A Right Way to Grieve?
When a Muslim loses someone to what would seem like the jagged claws of death, we recite an ayah from the Quran, إِنَّا للهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ (Innalilah wa inna ilayhi rajioun). This translates to “We belong to Allah (SWT) and To Him we shall return.”
I often feel that people say many things, but sometimes we don’t think about what we say. If we did, we would be able to utter these words with more conviction and not feel despair. We would implement the phrase, wholly accepting the concept with ease. It takes a lot to fully accept the idea in its entirety that no life was self-prescribed, that our souls do not belong to us — so what right do we have to feel devastation when a soul is returned to its maker?
In the last few weeks, I have spoken with many people who knew my father, people I had never had the pleasure of meeting before now. They have each told me many great personal stories they have with him that I was not aware of, naturally, contributing to the construction of the personal memories that I have of him. They have shared with me how they would feel having to endure the loss of their father at such a young age, or at all — how strong they think I am, or how much they admire me, or even shedding some light on how I “should be grieving.”
The truth is, dealing with death is something no one can ever prepare you for. As you probably may know, there is no “right” way to make sense of it or deal with death. Although communicating and speaking about the very serious losses we experience is a moral imperative for survival, as all psychologists agree, a far more empowering sensation is awarded to the believer. We have every right to seek council and sanctuary from friends and family, yet we are gifted with a stronger connection to a superior source whose power will never cease, nor His ability to listen to us dwindle. Humans are flawed; seeking help in the One who can turn our hearts toward or away from a situation means going straight to the source of the pain and asking for it to be removed by its maker, Allah.
I feel our approach to death in our existing society has not been addressed thoroughly enough. A very misplaced stigma surrounds death. In our fear and arrogance, we believe it will never touch us or those closest to us. I was all too familiar with this feeling — man ever feels as if he is everlasting, and it is part of the human condition to feel this way. I am afraid that we have been deceived; we have been taught how we are subconsciously expected to fall apart, become depressed and reactive. We are conditioned to think that there is a “right way” to grieve, made to feel we must be constantly in acknowledgement of these feelings of dread that we will have to endure rather than harboring feelings of contentment. That would be called experiencing denial, the things we must succumb to now in order to feel relief later on. Psychologist Dr. Frieda Bernbaum, a research psychologist and expert on depression, discusses the idea of feeling anger to be a far healthier emotion for us when experiencing grief, as it stimulates outward expression as opposed to inward fatigue that prevents symptoms of depression from forming. Bernbaum goes on to relay how numbness helps with devastation and allows for the person to make plans for the future to make sure we are not going to fall apart during this process.
Allah’s rahma (mercy) comes in doses. He allows us to feel fear or anger — all at once or in a slow moving process — the prolongations of particular emotions before others are all small mercies.
Perceptions of Death
Through the medium of film, specifically during my childhood, I felt we were misinformed from a young age with the idea that death is something dark, to be feared. For some, it is even a sadistic tool, a grainless hourglass with a limit on life and living. Due to our perception of death, it is a tragedy, something we spend most of our time in avoidance of, because we grapple at our things, our people, and our dreams on earth for the fruition of our security. The relationships we forge and attachments to material things around us all become reasons to hate and dread the calling of death. Why wouldn’t we? We have invested in a considerable amount of time here, with them, surrounding us like velvet padding from the inside of a safe-box. It is not our fault that this is all that we have ever known — this false sense of security we place on transient things continues to cement itself each day, becoming a sedimentary safeguard.
Let’s be honest: The sadness we feel from any kind of loss inside won’t subside completely, but why must we associate and attach negative sensations to a very large portion of what life and living entails? We hurt because we love. Perhaps if we didn’t know what the sensations of love felt like, we wouldn’t hurt as much — and what more of a loss that would be, to not be able to feel anything at all. Death is misunderstood, and it is nothing any of us here today have experienced; those who have, never return to tell us about what it feels like. All we have is a kaleidoscope of perceptions, a hand-stitched silk patchwork sewn and coordinated with our minds. Tales communicated through language, bound by religious truths in scripture. To me, the condition itself isn’t something negative or bad. What we are afraid of is the unknown, and that is a natural reaction.
To Stomach it All
In Islam, death and all it entails in its entirety actually makes up a vast part of our belief system. To believe in the Hereafter is one of the six articles of faith. To embody that level of trust and belief actually serves to redeem the mind of insecurity and instability, because through it we are given direction and a holistic purpose. It is in fact the only certainty we have, so we are told to think about it and understand it often. Abu Hurayra reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said:
“Remember frequently the thing [death] that cuts off pleasures.” [at-Tirmidhi]
Ibn ‘Umar used to say:
“In the evening, do not anticipate the morning, and in the morning do not anticipate the evening. Take from your health for your illness and from your life for your death.” [al-Bukhari]
Look at the profound wisdom. We have been essentially informed from day one to train our young minds that this is our one certainty, to prepare ourselves to detach from anything that is not everlasting. This isn’t sadistic or sinister, it is a realistic and merciful preparation and serves as a mechanism. Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said:
“It is not right for a Muslim man who has anything to bequeath to spend two nights with having a written will in his possession.” [Agreed upon variant in al-Bukhari]
Having this useful information available helps a young mind — not yet developed enough to experience such a high intensity of pain and sorrow — to deal with a strange, surreal reality received through an array of lenses, depending on who we are. What a mercy that we are kindly told how to deal with a loss to help protect our mental wellbeing by detaching from anything that isn’t everlasting. But more importantly, we are taught that our time is limited, so use it wisely and do good, as there will be no regret for any loss if we spent time with them in goodness. In our existing societies it should become a duty of the older generation to teach children that we are all dying and that every minute more we have is a gift. Wouldn’t we spend our time better?
Many pay thousands for therapy sessions to talk about this turmoil we sometimes feel in the pit of our stomachs — that subtle, unexplained, unsettling to-ing and fro-ing inside for different circumstances. In Islam, we are reminded of why we feel like this. We are reassured there is nothing wrong with us, but that we were just not built for this world and that is why we struggle. Our souls were built to be close to the light of their maker. Through this lens, embracing death means returning home — to our light, our nourishment, our Creator — where our true life begins. This doesn’t mean we should rush toward death. In fact — as related by al-Bukhari, Allah says, “I do not hesitate about anything as much as I hesitate about [seizing] the soul of My faithful servant: He hates death and I hate hurting him.” Rather, if it befalls us or those close to us we can find peace and contentment in knowing they are on a journey toward light and familiarity, and not toward darkness and the unknown.
How can we fear a thing that we are reassured will become the doorway to eternal bliss, that we humans in our fragility find hard to comprehend? Explorers of the past would settle, proud of what they have unearthed, convinced they have found the richest island, as they cannot see the bigger more enriching island in the distance. We are those explorers here on earth, in our arrogance. We perhaps feel that we have found paradise already, and that it couldn’t get any better.
Without Islam, I wouldn’t find certainty in knowing my father is content, honored and safe where he is. I wouldn’t find peace or answers. I am grateful for the Hadith and Quran that take us through the journey of life after death, informing us of what will happen. They equip us with the tools we need for the long and wondrous adventure ahead. Islam also provides us with hikma (wisdom) for those left grieving and the amount of time whereby they must be left alone (three days) before visitors come to aid them. We are given knowledge about where the ruh (soul) goes after death and how it asks Allah about his/her family. We are reassured that Allah brings comfort to the soul. We are told that when the soul reaches the body again after burial, it can hear the voices of its loved ones as they pass by the grave.
Trials come to us in the form of good or bad, but we are reassured that both are good for us, and that it is all part of a very intricately thought-out design and plan. We are taught when touched by a calamity to remain beautifully patient, and accept it with grace, as just a part of life. They say pressure creates diamonds and fire refines gold — the most fearful experiences create beautiful characters.
Remember that it will not last, and the velocity of the test will depend on how readily we are able to accept destiny in its entirety, as all trials are a test of faith. Enduring the test now to experience a great reward later comes with huge psychological benefits of letting go, and finding peace of mind in things we just cannot control. Curious is the case for the believer, for his trials are always good for him. I am not claiming to know the right methods.
That is a very personal journey for each soul to undergo. I can’t tell anyone else in the world how to feel or what to think, nor should anyone have the right to rob another person of that agency. I can only narrate my own truths and understanding, but for a young woman struck by what would seem to be one of life’s harshest trials, the worst has come and passed. I have found some sanctuary of the mind in knowledge and comfort through belief. Islam’s truths and answers serve to satisfy the spiritual, scientific or emotively driven mind, we only need to cast our vision beyond ourselves to find the sweetness of iman (faith).
Written by Hanan Arcadian
Image from Wikimedia Commons