On Death & Grieving

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Take a look at this picture. Look at the colourful apparel of traditional dresses and baju kurungs worn by these beautiful ladies. Do they look happy or somber?

Where do you think this pic was taken?

At a wedding or at a funeral?

Have a guess.

***

Look at another picture.

funeral

Where do you think this pic was taken?

***

In the past one month, I lost two relatives who I was quite closely acquainted to as a child (or rather, as closely acquainted as only a frivolous, fun-loving, carefree child can be).

As our respective nucleus family grew in numbers, we slowly drifted apart and rarely saw one another. As the years passed, my parents rarely visited other branches of the family as they used to do during Eid or any festivals because my parents nowadays have their own grandchildren who they eagerly wait upon at our own house.

Slowly but surely, the growth of our family relationship were stunted. And when we did see one another every other year, the conversation were stilted, forced and sometimes, quite painful to endure.  Slowly but surely, we lost common ground and found nothing to say of any importance to one another beyond the usual mundane small talk (that I never pretend to be good at). Slowly but surely, I forgot all cousins I used to know and became ignorant of any new additional cousins I might have acquired over the years. It didn’t help that my mother was the youngest in her family, and thus most of my cousins are at HER age than mine. While my father  – being from a broken family – was the only child being raised by my grandfather; he rarely saw his own mother (who had passed on years ago) or his other siblings (raised by his estranged mother) until he was quite old.

But the fond memories I have – of having received affectionate kisses at each visit and of receiving  lots of Eid money from my paternal great-Aunt and my maternal elderly aunt; they both recently passed away–   are something I will always cherish as part of my lovely childhood upbringing.

I mourned their passing. But you wouldn’t know it when you see me.

In fact, you wouldn’t know their close family members are mourning too if you don’t actively ask for their symptoms of grieving. It didn’t show in their smiling face. Or in the clothes they were wearing on the funeral. Or in the calm, serene manner they nodded their thanks to condolence-wishers. Or in the quiet way they continued to organize the funerals in as efficient a manner as possible.

***

As a kid, I used to equate death with great sadness. And I used to feel enormous discomfort at having to attend a funeral, because…I didn’t know what to say at the face of their great loss. Because I felt guilty that I didn’t feel sad when they must be feeling utterly devastated. I felt emotionally-deficient.  I thought whatever I said would not be enough. I struggled to say something appropriate and ended up not saying anything at all.

But actually, I really wasn’t expected to say anything at all. As a kid, I didn’t know that. I was wrong to think that what I saw on TV were what really happened in real life. And as a kid, (having some diluted Indian blood on my father’s side) I was raised with a lot of Hindi movies. Andaz, Sangam, Yaadon Ki Barat, Aa Gale Lag Jaa, Bobby, Kati Patang, An Evening In Paris, Love in Tokyo….I watched them all as a kid. My sisters and I memorized Hindi songs as a child, can you believe it?

As a kid, I saw on TV that people cried until their eyes were noticeably red; they didn’t smile even a little bit on the day their loved ones died; sometimes they fainted altogether. At times, they wailed inconsolably. Some of them stopped eating, grew weaker and finally died (perhaps happily, as they get to follow their loved ones into the hereafter).

As a kid, I felt really uncomfortable being dragged into a funeral because I – by nature – don’t like awkward situations where people feel sad and I feel inadequate to do anything about it. Because I thought that they would act the way I saw the actors acted on TV.

Just thinking about witnessing what I saw on TV for real, made me shudder.

***

In real Islamic life, it is an understood, ingrained, innate knowledge that death is only part of our life cycle and we are taught that our immediate utterance upon hearing the news of death SHOULD BE the proclamation of:

(2:156): “Inna lil-laahi wa innaa ilayhi raaji’oon [Truly! To Allâh we belong and truly, to Him we shall return.]”.

You are not expected to express great grief ad nauseum, ad infinitum. In fact, wailing is prohibited.

And to assist you to mourn properly (so that you could get on with your life faster) our Islamic guidelines on grieving are pretty thorough:

1)      Funeral is organized on the very day your loved ones pass away

–          You don’t keep the body for a few days.

–          It is recommended that the burial service is done as soon as possible. If your loved ones die in the morning, they are usually buried around noon on the very same day.

–          Closure is hastened, so that the relatives can move on faster and don’t wallow in self-pity.

2)      There are no specific dress code or colour for mourning beyond the usual guidelines on modesty.

-The first picture in this article is of my mother in her usual outfit, attending the funeral of my paternal great-aunt yesterday. Look at the others in the picture. They, too, didn’t wear somber black or grey.

3)      Wailing is prohibited.

-Nor are you allowed to tear at your clothes or slapped at your cheeks.

– We are not allowed to GLORIFY sadness, to a degree of good play-acting on TV.

– It DOESN’T mean that you are not allowed to cry at all. You may cry but not because you blame God or fate; you shouldn’t cry as a way of saying “he shouldn’t have died. It’s not fair that he died. I want to die with him. I have lost the meaning of my life without him”…and on and on you go.

4)      When our loved ones are dying, it is not our practice to go around saying, “No, don’t die. Please don’t leave me alone in this wretched world, only to live without you, because you are the meaning of my life and so on and so forth.”

-We are taught – deeply ingrained in our psyche – that upon seeing our loved ones are dying, our uppermost religious duty at that very crucial moment is to prompt our loved ones to say “Laa Ilaha Illallah.” (There is No Other God but The ONE God).

-That sacred words reflect our whole purpose of life in this world – worshiping none other but Him – and we are ambitious of dying with those words as our very last utterance.

-Knowing that fact, knowing that it is every Muslim’s need to die with those words on their lips…  the most practical thing for relatives to do is to help their loved ones do so, and with very minimal drama.

5)      The official period of mourning is three days. The sadness may last forever.  But life must go on.

-Fake it till you make it.

– You are sad and things are not yet normal for you. But fake normalcy first, then you will attain it, insya Allah.

***

“The real patience is at the first stroke of calamity” says our Prophet (pbuh).  Translated to Malay: “Sabar itu adalah pada kejutan yang pertama”.

It is not real patience if you wail for three days, stop your normal function for a week, and having got no other alternative, FINALLY said “Baiklah, saya perlu bersabar.”

As a kid, I was pretty stupid. I thought that my inability to have prolonged crying MUST meant that I probably did not feel enough; and that made me feel guilty. But the fact is such that the ‘prolonged crying’ and the ‘pathological grief’ glorified on TV is UNNATURAL. The TV is only playing with your emotion; wanting you to think that the harder the actor cries, the more loving he/she really is towards the dead.

WRONG!

In any case, there are times when you feel TOO MUCH to cry. Your grief is too private to share. Your sadness is too sincere to show.

As an adult now, I applauded my relatives for being very serene, calm and dignified. They cried for a bit, then they greeted guests, smiled at them, talked about practical matters, put on as normal an appearance as they can muster, and the next few days, they are back to normal routine (at least, outwardly).

And as a result, I have stopped feeling awkward about attending funerals. I know now that the dread that I felt about funerals as a kid was not at all realistic. I don’t have to say anything. People are not going to cry in front of me. If they say something, I only have to listen.

I don’t have to say “Moga bersabar”, thinking that I sound really fake. In fact, I don’t have to say anything at all if I don’t want to.

I don’t have to fake a greater emotion than I actually feel.

All I have to do is attend and be there, and pay my respect and pray the Solat Jenazah.

It’s not hard.

***

When I was a medical student, we learned about the Kubler Ross model of five stages of grief:

1)Denial

2)Anger

3)Bargaining

4)Depression

5)Acceptance

In facing the death of loved ones, the Muslims are religiously taught to jump straight to acceptance and say  “To Allah we belong, and Truly, to Him we shall return” upon hearing any news of death or calamity.

I don’t mean to say that we skipped the whole “denial, anger, bargaining, depression’ parts. But we are expected to hasten the whole process of getting to ‘acceptance’ in a matter of seconds, at least outwardly.

And the five stages of grief, do not necessarily follow one stage after another the way they are arranged.  The stages of grief sometimes do not follow any particular order at all.

They may later say “if only we had gone to the hospital sooner” (bargaining stage). They may later become angry and want to sue the hospital (anger stage) and so on and so forth. But the death itself is accepted, first.

You deal with the other stages, if and as, they come.

***

As a Psychiatry MO, I am not saying that it is not okay to grief, at all.

Grieving is a healthy reaction. (But some people grief pathologically)

I am not saying religious people don’t get depression at all, because they do.

I am not saying that it is religiously wrong to get depressed, because it is not. It is a disease (depression has genetic component as well) and with treatment, your depression will go away, insya Allah.

In fact if you have depression, it can be seen as a test from Allah and as a means to elevate your status in His eyes. Dr. Nassir Ghaemi (a noted Professor of Psychiatry from Harvard University) said in his book  titled ‘A First-Rate Madness’, that those who successfully overcome their depression, end up with more resilience than their so-called ‘normal’ counterparts. And if you have gone through ‘many emotional upheavals and difficulties’ in your younger days, it has a ‘steeling’ effect that will make you more prepared for other emotional challenges in your more mature years.

Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi… are some of the leaders who Professor Nassir Ghaemi had posthumously diagnosed  as having had depression in their younger days and it made them a better, more emphatic person and a great leader.

So depression can be viewed as a ‘mind vaccine’.

’What doesn’t kill makes you stronger’ kind of concept.

It is not wrong to be depressed. But I am just saying that, as a Muslim, I recognized parts of my Islamic teaching that are protective against pathological grief or depression.

And my recent experience of having lost my relatives and seeing how their family members deal with it, reinforced my gratitude to Allah for prohibiting us from glorifying and dramatizing sadness or grief. Alhamdulillah.

May Allah S.W.T have mercy on BOTH the soul of my Tok Wa and my mak ngah.  Amin.

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