The many waves of grief

My Uncle Ziyaad

Fragments, that's all I have left of my uncle. The last time I saw Uncle Zyaad was Eid, 2008. As my family prepared to leave his house to return home, he waved and smiled. My memory is foggy now; no matter how hard I try to remember I can’t quite picture how he looked. But I do know how I felt: safe.

When I was 5 years old, I imagined airstrikes as sugarcanes raining down from sky, because qasap (sugar cane) and qasef (shelling) are pronounced almost the same in Arabic. Back then, the idea was satisfying, until I grew up and understood the difference.

My grandmother described my uncle as being “like a breeze. He left light wherever he went.” He spent 12 years in Germany, but his parents couldn’t bear him living so far away, unable to visit. So, he returned to Gaza in 2007 and spent two months looking for work. Finally, secured a job doing data entry in a police station. He’d visit my family and the highlight of my day was his magic tricks. Then I’d curl up next to him with my yellow blanket while he told me fairy tales. I also adored it when he taught me German words. I found new languages fascinating. In my eyes, he was wise, sensitive and really handsome.

The 2008 Israeli war on Gaza was a turning point in all of our lives. For me, it was the finish line for my childhood, the time when I was forced to accommodate the prospect of death—my own or of a loved one.

It was 11 a.m. on December 27. When I was on my way to school, I heard a series of explosions. The sound was horrifying, as if my head would explode. There was smoke everywhere. I ran back to my house to find my sister crying and my mom clutching her mobile phone. She barely noticed my arrival, which was so strange. The TV was on a news channel and the announcer was saying, "Israel has launched several air strikes on Gaza City…The number of martyrs has reached 380…Israeli warplanes have hit many police stations.”

My mom rushed to my grandparents' house, and my brother and I stayed with my father. The sound of strikes was so wild and so close. We didn’t hear from my mom for about six hours, but we knew from my aunt that she, my other uncle and Uncle Zyaad’s best friend were searching the hospitals because he had been at work during the first bombardment.

We made up scenarios to relieve our worry in the meantime. One was that my uncle had left work before the attack. But then we received a phone call from my mom. In a shocked voice, she said: "We found him."

They had spent a half day searching. They looked first among the wounded and then the death records, but they found nothing. Finally, they resorted to the unknown bodies, which had no facial features remaining. In that place, they found him. My uncle's best friend stood in front of the body for a while, until he recognized my uncle's socks. He confirmed he knew for sure they were my uncle's.

At first, I convinced myself he had traveled somewhere—perhaps Germany to visit—and would return. But that fantasy could not survive for long.

When we lose someone close to our hearts, we face many waves of grief. The largest and strongest hits when the bad news arrives. We find ourselves squeezed between two forces: our conscious mind, which prepares us to accept what happened, and our subconscious, which tries to protect us by blocking it out. The second wave is s sort of ceasefire between our minds and hearts, allowing us to stabilize; the mist in front of our eyes gradually vanishes and we begin to see clearly again. The third wave is a numbing painkiller.

As time passed, my memories of Uncle Zyaad became vaguer. I am no longer able to draw a detailed picture of him in my mind. When I close my eyes, I see his smile when he waved goodbye to me. I ask myself if he had any inkling that he was leaving us. How is it possible that one airstrike could turn him and his colleagues into pieces, with no chance to give him a farewell kiss on his cheek, because there wasn't a complete body to be buried?

Living a life haunted by a ghost is exhausting. Whenever I try to move forward, the phantom pulls me two steps back. In my head, there is war after war. War without sirens, soldiers, tanks or strikes. It is an inner war launched with the first rays of sun in the morning when I am barely awake. It starts with these two questions: Why am I alive? What is so special about my existence?

Then I pull myself out of bed despite that heavy burden, deciding to take on the day. The next morning begins the same and once more I tell myself I will only find the answers if I stand up and leave my bed.

Israel’s long-term plan seems to be to kill off every Palestinian, slowly. Wherever we attempt to go, its siege clips our wings and darkens the rays of hope that try to break through the clouds. Life in Gaza is similar to The Maze Runners series, in which the characters try to escape one maze only to find themselves in another one. One turn leads to more complicated and dangerous ones. The siege on Gaza consumes our energy and lowers the ceiling on our dreams. It feeds on our ambitions, passions, happiness and youth.

Once I heard a poem called "We teach life, sir" and I wondered how we can teach life without knowing its real potential. But maybe the answer is easier than I think. We have learned to cherish every single moment we spend with our families and friends. We worship tiny details that cheer us. We admire the sea, the birds, the palms, the sunrise, the sunset, and any day that passes without drones or shelling. Each human, each moment of life matters.




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Mentor: David Heap

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