A Syrian Family's Story of Loss

Recently, the haunting image of a 5-year-old Syrian boy named Omran Daqneesh circulated on social media and other news outlets. The photograph shows him covered in dust, half of his face smeared with blood. He sits in the back of an ambulance, a look of shock on his face. Omran was rescued from his home in Aleppo after it was bombed by government forces. For many, he has become a symbol of the suffering endured by the children of Syria.

Similarly, last year in 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean sea, also caught the attention of the world and became a symbol of the perilous conditions refugees faced as they fled Syria. However, the people of Aleppo and Syria do not need symbols, they need action. They need the world to stop standing by as civilians are bombed, gassed, tortured, and killed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies. It's unclear if the image of Omran will lead to any substantive changes on the ground in Aleppo.  The catastrophe in Syria has been unfolding for five years now, and there seems to be no end in sight.

In April 2016, the PBS program Frontline aired the documentary Children of Syria. It told the story of a family living in the war-torn city of Aleppo and followed them as they emigrated to Germany. The family consisted of the mother Hala, the father Abu Ali, and four children, Sara, Helen, Farah, and Mohammed. When war broke out in Syria in 2011, Abu Ali joined the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group fighting against Assad.

Frontline first met the family in 2013. At that time, Aleppo was a ghost town of snipers and obliterated buildings, but the children wanted to stay with their father and resist Assad's regime. Unfortunately, Abu Ali was kidnapped by ISIS, and the family never heard from him again. They still do not know what happened to him. Abu Ali's disappearance convinced Hala that she and the children needed to leave Aleppo. In 2014, they made their way to Istanbul, Turkey where they applied for asylum in Germany, which, at that time, was accepting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

While waiting in limbo in Istanbul, the documentary captures a profoundly poignant and heartbreaking scene of Hala talking about Abu Ali. Her grief is so palpable as she talks about their morning ritual of drinking coffee and how much she misses him.

 It's such a gut-wrenching thing to imagine--Hala drinking her two cups of coffee, remembering her husband of more than 20 years, wondering what happened to him, aching to see him again, talking to his picture and trying to keep him present in some way. It's hard enough to cope with loss when you know definitively that your loved one is dead, but the pain is compounded when their fate is unknown. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria since the war started. The scale of death is unimaginable and the magnitude of the grief is equally unfathomable. How does one live with the trauma of witnessing so much violence and death? What do you do when the people who have killed your loved one will most likely never be held accountable for it? How will all this loss affect the people of Syria for years to come? I've thought about all these questions and more as I've followed the developments of the Syrian war. I'm not interested in symbols. I'm interested in the ordinary people who are suffering and their stories of grief, resistance, and struggle.

In 2015, word reached Hala and her children that they were granted asylum in Germany. They were relocated to the town of Goslar where the population was ageing at an advanced rate, making it an ideal place to settle refugees. The family was given a monthly stipend and access to free health care, education, and housing. The children started school, made friends, and even volunteered at a local refugee center. They were trying to rebuild their lives while not forgetting the past.

Recently, on August 19, Hala and her children traveled to the United Nations in New York City where parts of Children of Syria were shown and Hala gave a moving speech. She had a message for the world, telling the audience that "Aleppo used to be a bustling mecca. Now, it’s a vision of hell — a vibrant city, bombed into the stone ages. Families who remain live in apartment buildings without walls, their bakeries, schools and health clinics blasted into dust. I ask the world to hold on to that which unites us, now, more than ever: Love. Respect. Freedom." Hala is using her voice to speak on behalf of her homeland and to try to shake the world into action. She says the children are doing well in Germany. She says she still drinks those two cups of coffee.

Hala and her children are one story, but their story helps us get some kind of understanding of what Syrians are experiencing and the profound grief they are living with. We see the faces of Omran Daqneesh, Alan Kurdi, and Hala but there are so many more like them, so many suffering, dying, and doing the best they can to survive. They deserve our attention and our respect. The least we can do is listen, but we must do so much more.


I was watching Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words a few days ago. It consists of the home movies Ingrid made and her diaries, as well as interviews with her children and friends. At one point, her son, Roberto Rossellini, talks about how, when Ingrid and his father divorced, he had to move from Italy to an island in Sweden and he talked about how important a home is. He said so many things are always changing in life, but it's profoundly important to have a place that is stable and that doesn't change, a place that's rooted and he said that's what the island was to him.

I thought about how I once had a house of my own, a steady place where I could collect my books and keep my journals and live my life. I was embedded. I was connected. Now, I've lost that. It was unthinkable to lose my home. But it was unthinkable to lose my father too and that happened. I don't know how to cope with all of this. My home was very important to me. It was the place where I grew up, where I lived with my father, where I spent 26 years. It was the one constant through all the years of tragedy and suffering. At least I had that, even though I had no father and no family and no friends. It was there. What do I have now?

The Shadow of Grief

In my previous post, I wrote about how my mom and I are watching Broadchurch, which is a British detective show that focuses on the murder of an eleven-year-old boy named Danny and how his death impacts both his family and the community of Broadchurch. In episode six, Danny's mother, Beth, wants to meet another woman who has experienced a similar loss. The woman's name is Cate and her child was also murdered. It's understandable that Beth would want to connect with someone who knows what it's like to lose a child to violent crime. During their meeting, Cate talks about grief and compares it to a shadow.

I think it's helpful to re-conceptualize grief as Cate does. People have this idea that grief is something one can overcome, something that is temporary and impermanent, but what Cate is saying--and what my blog is dedicated to promoting--is the truth that, for many people, grief becomes part of life and can never be separated from it. Grief exists in a million ordinary moments. Just today, ten years after my father's death, I broke down because I was listening to a band and wondered if he liked it. I'll never know. I can't ask him. He isn't here anymore. He will never be here again, and how am I supposed to live with that? No one can live with it but me. I have to face it every day. I have to face those ordinary moments of grief. I have to live with the shadow that Cate describes. We all do once we experience a traumatic, life-shattering loss.

As we watched the first season of Broadchurch, I told my mom that I like the way the show delves into the family's grief and reminds us that the crime victims in the newspapers and on television are real people suffering real loss. Many crime dramas focus solely on the detectives who are solving the case but Broadchurch expands its focus and makes room for the grieving family. In one scene, Beth asks if she can hold one of Danny's friends because she misses hugging her son. In another scene, Danny's sister sees boys his age playing and has to leave school. Anything and everything can be a reminder of the dead. I've been in schools, grocery stores, movie theaters, and other public places and been overwhelmed by memories of my father. I've seen men that remind me of him, smelled cologne similar to his, and it took me days to recover. It never ends. The grief is endless. At one point, Beth asks Cate how she copes and Cate confesses that she sleeps a lot, takes sleeping pills, and even drinks. She can't cope. Some of us can't heal or come back. Some of us will always struggle to survive once the shadow of grief has touched our lives.

Scenes of Grief #2 - Broadchurch (Season 1, Episode 1)

Lately, my mom and I have become addicted to crime dramas set in the UK. We watch them on Netflix. So far, we've seen Marcella, The Fall, River, and now we're watching Broadchurch. These shows help us get through the day, help us survive a life marked by multiple traumas and tragedies. My happiest moments are when I'm with my mom, watching our shows, our "stories," as we call them.

Broadchurch is a show set in a small town on the English coast. In the first season, an eleven-year-old boy named Danny is murdered and detectives try to find who killed him. What's so compelling about the show for me is its focus on the grief experienced by Danny's family and the larger community of Broadchurch.

Growing up, I watched shows about murder. But since experiencing my own traumatic loss, I watch them for a very different reason now. I watch them because they are one of the few spaces where grief is openly expressed, where people can be upset, shattered, and wounded. I have not lost a loved one to violent crime, but I've lost my father and I feel his death every day. I search for people who share their grief because I find connection with them. I tend to watch more true crime shows, like Dateline and 48 Hours, but the detective shows in the UK are becoming an obsession of mine due to their sensitivity to victims' grief and their depth of emotion and humanity.

Broadchurch is certainly a murder mystery, but it's so much more than that. It's about a family gutted by grief. Probably more than any other television genre, crime dramas show the moment at which people are told of their loved one's death. This moment is crucial to the narrative, as it demarcates the victims' lives. One minute, life is normal and the next moment their world is completely upended. That is a profoundly resonant thing for me. 

As I watched the scene in Broadchurch's premiere when the detectives inform Danny's family that he is dead, I thought about how we can wake up with one life and go to sleep with another. Your whole life can change in a second, and I know that's cliche to say. When I write it, I'm ashamed of how unimaginative my language is, but it's true. Someone speaks the words "He's dead" and you can't feel your own body anymore, you don't understand where you are or what you are or how to breathe or function. It's so sudden, so mercilessly instantaneous, a catastrophe in your brain, a fracturing of sense and normalcy. Nothing is ever the same. Nothing will ever be right again.

Later in the episode, one of the detectives is talking to the mother on the beach near the site where her son's dead body was found. She says something interesting:

I've felt that way--so far away from myself, from life, from other people. A distance, a chasm, opens up between yourself and the world. For me, that distance has never gone away, and I haven't been able to bridge the divide. I live so wounded and shattered by my grief, so lonely, so damaged. I find what connection I can, but it isn't enough. I want my father back and I can't have him. I want myself back and I can't have her either.

A Man Searches the Sea for His Lost Wife

At The New York Times, Jennifer Percy tells the story of Yasuo Takamatsu, who five years after the tsunami in Japan, still searches the sea for the body of his missing wife, Yuko. He is not alone. He is also joined by Masaaki Narita, who lost his daughter, Emi, to the tsunami and diligently searches the water for her body.
By this January, Takamatsu had been on 110 dives, each lasting 40 to 50 minutes. He was not just looking for the body; he was also searching for a wallet, clothes or jewelry — anything that might identify his wife after five years in the ocean. 
“I expected it to be difficult,” Takamatsu said, “and I’ve found it quite difficult, but it is the only thing I can do. I have no choice but to keep looking for her. I feel closest to her in the ocean.” 
I thought of the song that a French composer named Sylvain Guinet composed for Takamatsu after he learned of his loss. The title is “Yuko Takamatsu.” Takamatsu listened to the song, a piano solo, when he shopped online, ironed his clothes, drove his car and as he fell asleep. I asked him if the song brought back memories of Yuko. “It does not bring back memories,” he said. “Because it is not something that I forget.” 
We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.”
Read the full essay at The New York Times

Listen to Sylvain Guinet's "Yuko Takamatsu"