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.
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To read more of Hiba Masood’s work, find her on www.facebook.com/etdramamama