Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

How People Grieve Through Religion

My friend recently lost his baby. The baby had emerged from her mother crying and kicking that day, like all newborns. But a few hours later, she was dead. They suspect an undetected complication. 

For a while after I heard the news, I could not decide on what to say if I reached out to him. How does one console their friend over such a tragic loss? Do the words even exist to make them feel better, no matter how slightly? Or would the gesture alone mean something?

Eventually, I sent him an iMessage. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” it said. “How are you holding up?” He thanked me, said he was okay, and talked about other unrelated matters. 

Later that day, he came over to my place. He showed me a picture on his phone of the baby they had taken before she passed. He was using it as his lock screen. “The baby we lost,” he said. “I’m so sorry,” I said again. I asked again how he was feeling. “Alhamdulillah. We are grateful to Allah.”

I asked about his wife, “How is she? Is she okay?”

“She has thrown herself into intense depression,” he said. “One cannot fault her,” I responded. “Yes, but it has happened. It is Allah who gives, and it is Him who takes, and He has deemed it fit to take the baby. What can she do about that? I have told her to not worry herself so much.” He chuckled lightly, with sadness so well veiled I might have missed it if I hadn’t known him for so long. He was trying to be strong.

I recognized what he was trying to do: navigate his grief through complete surrender to the will of Allah. It’s how we’re trained to move through life as Muslims. One of the first few things you are taught about Islam as a child is complete surrender to God’s will. When you hear of the death of a person, you are supposed to say “innalillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un” before you say anything else. From Allah we come, and to Him we shall return. An immediate reminder and acknowledgment of Allah’s will, to serve as a tether between your grief and your faith.

In moments of extreme emotional pain and hardship, it has been difficult to spot the wisdom or even necessity of that tether. I worry, too, that it may limit one from allowing themselves to fully experience their grief and that this may cause the pain to manifest in other unhealthy ways. But as I watched and listened to my friend deal with his pain through this idea, I considered that for a lot of people, it was the only thing capable of keeping them sane amid senseless grief. What little I know of grief tells me that it does not follow logic, and that those in its throes will oftentimes grab on to anything to make sense of their feelings. In that, I could understand why he chose to rely on religion for sense. 

Faith*, 25, says that when her sister died,  “singing worship songs and blocking everyone’s encouragement out helped my mom recover. My sister died on a Thursday, and my mom went to church on Sunday to teach Sunday school.  She focused on getting her comfort from God himself.” 

Ado*, 23, says that when his mother passed, everyone in his family grieved differently. “For my dad, it was hard for him, especially when he laid her down. I’ve never seen him look so vulnerable all my life.” 

After the funeral, his father called on him and his siblings and explained Qur’an 2:155 to them.

And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient.

“He urged us to be patient and to pray for her all the time. This was one of the incidents that helped me navigate it with ease, patience and perseverance.”

When Mimi*, 26, woke up deaf one morning after an illness, it was difficult for her to understand. She had slept the day before at the hospital, fully hearing. But that day, she could not hear a thing. “Not a single sound,” she says. Just silence. It’s been 12 years of that silence. 

“It was from that day that I held the strong belief that Allah wills everything to happen. And my motto remained ‘One door closes for another one to open’ because of the Qur’anic verse that says, ‘With every difficulty, there’s a relief.’” She says. 

“Any time the sinking feeling of sadness starts gripping me or when I remember my old self or start to wish I could hear again, I slap myself in the face — really slap myself — and say, ‘Alhamdulillah, at least I’m alive and I’m given the chance to prove to myself that I have many abilities. At least I’m now a new person and it is Allah’s blessings towards me.’” It has helped her manage breakdowns. 

When Aisha*’s grandma passed on Valentine’s Day 2021, her boyfriend at the time did not know it. And so he, innocently, sent her a funny Valentine’s Day message. She was upset when she read it. She knew that he did not know of her loss, as she hadn’t told him yet, but she was upset that people could be celebrating love on a day she had just suffered such a great loss. “It didn’t make sense to me that my friends could continue posting memes and having a good time when I felt that much pain. Somehow it felt like betrayal,” she says.

“So I was going through this and still constantly remembering the last verse of Surah Yasin

And constantly reminding myself that nobody should be tasked with sharing my grief. That was the first part.”

She also started to revisit past Islamic lectures on grief that she had listened to before, particularly about how the prophet Muhammad (SAW) experienced grief: “How he broke down after the death of Khadija, his wife, locked himself up for so long his Sahabas feared for his life.”

She  reminds herself of the last four verses of Surah Fajr

“The verses were a reminder that death must happen and it is not that we die but how we die that matters.”

Perhaps the same is true of grief.