Dear Sisters and Brothers,
My father died recently. And when I wasn’t nursing my irreparably broken heart or praying for his everlasting happiness in the gardens of Paradise, I was taking mental notes on what helped me cope and what didn’t. Mostly because I like observing social behavior and I love analyzing myself (memoirist in the making alert!) and also because it was something to do.
And one of the things I realized is that a whole load of people have NO idea what to do or NOT do when someone passes away. As an act of public service, I thought I would share some thoughts.
So, consider the following your primer on sharing someone’s grief. Let’s call it Condolence 101, shall we?
1. Make the Connection
A generic message is better than no message.
A personal message is better than a generic message.
A phone call is better than a personal message.
A visit is better than a phone call.
Multiple visits are better than a visit.
Geographical limitations aside, do the best you can and soon. (Because sympathy delayed is effectively sympathy denied.) This applies to everyone over the age of 18.
If a relative or the relative of a friend, colleague, acquaintance passes away, you must make the connection. It’s a job and you still have to do it. It’s hard and it makes you really sad and you still have to do it. It’s awkward and embarrassing and totally makes you squirm like a jellyfish and you still HAVE. TO. DO. IT. Because hashtag adulting.
Also, just in case you’re blissfully operating under the assumption that the bereaved are so busy grieving that they possibly can’t be busy engaged in something as petty as noting who has made the connection and who has not, let me stop you short right here and tell you straight up: They are totally noticing and totally healing or hurting over the connection or lack of it.
2. Be Willing to be Vulnerable
Stumbling over your words. Choking up. Gibberish along the lines of “I’m sorry, I wish, I’m really sorry, I can’t imagine how you, I’m so sorry.” All okay. Total silence in which the bereaved is feeling pressure to fill up the gaps or lighten the mood, not so okay.
3. Write it Out/Say Names
If you’re writing an email or Whatsapp to express your condolences, you have the gift of hiding behind a screen…use this gift well, brave soldier and go forth in verbosity.
“Hiba, I’m so very sorry about your Baba. May Allah widen his grave and elevate his rank. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. I’m thinking of you and praying for him. Please let me know if there is any way I can help.” means infinitely more than “sorry for yr loss, rip.”
The sentiment might be the same or heck, even greater behind the short message, who knows, but the thing is too much succinctness and it comes across as cold. Now is the time to take a few minutes, stretch yourself and type a little generously and alertly. I promise it won’t kill you. (spoiler alert: something else will, cuz, Life.)
4. Ask (Loving) Questions
How are your siblings coping?
How can I help?
Tell me something about her?
Can I see a picture of him?
When can I drop off a big bag of Hershey’s silver kisses just for you?
All great questions! Kind questions demonstrate care and interest. They show your willingness to give a slice of your heart over to the other person, if only for a small while.
5. Do Nice Stuff without Asking
No one hates a quick squeeze of the hand, a friendly Whatsapp first thing in the morning, or a glass of water. Really, no one. Acts of service are a major love language and death is the perfect time to remember to take care of the living.
6. Don’t Make the Pain about You
Father, mother, husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister. Buddhist tradition calls the deaths of these The Eight Losses. They are universally considered the most crippling of deaths and every other relationship loss, no matter how close, is secondary.
Even if you feel like you simply cannot bear your cousin’s pain, or will die, just die without your dearest friend or will miss your favorite aunt so very desperately, if you are not of the immediate 8 relationships mentioned above, wipe your tears, step up and offer solace.
7. Don’t Make it a Party
If you’re at a funeral or a meeting to express your sorrow, behave that way.
Okay, so personally speaking, when we weren’t all weepy, we were laughing a lot at my dad’s funeral. Here’s the thing: the directly bereaved are allowed all sorts of dotty behavior. (Plus humor is my family’s coping mechanism…we’ve been doing gallows-like talk about my dad for years and its been just the best for us so I’m sure it works for others too.) But, during a funeral, OTHER people/nonfamily members cracking up over the latest political scandal or gossiping about a difficult neighbor when its time to be in respectful silence or contemplative prayer = not so nice.
8. Don’t be Uncouth
This includes calling the deceased “body”, as in “When is the body being moved?”. If you’re thinking what the big deal is and we are Muslim and we know the soul and the body are separate yadda yadda, here’s a thought. Think of your most favorite person on the earth. Now imagine them passing away suddenly and a few hours later someone is referring to them as “dead body.” Exactly. Lets collectively cringe over this and vow to be more careful. Equally unclassy is the Urdu variation “mayyat”. “Mayyat ko lao, mayyat ko lay jao”. Ermagerd, please stop.
9. Share a Good Memory
Whether it was a fleeting interaction, “I saw him at your wedding and loved how happy you all looked” or a more detailed one, take a few minutes to think through and share an anecdote. It doesn’t need to be profound or have some deeper philosophical connection behind it for it to be meaningful.
One of the greatest gifts that emerged after my father’s passing was a plethora of messages cousins from all over the world sent me and each of them shared a long, thoughtfully composed personal memory they had of my Baba. They ranged from the mundane to the powerful and each was delightful. I read those memories, laughing, nodding, crying all at once. I shared them with my husband. I re-read them at odd hours of the day. And I felt full, full, full each time.
10. Say Complimentary Things
If you personally knew the deceased, this is easier to come up with. Praise anything you want because at this time every kind word is like a balm to grieving hearts. It can be a personality aspect, a physical feature or just the way they made you feel.
If you don’t know the deceased, but a relative of theirs, its harder to be complimentary but do go ahead and make some sort of imaginative, creative leap anyways:
He must have been a wonderful brother to have such adoring sisters.
Her smile is just like yours.
If he raised you, there’s no doubt he was an amazing father and person.
She had such a kind presence about her.
I think he had such a gentle voice.
I loved how she always looked so fresh and colorful.
Bonus: This is a total sunnah practice and is recorded by the angels for that person. Good deeds coming by you so easy, huh?!
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading all this. I hope it helps someone, somewhere. Allhumma ameen.
– – –
To read more of Hiba Masood’s work, find her on www.facebook.com/etdramamama
Our Struggles – Mental Health And Muslim Communities | The Family and Youth Institute
By Elham Saif, Sarrah AbuLughod and Wahida Abaza
Fariha just started her freshman year at university. Overnight, she was separated from her support system of family and friends and thrust into a foreign environment. She was facing many new challenges, including a heavier workload, new friends, student clubs and organizational responsibilities. She was drowning in endless assignments, exams, and meetings.
Fariha never thought much about mental health issues beyond the few “mindfulness” posts that she’d scroll through on her Instagram feed, but recently she was starting to feel out of sorts. She started to feel anxious as a hijab-wearing woman on campus especially after hearing about anti-Muslim incidents on the news. All of the possibilities of what could go wrong played over and over again in her head–and kept her up at night. Everything was beginning to feel overwhelming. She started having trouble getting out of bed in the morning and was losing motivation to complete her assignments. She felt confused and at times, even afraid.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, close to 50 million Americans suffered from mental health issues in 2017. One in 5 adults in America is living with a mental health illness at this very moment. American Muslims are not an exception to these statistics. According to different studies, like Fariha, 15-25% of American Muslims report suffering from anxiety disorders and 9-30% report mood disorders. Many of these mental health issues in the Muslim population go unaddressed and unresolved because of lack of knowledge, stigma and shame experienced in many Muslim households and communities.
When these issues go unaddressed, people report that the pain and suffering they experience rises and that overall their problems tend to get worse. Sadly, their struggles can snowball into additional illnesses that were not present before, such as self-harm or addiction. According to the research, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are sometimes not considered to be “real” illnesses. Community members often see mental illness as a sign of weakness, a mark of poor faith, or something that doesn’t affect Muslims. They may also see it either as a “test from God” or sometimes as possession by evil spirits. Even when there is an awareness, many of these illnesses and issues are culturally stigmatized as shameful and kept hidden within the person or family. People may be concerned about the reputation of their family or their marital prospects should a psychiatric diagnosis be disclosed.
The irony is that Islam ought to be more of a protective factor given how intertwined Islamic history is with the fields of psychiatry and psychology. The contribution of Islamic scholarship to the field of psychology is documented in our history and legacy from health promotion in the Quran and Sunnah, to early scholarly diagnosis, treatment, and intervention. Alaa Mohammad, FYI researcher and co-author of the chapter “Mental Health in the Islamic Golden Era: The Historical Roots of Modern Psychiatry” in Islamophobia and Psychiatry points out that,
“there was a lot of focus on concepts like ‘sanity’ and the significance of mental capacity as well as the general mental/emotional state in many of the early Islamic texts especially in regards to Islamic rules and law.”
Early Islamic scholars described the “cognitive components of depression and sadness, anxiety and fear, obsessions, and anger in detail and suggested a variety of therapies and treatments.” Learning more about this rich history and pulling from these stories in the Prophet’s (SAW) seerah is a key step towards opening the way for people to get the help they need and learning how to support one another.
Fariha knows that she needs help. She was considering seeing one of the mental health workers on campus, but she’s afraid of what her parents would say if they found out she shared so much with a stranger, especially one that is not a Muslim.
What can parents do?
Research has found that in the face of rising Islamophobia, supportive parenting serves as a protective factor and helps strengthen young Muslims’ sense of identity while unsupportive parents who don’t help their children navigate their experiences end up weakening their identity, which then increases their chances of participating in more risky behavior.
When Fariha finally shared her fears and anxieties with her parents, she was surprised and relieved to hear that they took her seriously. They listened to her and she didn’t feel like they were ashamed of her, only concerned for her well being. They were eager to find her the help she needed to feel like herself again.
As Muslims, we need to shift our mindset around mental illness and the effects of Islamophobia. Like Fariha’s parents, it is imperative that we listen carefully and look more deeply at the issues facing our youth. It is through this openness that we can reduce the stigma and encourage more people to seek help.
The Family and Youth Institute recently released an infographic that talks about some of the struggles facing our American Muslim communities. They teamed up with Islamic Relief USA to get this infographic printed as a poster and will be sending them to over 500 masajid/community centers around the United States in the coming months.
What can you do to help?
- Reduce the stigma by sharing this article and infographic and starting a conversation with your friends and family members. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize and destigmatize mental illness and move towards mental health.
- Organize a community conversation around the issue of mental health. Invite a mental health specialist to come speak to your mosque youth group or parent group.
- Seek therapy when needed. Connect with SEEMA and the Institute of Muslim Mental Health for a list of Muslim therapists. If you are seeing a clinician who is not Muslim, share this book Counseling Muslims: Handbook of Mental Health Issues and Interventions with them to give them a better sense of the specific religious and cultural needs of their Muslim clients.
- Educate yourself – There is a plethora of information out there about mental wellness and wellbeing. For help navigating through it all, sign up for The FYI’s daily article share to receive vetted infographics, articles and videos on this topic. Mental health affects our whole life. Whether you are struggling with bullying, helping a loved one with depression, living with and caring for an elder or wanting to build the best environment for your new baby, we have a resource for you!
These steps are just small ways we can begin to shift the conversation away from shame and stigma and towards help and healing. Mental illness and mental health issues can be scary, but they do not need to be faced alone and in isolation. As the Prophet Muhammad said, “The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” Together, we can fight the existing stigma and misconceptions, provide support, educate the community and advocate for our brothers and sisters suffering with mental illness and their families.
Aftab A., & Khandai, C. (2018). Mental Health Facts for Muslim Americans. APA Division of Diversity and Health Equity, Washington, DC.
Basit A, & Hamid M. (2006). Mental health issues of Muslim Americans. The Journal of Islamic Medical Association of North America, 42(3), 106-110.
Ciftci A., Jones N., & Corrigan, P.W. (2013) Mental health stigma in the Muslim community. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 7(1), 17-32.
Hodge, D.R., Zidan, T. & Husain, A. (2016). Depression among Muslims in the United States: Examining the role of discrimination and spirituality as risk and protective factors. Social Work, 61(1), 45-52.
Zong, X., Balkaya, M., Tahseen, M., & Cheah, C.S.L. (2018). Muslim-American Adolescents’ Identities Mediate the Association between Islamophobia and Adjustment: The Moderating Role of Religious Socialization. Poster session presented at the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development, Queensland, Australia.
Loving Muslim Marriage | Is it Haraam to Talk About Sex?
Female sexual nature and female sexual desires are often misunderstood, especially among Muslims. There are some classes and seminars by Muslim speakers that offer advice to Muslim couples about intimacy but unfortunately, the advice is not exactly aligned with correct female sexual nature.
So we decided to come together to clarify these misunderstandings and explain the sexual nature of women and their desires, so we can help build healthy intimacy within Muslim marriages leading to happier Muslim marriages.
This is going to be a series of videos that we will release every week, inshaAllah.
What should be expected out of these videos?
Each video will address a specific myth or misconception about either female sexuality, or Muslim marriage to help men better understand women. We will also explore male sexuality and other subjects.
– to help better quality marriage
– to help couples- both men and women- get a more satisfying intimate life
– to help women navigate intimate life in a manner where they are fulfilled, paving the way for involvement and desiring of intimacy; breaking the cycle of unsatisfying intimate lives for both husband and wife
Please keep in mind that these videos are for people with normal sexual desires — they are not meant to address asexuality.
The content of these videos is a mean to provide marital advice based on mainstream orthodoxy as well as best practices and relationships.
Some experts joined us in these videos to offer their expertise from an Islamic and professional perspective:
Shaikh AbdulNasir Jangda: He was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and at the age of 10 began the road to knowledge by moving to Karachi, Pakistan, and memorizing the entire Qur’an in less than one year. After graduating from high school, he continued his studies abroad at the renowned Jamia Binoria and graduated from its demanding seven-year program in 2002 at the top of his class with numerous licenses to teach in various Islamic Sciences. Along with the Alim Course he concurrently completed a B.A. and M.A. in Arabic from Karachi University. He also obtained a Masters in Islamic Studies from the University of Sindh. He taught Arabic at the University of Texas at Arlington from 2005 to 2007. He served as the Imam at the Colleyville Masjid in the Dallas area for three years. He is a founding member and chairman of Mansfield Islamic Center.
He is the founder of Qalam Institute and he has served as an instructor and curriculum advisor to various Islamic schools. His latest projects include Quran Intensive (a summer program focusing on Arabic grammar and Tafsir), Quranic analysis lectures, Khateeb Training, chronicling of the Prophetic Biography, and personally mentoring and teaching his students at the Qalam Seminary.
In these videos, Sh. Jangda helped present the Islamic rulings and corrections of various misconceptions regarding intimacy and female sexuality.
Dr. Basheer Ahmed: He is a Board Certified Psychiatrist with 18 years of teaching experience at various medical schools. He started off his career by teaching at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York as a Psychiatrist in 1971. Then he started his own private practice in 1984 till the present time. Meanwhile, he continued to teach at various universities around the U.S.
He is also the Chairman of MCC Human Services in North Texas.
In these videos, Dr. Basheer explained several psychological conditions that women may suffer through when they are sexually dissatisfied in a marriage.
Zeba Khan: She is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate.
She helped address the uncomfortable myths and misconceptions throughout these videos and helped provide the correct perspective of female and marital intimacy for Muslim couples to enjoy a better marriage.
Usman Mughni: He is a Marriage & Family Therapist and holds a Master’s of Science degree
Northern Illinois University and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Maryland, along with a degree in diagnostic medical imaging. He worked as a therapist at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in the Center for Addiction Medicine. Usman has experience providing counseling to individuals, couples, and families at Northern Illinois University’s Family Therapy Clinic along with experience working with individuals, couples, and families struggling with chemical dependency and mental health diagnoses and running psychoeducational group therapy at Centegra Specialty Hospital’s partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs.
Since Usman enjoys working with couples to help bring tranquility back into the marriage and providing premarital counseling to couples who hope to have a successful marriage at a time when divorce seems to be on the rise, he especially joined us in this series to offer his expertise. He highlighted the most common intimacy issues in Muslim marriages that he has observed throughout the years of his experience as a therapist. His insights and knowledge has helped us clarify many misconceptions not only regarding female sexual nature but also about men and marital intimacy.
Ustadha Saba Syed: She has a BA degree in Islamic Studies. She studied Arabic Language and Literature at Qatar University and at the Cairo Institute in Egypt. She also received her Ijaazah in Quranic Hafs recitation in Egypt from Shaikh Muhammad al-Hamazawi.
She’s been passionately working towards empowering Muslim women through the correct and untainted teachings of Islam. She is a pastoral counselor for marriage, family, women and youth issues. She has hosted several Islamic lectures and weekly halaqas in different communities all over U.S and overseas. SHe also hosted special workshops regarding parenting, Islamic sex-ed, female sexuality, and marital intimacy.
She took the initiative of putting together these videos because through her pastoral counseling experience she realized that there are many marital intimacy problems in Muslim marriages, mainly due to the misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding female sexuality and female sexual nature.
Hence, with the speakers above, and with these videos we hope to clarify and explain as many myths and misconceptions that we believe have become a hindrance to happiness and success in Muslim marriages. We welcome your comments and suggestions in order to make this series more successful.
Losing Our Parents, Finding Ourselves
“To lose one parent is misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.” – Oscar Wilde
If I am to take Mr Wilde’s words to heart, I’ve had an extremely careless kind of year. Despite our utter devotion to our extremely beloved parents and our best efforts to hang on to them, my siblings and I still went ahead and lost them both about ten months ago.
A long-drawn-out, physically and mentally ravaging illness in which he (and us) suffered for over a decade, took my brilliant, generous, math genius of a laughing, twinkly-eyed father. Upon which, a day after his funeral, my wise, gentle, hostess in chief, caregiver-supreme of a mother promptly contracted a deathly cancer of her own and within a few rollercoaster months, went out like a shooting star.
In between, just to keep things interesting, I also unexpectedly lost a beloved khala (my maternal aunt), a dear long-time family doctor, and our pet cat, who in perfect health one day, dropped dead on our front door the next morning, without any warning whatsoever, completing what was certainly a most eventful year.
I like to think my sister, brother and I, we took all these losses with patience and resilience, in more or less stride…holding fast to the rope of Allah, understanding His qadr and accepting His will as better and wiser than anything we could’ve willed for ourselves. We did this not because we are unfeeling robots or super-mu’mins but because this is how our parents raised us. They raised us to be strong and smart and strong, smart people don’t crumble in the face of what life throws their way. Doing so would be a betrayal of who we were as a happy family and we loved each other just too much to betray.
At least, that is what I loftily tell myself during daylight hours, when the sun is shining and the business of living takes precedence over the philosophy of dying. Because at night, when the house is still and quiet, when my children are curled up in their own beds when the work is done and I put my head to pillow, it is a lot trickier to be so practical-minded.
Every night, every single night for the last 10 months, when I lie down in the dark, before I fall asleep, no matter how hard I try to not have it happen, my mind insists on playing a torturous film. First, I watch my dad die. I am catapulted, in the pitch blackness of my room, back to the night of him in his bed, his eyes closed, his chest slowly rising and falling, rising and falling. I see myself standing beside him, my hand resting on his heart. I see my mother sitting beside us, head bowed.
We are breathing with him, both willing and not willing each next breath. There is nothing different in his outward appearance to suggest the end is near, but the air in the room is holy and we know what’s coming. We don’t move from beside him for one hour, then two, then three. Somewhere past midnight, I see/feel/hear the absolutely deepest silence I have ever encountered. He is gone. So quietly, one would have missed it if they weren’t right there. I see myself exclaim through the tears, “All praise to Allah for He has rescued my Baba from pain.” and I hug my mother.
But my hug doesn’t last. Because, immediately after, it is my mother’s turn. She is in the same bed, the bright morning light flooding into the room. Everyone dear to her is assembled around her, praying and reciting, in aching disbelief that something so similar is happening so soon. Her eyes are wide open and she is breathing faster and faster. I am telling her “Allah loves you, I love you, you’re doing so great, don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine, straight to Jannah, Ma, straight to Jannah“. Suddenly, her whole face softens, relaxes, eases into a radiant smile. She recites the kalima, the room rings with Allahu Akbar and she’s gone.
Earlier, I used to always sob through this entire montage. Pity for myself, grief for who I had lost, the ache of missing them in every imaginable future that lay ahead, would fill my eyes and drench my pillow. The reality of our situation hitting me afresh in the gut: We are orphaned, the roof blown off our heads in a whirlwind of a year, wondering how exactly does one live without the people who taught them how to. Later, as a few months passed, I watched with a more grim, gritted teeth patience. I knew I had to get through this if I wanted to eventually fall asleep. More recently, and this is perhaps the evolution of grief, I have begun to watch with a tender fondness, a dawning understanding of how privileged I was to see the peaceful passing of two righteous people, how lucky I have been to be taught that to love someone, to truly love them, means to bear witness to their journey of becoming more and more human.
And is there anything, ANYTHING more essentially human than death? I bore witness to my parents’ humanity till their very last breath on earth. And because I am human, and I believe in being kind to myself, I finally know that I am not losing my mind or being weak when I keep revising and reviewing this film each night. Instead, I am taming and teaching my very human mind to accept, to submit. I know that all my mind is trying to do as it wrestles every night in the dark, is attempting to make the most beautiful sense out of a most necessary reality.
How do we love? How do we let go? How do we gracefully bear witness to the final moments of our beloveds? How do we prepare for our own final moments?
These questions will take a lifetime to answer.
Perhaps you, dear reader, are already facing these questions. If not, you will certainly face them someday. The truth is, we will all, each of us, one day lose someone we desperately love, despite our very best efforts and most valiant hopes not to. This is the reality of this world. It will not be misfortune or carelessness on our part…it will simply be Allah reminding us that we belong only to Him, that only He knows what is good for us.
If last year, for me, was the year of loss, then this year and all the years ahead are the years of making sense of this loss and deriving meaningful meaning from it. In losing my parents, I must find my self. That is the only thing that will help my parents now. Because, when they were alive, I think I tried my very best to do my due diligence in bearing witness to their humanity. Now that they are in their graves, I can only hope and pray that on the Day it really matters, I am able to bear witness for my parents again: “Oh Allah! Have mercy on them as they did on me when I was younger.”
This is what our loved ones need from us. Prayers, good works so that we may be sadaqa-jaariah, and a relentless testifying to He who listens to all aching, breaking hearts, both in day and night: They were good, Allah. They were good. Have mercy on them.
May Allah forgive our parents, elevate them and reunite us all in Jannah.