For the past several weeks, I’ve carried a deep sadness as violence and death have continued in Gaza and in too many geographies in our world. My experience of darkness is present at many levels but the deepest darkness envelopes me as a mother witnessing the irrelevance of the lived experiences of mothers in the midst of these conflicts. In the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, I hear the “numbers killed” reported by news anchors everyday. I watch with stomach-nauseating disbelief that the pleas by international agencies like the Red Cross and the UN to stop the “devastation” and the “humanitarian disaster” given the number of children killed go unheeded. The response by all parties who have direct control of the killing of children, seems more like a reaction to a callous tally of “casualties” that comes with the “calculated loss” of war. Yesterday’s UN General Assembly’s vote for a cease-fire and the US veto stopped my heart. I understand Israel’s need for self-defense after the October 7th attack, indeed. Yet in this moment, as I write, I sit in deep empathy for what a mother’s heart feels and what a mother’s eyes see on behalf of her children.
Children are living in the midst of mass bombardments and explosions, with concrete, metal and dangerous objects strewn everywhere. These children are terrorized, witnessing death and literally seeing and smelling dead bodies all around them. What we see in America is a sanitized version of their terror. I feel these children’s cries for help as if they were the cries of my own children. I watch them on the screen and I have this visceral need to snatch them up and carry them in my arms, out of harm’s way, to soothe their terror, to clean their faces, feed them and rock them to sleep, as I would my own children, hoping that they could wake up and realize it was just a horrible nightmare. But I can’t. Because this is real. The nightmare is unfolding in front of me. All I can do is cry, turn off my tv and write to the President and Vice President with my own demands as an American citizen to stop this killing of children, whose death rate in Gaza would be equivalent to 500,000 dead children in the United States.
What we’re seeing is not a movie. This is not just the execution of war games. This is not just about lines in the soil about who owns what and who should live where. For me, this is most importantly, about the visceral, body-experiences of mothers who are the only ones who have first-hand knowledge of bringing life to our world and the only ones who viscerally understand what it means to feed our children with our bodies and who understand the totality of the loss of burying a dead child whose life that we birthed into this world stopped before our own. It can only be conceptual to anyone else who has not carried a human life in her body and labored with the devastating pain that’s required to allow that young human to journey out to the world, outside the protective embrace of our womb.
Any mother who has lost a child, whether as a fetus, as a young child or a grown adult, shares an intimate and devastating experience that can only be felt in the pain in our bodies. I think each of us who has lost a child has wailed so deeply that earth shook to its core. We rocked our dead child with a love that we know can never bring them back and yet still we rocked them to satiate our innate need to comfort. Rocking our dead child in our embrace is often the only salve to not go insane. So when I see a mother in Israel or Gaza wail in pain for their child, when I see a Gazan mother hold her dead child with such intimacy and seeming numbness, I feel that presence of loss, love and insanity residing within her as if it were me. I understand that she may want to go with that child yet she must go on because of her other children who need her to stay alive. A child’s death is a singular experience for a mother, who finds absolutely irrelevant, the artificially created labels of race, nationality and religion.
Indeed, a mother’s loss of her dead child is a body-felt loss for every mother in the world.
My own child was a 3-month fetus who died in my womb. I had heard his heartbeat only a couple of weeks prior at the doctor’s office. I recall vividly that moment in the doctor’s office when my doctor told me she could no longer hear a heartbeat. I recall my disbelief that turned into despair and then numbness as I left the office. I had the option to have a procedure to remove my dead child but I chose to let it naturally pass through me. I remember cherishing every moment that the baby was still inside me though I knew it had died. I already had a sense that the baby was a boy and my husband and I had already picked a name for him. I remember sitting with him inside me, rocking and holding him, cherishing these moments that I would have with my child before he would come out to the world. The fetus passed through me unceremoniously one day when I was urinating and I recalled immediately reaching into the water and snatching him up. I was bewildered with grief as I held this little baby in the palm of my hand. I marveled that my husband and I had created this beautiful little being.
I recall sitting in our living room, on the floor, as I held my dead child in my hand. I held him to my heart and just started to wail and rock. I could see him as a toddler in that moment and felt the searing devastation, knowing he would never experience what I was imagining for him. I meditated with him until I could finally find silence within me. As I did, I felt me joining an infinite number of other mothers who had also lost their child. It was a body-felt experience of motherhood, a union with all other mothers throughout time. They comforted me as I felt I was no longer alone, quietly hiding that I had lost a child. Their union with me soothed my sense of deep aloneness and diminished my feeling of going insane. I lost that child twenty years ago, yet the experience of that loss and the embrace by all those mothers who’d also lost their children, remain palpable to me to this day. I am grateful for their comfort at my most needy time. A week after my baby passed through, with my little baby wrapped in my underwear, my husband and I buried him at my father’s cemetery plot. I was comforted to know that he was with my dad. For the decades to come, I visited my little baby every time I visited my dad.
It’s making sense to me now why seeing those little wrapped bodies get dumped in a mass grave in Gaza, with no marker for their parents to find them, nauseates me into my darkness. Every child matters. Every child was created, carried and labored into this world by their mothers. Every mother remembers the precious moments with their child. For any mother who has lost a child, we immediately empathize for any mother who loses a child, wherever they may be in the world. Our wailing, the inconsolable sadness, the verge of insanity, the numbness, the need to go on. We know those feelings intimately.
Indeed, a Sudanese Muslim mother is the same as a Sudanese Christian mother. A Ukranian mother is the same as a Russian mother. A Gazan mother is the same as an Israeli mother. We are mothers who have brought life into this world and we mourn for any child who dies. Life, living, is what matters.
Indeed. One mother’s loss is a loss for every mother in the world.