Death and Bereavement: Challenges Arising from the Pandemic
Nahmaduhu Wa Nusalli Wa Nusallim `Ala Rasulihil Karim – `Amma Ba`du
Assalamu `Alaykum Wa RahmatuAllahi Wa Barakatuhu
We have reached the second jumu`ah service of this blessed month of Muharram and the New Hijri year 1422. Insha-Allah, this weekend we will be commemorating Yawm `Ashura the 10th Day of Muharram. I invite you all to join us for a special online zoom dhikr programme and reflections on the significance of Yawm `Ashura on Sunday 30 August from 5pm-6pm. I would also like to recommend that we consider participating in Sunnah fasting Saturday and Sunday or either of these two days.
In my Nasihah today, however, I would like to briefly reflect on death and bereavement, and the additional challenges arising from the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic to these two most difficult and painful of human experiences. Many if not all of us, have during the past few months experienced the sudden passing of a family member or a close friend as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Official South African Statistics indicate that in the last four months South Africa has had over 36 500 excess deaths from natural causes, with over 13 000 deaths due to Coronavirus. According to Muslim Stats SA even though Muslims represent close to 2% of the total South African population as at 2 August 2020, 610 adherents of Islam of succumbed to Covid-19, representing 7, 29% of all Covid-19 deaths in South Africa. (read report here: https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/alarm-raised-at-disproportionate-covid-deaths-among-sa-muslims-20200803)
These are startling and sobering statistics.
Death and bereavement are ordinarily painful human experiences but what makes it even more difficult is the fact that in this time of the coronavirus pandemic when our loved ones are suddenly hospitalized, we are confronted with the agony of not being able to visit them. If they die in hospital, they are all alone and without us being able to provide them with our presence, love and care during those terminal and last moments of their lives.
It is a depressing and surreal experience that has been vividly captured in the reflections of a number of individuals who have lost loved ones under these circumstances. I would like to share the following story published by someone living in the United Kingdom who had lost his mother due to Covid-19 and made a heart-breaking video that went viral. He described his experience as follows:
“Losing someone is hard enough, but not being able to hold your family close when you do is the most gut-wrenching pain I’ve ever felt in my life. We can’t grieve, we can’t comfort each other. We can’t hold each other”
In the remainder of this Friday Nasihah I would like to provide some Islamic guidelines that may provide us with some solace in managing such a difficult, painful and surreal situation.
First and foremost, the Coronavirus which is a life-threatening and highly infectious disease should remind us about the transient nature of life and move us all to redouble our commitment to strive harder to live with each other in compassion and loving kindness. Maladies like the coronavirus is a stark reminder of our ultimate destinies i.e. the frailty of life and the inevitably of death. In this regard, the Glorious Qur’an advises us about the raison de’tre for the creation of the human being. In the famous opening verses from Surah al-Mulk, chapter 67, verse 1 and 2, Allah, the Creator and Taker of Life (al-Muhyi al-Mumit), proclaims the following:
تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ الْمُلْكُ وَهُوَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْمَوْتَ وَالْحَيَاةَ لِيَبْلُوَكُمْ أَيُّكُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا
وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْغَفُورُ
Blessed is Allah unto who belongs all dominion and has power over all things. The one who created death and life as a test in order to determine which of you is best in conduct, (Allah) is All-Powerful, Most Forgiving. (Q67:1&2)
Commentators of the Qur’an have been intrigued as to why death is mentioned in the above verse as having been created first before life. It is my considered view that the explanation for death being mentioned before life is that the test of death is perhaps of greater significance than the test of life itself, because the one who often remembers his/her mortality and death will be inspired to habitually do good deeds and to live a life of virtue.
Second, as conscientious Muslims we should also always be prepared for death as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reminds us in the following hadith narrated by the companion Abdullah ibn `Umar (ra) and recorded in the hadith collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim:
وعن ابن عمر – رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنهُما – قال : أخذ رَسُول اللَّهِ – صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّم- بمنكبي فقال: (( كن في الدنيا كأنك غريب، أو عابر سبيل )) وكان ابن عمر يقول: إذا أمسيت فلا تنتظر الصباح، وإذا أصبحت فلا تنتظر المساء، وخذ من صحتك لمرضك، ومن حياتك لموتك. رَوَاهُ البُخَارِيُّ.
The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) took hold of my shoulder and said: “Be in the world as if you are a stranger or a wayfarer passing through. Ibn `Umar (ra) also used to say: “When you go to sleep at night do not expect to live until the next morning, and when you wake up in the morning do not expect to live until the evening. Do good deeds when you are in good health before you become ill, and do good deeds as long as you are alive before you die (Sahih Bukhari)
Always being prepared for death should be seen as a sign of God-consciousness (taqwa). This includes not only being spiritually prepared, but also practically prepared for death. As such, as families we should not shy away from talking about arrangements for death. One of the worse-case scenarios when confronted with the sudden passing of a family member is not knowing what to do next or who to call. In this time of pandemic especially, it is important that we all have information at hand, including names and contact numbers of Muslim funeral undertakers, Burial societies and Muslim cemeteries. We should inform ourselves of the protocols and arrangements that should be adhered to for janazahs during lockdown, whether Covid related or not.
A “Covid janazah” as it has been locally dubbed is perhaps one of the most challenging missions, and it becomes even more complicated when members of our extended family and friends, with all good intentions, insist on attending to offer their condolences and last rites without masks and practicing physical distancing. Notwithstanding this difficult situation, it has been truly inspirational to witness how many families have been able to manage the janazah under lockdown with decorum and dignity.
For example, families have been able to make the arrangements for the recitation of a khatm al-Qur’an online before the burial and in the grieving days after the funeral. Moreover, some funeral undertakers have been kind enough to offer the family a small consolation by driving pass the house with the mayyit, and offering a brief prayer on their way to the graveyard (maqbarah). There are many more creative and innovative ways in which families have coped with the death of a loved one and provided support to each other during bereavement under this pandemic time. I would like to encourage people to continue persevering in this regard and to share their helpful experiences either via the radio or by writing about them.
Thirdly, during this challenging time, even if we or family members are in hospital or are ill, we should always stay positive, we should never lose hope of recovery, and we should always put our trust in Allah (tawakkalna `alaAllah), for Allah knows best.
If our only contact with family members in hospital is via the phone, then whenever we are able to speak to our loved ones we should provide them with hope and encouragement. Inform the patient that their loved ones and friends are all earnestly praying for their healing and recovery. Gently remind them to bear their illness with patience and forbearance (sabr) and to keep their lips moist with the Kalimah Shahada, the testimony of faith. If possible, the family should also try to arrange with the hospital staff or doctors to provide whatever spiritual support may be possible. A useful example is given in the following reflections published in the August 2020 edition of the Durban based newspaper Al-Qalam by a correspondent whose brother is fighting for his life in a local hospital. He shares the following heart-wrenching story:
My nephew, a medical specialist arranged with Bhai’s doctor to visit him for just 30 minutes. In addition to being a medical doctor my nephew is a Hafiz-al-Quran, so he made a du’a at my Bhai’s bedside and murmured soothing words of encouragement, hoping that his beloved Mamajee could hear him, despite being under induced sleep. He also briefly put on a CD of Yasin; hoping Bhai could hear and be soothed by it. Before he left the ward, a kind ward sister offered to play the “prayer” next to his bed as often as she could. My family has been heartened and taken comfort by this gesture.
Fourth, and finally, we should console each other with the firm belief that our deceased loved ones who have succumbed to the Coronavirus will not only be granted salvation in the hereafter, but will achieve the high status of a shahid i.e. a martyr. This belief is grounded in a teaching articulated in the following hadith. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) one day asked his companions the following question:
وعنه – رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنهُ – قال: قال رَسُول اللَّهِ – صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ -: (( ما تعدون الشهداء فيكم؟ )) قالوا: يا رَسُول اللَّهِ: من قتل في سبيل اللَّه فهو شهيد، قال: (( إن شهداء أمتي إذًا لقليل! )) قالوا: فمن يا رَسُول اللَّهِ؟ قال: (( من قتل في سبيل فهو شهيد، ومن مات في سبيل اللَّه فهو شهيد، ومن مات في الطاعون فهو شهيد، ومن مات في البطن فهو شهيد، والغريق شهيد )) رَوَاهُ مُسلِمٌ.
“Whom do you consider shuhada’ (martyrs) among you?” Those present replied; “One who is killed in combative jihad (al-maqtul fi sabil Allah)” The Prophet (pbuh) responded by saying; “If that is the case then the shuhada’ (martyrs) of my Ummah (community) would be very few indeed.” Then the companions asked him; “so who are the shuhada’ (martyrs)? The Prophet (pbuh) replied; “Whoever is killed on the path of Allah is a martyr, whoever passes away as a result of disaster (ta’un) is a martyr and whoever passes away by drowning is a martyr; and one who is stricken by a disease is a martyr.” (This hadith was reported by Imam Muslim).
In all of the variants of this genre of hadith reports the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is expanding the narrow understanding of a shahid (martyr) by including all kinds of suffering and pain endured by humans resulting in their demise by placing them firmly under the sacred canopy of God’s boundless compassion and mercy (rahmah). We pray and make du`a that those who have succumbed to the coronavirus will indeed be shaded by Allah’s infinite mercy ad compassion.
The trauma of the loss of a loved one under these challenging pandemic times, will live with us forever and we should seriously consider keeping a special record of the names of all of those who died, often alone under these challenging circumstances and convene a special memorial service to honour all these noble souls when we emerge from the pandemic.
In conclusion, as the world continuous to face the Covid-19 pandemic and human beings suffers its devastating consequences we offer the following prayer:
O Allah, we know that You are close to those who are heartbroken and grieving and we offer our sincere prayers to You to grant them perseverance and consolation at this time of bereavement. We beseech you to open the doors of your heavens to mercifully receive the souls of those who have succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic and to grant them salvation in the hereafter.