Convert Muslim Foundation

Loss – Death and Bereavement

  Friday, 31 December 2021
  Convert Muslim Foundation

A Year of Blessings

Humera Khan

One thing I never expected was to experience a very personal bereavement during a global pandemic. My husband Fuad Nahdi passed away last year on 21 March 2020 just 4 days before Britain went into lockdown. From his passing on the Saturday to his funeral on the following Tuesday there wasn’t really much time to think except we were so grateful that we were able to do his funeral within the customary Islamically advised three days. The imminent lockdown meant that our personal loss and our fears about the virus were being played out simultaneously.

We were fortunate that we were able to harness technology to channel the outpouring of grief, loss and love that was coming from around the world. Technology helped in keeping people connected to the funeral and to the memorial that was organized in his name. These unprecedented times meant that we needed to think fast on how to fulfil all our obligations spiritually, socially and personally.

In ‘normal’ times it would have been totally different. We would immediately have had family and friends at our home offering both condolences and prayers. Our emotions would have been enveloped in this show of spiritual and human compassion. Instead, my children Nadir, Ilyeh and I were on our own and it was a totally new and unexpected experience but also something we welcomed.

As diaspora Muslims it is quite usual for a death to be greeted with a range of confusion regarding burial rites, women attending the funeral or not, how to arrange the post-funeral prayers 3, 7, 40 days and all that comes in between. Added to this is the discussion for a woman around ‘iddah’ (the waiting period after a husband dies) and what it actually entails! Sadly, these often chastising and conflict-ridden discussions add salt to the wounds of the bereaved and confusion reigns on the permissibility of what to do and not do. What is most evident is that these discussions invariably lack empathy and compassion. They also show a failure to understand that the days of recommended grieving are there not to prevent grief but to provide a focus for our volatile emotions at such times. The ‘limits’ recommended are not to prevent the feelings of loss or even denial about the inevitable return to our Creator and Sustainer, but to remind those around not to burden the grieving and put unnecessary demands on their hospitality. Something that is actually often forgotten.

This time last year I was been torn between the loss of our usual Muslim bereavement culture and the innovation put in place due to the pandemic. My head spins really thinking what it would have been like at Fuad’s funeral outside of this pandemic. I know for sure I wouldn’t have had a second to sit down or had a moment to think. Conflictingly, I missed the crowd and the chaos and at the same time welcomed the unexpected solitude and opportunity to stand still and breathe. Whenever I was asked about this I somehow felt the need to explain that it was both beneficial and challenging but why I felt guilty about this solitude I really don’t know but for some reason I did.

My appreciation of the solitude made me question the way that bereavement is dealt with in Muslim cultures. Questions such as: is there only one way to deal with death and bereavement? Is there a need to shift our cultural practices to be a little less full on? How meaningful are our ritual practices and do we really understand what is taking place and are we truly at peace with it? Apart from the universally agreed position that the funeral should take place as soon as possible after a death, is there space for new insights and understandings?

As Muslims we do not shirk away from the idea of death. We are clear from the get-go as the Quran tells us: “Death is inevitable. No matter how much people try to escape death, it will reach everyone” (Q 50:19). Our burial rituals are clear-cut — it is one of those rare issues that there is little disagreement. But despite our acceptance of ‘inevitability’ we are not so prepared for our grief. Expressing our emotions, being distraught about our loss or even for some a sense of anger at a life taken too soon can be seen as a spiritual weakness and a sign of the inability to accept God’s decree.

After the first three days of ‘official’ days mourning we are expected to pull ourselves together with the very well-intended words of ‘sabr’ (patience), the reminder to make ‘duas’ (prayers) and recommendation to seek solace in Quran reading. These words meant kindly and are of course helpful but grief is real and it is very raw. Grief hits you in a place like nothing you have ever experienced. In fact, if we look at the sunnah we will see that the Prophet (s) himself grieved and felt the pain of loss throughout his life for those that he loved:

Forever after, Prophet Muhammad (s) never forgot the woman with whom he had spent the earliest days of marriage and fatherhood, the woman who had known him better than anyone else.

“Innee ruziqtu hubbahaa,” Prophet Muhammad (s) said solemnly. “Indeed, her love had been nurtured in my heart by Allah Himself.” (Muslim)

When his son Ibrahim died, the Prophet (s) expressed his sorrow openly:

“The eyes send their tears and the heart is saddened, but we do not say anything except which pleases our Lord. Indeed, O Ibrahim, we are bereaved by your departure from us.” Then he turned his face towards the mountain before him and said, “O mountain! If you were as sorrowful as I am, you would certainly crumble into pieces! But we say what Allah has ordered us: (We are the servants of Allah and will return to Him; We thank Allah, the Creater of the Universe).”

From Sayyidina Ali (ra) on the passing of his wife Fatima (ra)

“Your trust (your daughter) which was entrusted to me is taken back from me. Sorrow now abides with me and happiness has taken leave. This grief is so overbearing that it engulfs and swallows other sorrows, and it has left me with sleepless nights and joyless days. From now onwards, my life will be a continued heartache until God gathers me with you both in the realm of His favour and peace.” Ali (ra) on death of his wife Fatima (ra)

 

So with these very powerful signs of grief, it is difficult to understand how we have become so unaware of the grieving process and the real internal struggles that we go through when we lose a loved one. I can only talk from experience that grief is perhaps the most powerful emotion I have ever felt. It hits you like a punch in the stomach and then after that punch you have to get up and continue with life in some kind of normal. It certainly cannot be contained in the three ‘official’ days we are constantly reminded of.

 

In Fuad’s Ba’Alawi tradition there is a special prayer gathering done after the first year when someone has passed. This is not a tradition that I remember growing up with but I have come to realise that it is something really important to do. The first days after someone passes are intense and those grieving are carried through with the support of those around. But during the first year after someone passes you are learning to live without your loved one and every day is an anniversary of what you could and even should be doing or what that day meant for you the year before or even over the years. There is an emptiness that you have to find a way to fill.

 

The pandemic, though in the end it took Fuad, it also gave my children and I the best way to grieve for Fuad and to think deeply about death, life, what is important and what isn’t. It gave us a chance we wouldn’t ‘normally’ have had and to spend time with each other and acknowledge our feelings and give space to each other. Not being able to meet in the usual Muslim tradition meant that people became more imaginative and creative in their ways of providing support, sharing a sense of collective grief and of making prayers. This made me become so aware of how our cultural practices are changing and actually this pandemic (and with the help of technology) has allowed us to feel our emotions more deeply, to work through our emotions more openly and to be expressive in ways we haven’t before.

 

Therefore, where does that leave me one year on. I know that I have gone through a rollercoaster of emotions. People tell you that you may feel these things but you kind of don’t really believe them but it really does happen. In those quiet moments alone is when grief, sorrow, regrets all jostle with each other.

 

Perhaps my most powerful emotion was the sadness I felt about Fuad’s immobility caused by his ill health in particular in the last 6 – 7 years. The first thing I did was to get rid of all his medication and anything that reminded me of the illnesses. I definitely felt a lot better for doing this and it changed the energy in the house away from his illnesses to remembering him in his wellness. For those you knew Fuad in his younger days, who saw him as this active ‘Ertugrul-type’ figure, know what I am talking about when seeing him struggling to walk and not able to do what he used to do instinctively. But his disability never stopped him from finding other ways to get across his vision or to influence change — right up until his last days he was changing the world! This thought has taken me most of this last year to work through — it is still a work in progress but I am in a better place Alhamdulillah.

 

I also felt a lot of anger. I felt anger at the failure of Muslim communities to understand Fuad’s genius, and he was a genius for sure. He used his genius despite the innumerable blockages and sabotaging by those in power within Muslim communities and who Fuad continued to make excuses for and forgive. Even this pain I have learnt to step back from to some extent.

The hardest pain to deal with is the loss of Fuad in our personal lives and still something I can’t talk too much about. In fact, the absence of Fuad in the lives of Nadir and Ilyeh was what upset me most because he still had so much to give. In particular, I continue to be saddened that he will not be able to be at our children’s weddings, which is something that he wanted most to do and to enjoy his grandchildren. We miss his spiritual guidance especially as it came with humour, realism and flexibility. Eating food is not quite the same any more because Fuad was the one who enjoyed food and cooking the most and always brought that something extra to whatever he cooked. I even miss arguing with him because I have come to realise that our often heated discussion helped us both to form our ideas and we both learnt so much from each other. These are just a couple of things that come to mind.

What I have learnt in this last year is that moving through grief is not an on-off switch but a process both individualistic and collective at the same time, it is definitely not time restricted. It is something that needs to be expressed and not suppressed. For sure those that have passed are in a better place and in the felicity of their Creator but it is those that are left behind that have to deal with their on-going loss.

Islam as a faith doesn’t deny us our grief but gives us a toolkit in channelling it and finding a way to integrate those that have passed in a constructive way into our memories. I have been so grateful for this toolkit during this last year and I don’t know how I would have got through without it.

So after the passing of this year and the help of all my wonderful family, friends and even people I haven’t even met in person before, I will remember this time as a “Year of Blessings” and the powerful force of humanity in healing and caring. All the beautiful memories shared, the prayers in Fuad’s remembrance and most definitely all the wonderful acts of kindness we have received this year have been overwhelming and for this I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Humera Khan

Is a freelance consultant and researcher on Muslim Affairs. She is one of the founder members and currently a trustee of An-Nisa Society

 

Convert Muslim Foundation would like to express our very sincere thanks to Humera for taking part in the annual Ramadan Retreat on-line event in May this year where she spoke about her loss and its impact and reflecting on the many who have endured similar challenges over these two years of pandemic.

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