little miracle. Even the tough moments, the sleepless nights, the never ending illnesses after he started daycare, didn’t rattle me. I embraced every moment.
But with Ethan, it is impossible to completely lose myself in the joy because everything reminds me of Isaac and what I have lost. When I hear Ethan’s sweet giggle, I smile at first, then become overwhelmed with sadness as I remember Isaac’s full-bellied laugh. As I watch Ethan reach his milestones, I briefly celebrate before being reminded of how much Isaac would have changed and learned in six months. I wonder what new words he would have known, what antics he would get up to. He would be a different little boy already and I miss not knowing that boy.
If I push the sadness aside, I feel like I am betraying Isaac. If I indulge it, I feel like I am being unfair to Ethan. It has made me feel like I have not only lost Isaac, but that I have lost the ability to fully experience and relish in the joy that is Ethan.
Slowly over time, however, with lots of counselling, I am starting to accept that there is nothing wrong with holding two thoughts, two emotions simultaneously. I am not betraying either of my boys if I feel happiness with Ethan or sadness over Isaac’s absence. I am learning that I can’t be too hard on myself.
In many ways, the Beirut explosion is the defining moment of my life. No matter what else I do, no matter what I achieve, I will always be the woman whose two year old son died in the Beirut explosion. A part of me died with Isaac and a new Sarah stands in her place. I have to give myself time to get to know who this new Sarah is.
But today, on 4 February, the day that marks exactly four years since I learned my first baby didn't have a heartbeat, as well as exactly six months since Isaac was killed, I will light a candle for my two angels and I feel the momentous weight of this day. I will hold Ethan extra tight and vow, that while this experience has changed me forever, I won’t let it change the way I love Ethan. He too is my miracle, my little survivor. I won’t let the losses that define me change the way I want to mother Ethan and that is with my whole heart.
Sarah Copland is a United Nations officer working on women’s rights and gender equality
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