Disclaimer: This is a good 15 minute read. Set aside some quiet time to read this properly. Contains themes of a pressing and perspective altering nature!
Objectives of this post:
- Remember death as a daily reality
- Remember that regret is eternally binding
- Remember that death gives life purpose
- There is a right and wrong way to grieve
1. Death is a daily reality
Death is the subject you’ve swept under the carpet, like your self assessment taxes which you spend until 31 January arrives and then realise you haven’t sufficient funds to pay your dues. Death is that destination that requires preparation, yet in the daily grind of life we forget the destination as we become blinded by that career dream, that guy or gal, that designer bag or that video game, that coffee and walnut cake that awakens one sense only to silence the rest. The hunger for this earthly realm is never satiated no matter how good your baking skills, how dreamy that guy or gal is, how necessary that bag and those shoes are and that trip to the Amalfi Coast where you’ll indulge in copious amounts of pizza and gelato.
I digress; it’s an earthly condition. We digress. We get so distracted by the window shopping side streets that pave our lives that we miss the sign posts screaming the end goal.
In an article by George Monbiot, when talking about his recent cancer diagnosis, he writes,
“There are, I believe, three steps to overcoming fear: name it, normalise it, socialise it. For too long, cancer has been locked in the drawer labelled Things We Don’t Talk About. When we call it the Big C, it becomes, as the term suggests, not smaller, but larger in our minds. He Who Must Not Be Named is diminished by being identified, and diminished further when he becomes a topic of daily conversation… So I have sought to discuss my prostate cancer as I would discuss any other issue. I make no apologies for subjecting you to the grisly details: the more familiar they become, the less horrifying. In doing so, I socialise my condition.”
And in a recent interview, actor Antonio Banderas who survived a heart attack in January 2017 said this on the subject of death,
“It was something that I knew before, but then you see it very clearly in front of you – and that’s that the existence of death is very real.”
Yet when we put the subject of death on the dinner table there is this odd discomfort with a reality that faces us all.
It is fascinating that even though each day that passes, every birthday that passes, we draw nearer to our death-day, we don’t seem to address the subject as a very real and daily concern for which we ought really to be preparing for.
This is a subject that needs socializing.
Death is the single biggest reality of our existence and the most regrettable one to leave addressing until old age.
With that said, there are three further issues to remember about death:
- Repair and improve critical (family ties) relationships before you no longer have the chance. Remember that your regret won’t be fleeting; you will hold that regret and the payment of that regret not only in this lifetime but in the eternal one to come. Many things are temporary except regret.
- Death gives your life purpose. Be selective about how you spend the time you have in this life before you yourself come to expire. Paradise isn’t cheap; property prices are higher than a two-bed, two-bath in London and the currency isn’t money but the condition of your heart and the quality of your deeds.
- There is a healthy way to grieve and an unhealthy way to grieve. Islam sets out in detail the healthy way and to ignore this in precedence of making excuses for the gravity that death’s grief presents itself is self indulgent; like a morbidly obese person who continues to eat cake because he feels sad, despite knowing it is now critically harmful to him.
2. Regret is eternally binding (disclaimer: God is Most Merciful)
Maximize not only quality time with your loved ones so that you don’t regret moments (not) spent together when one of you is no longer there, but also repair relationships that have suffered and borne bruises from your pride and ego. Those who stayed standing by you and loved you unconditionally, those who sacrificed for you and went the extra thousand miles for you. Those who even when you showed darkness and unkindness, still hoped and rooted for you to find your way to the light. Those who are your punching bag when you fall down, those who are the rock you clutch onto when you are drowning in the crushing waves of life.
And those also who did nothing for you, those who could have done infinitely better for you but didn’t. Yes, there are some among us who don’t have great parents or siblings but that is not an excuse that God permits us to use when it comes to maintaining the ties of kinship.
Recall this advice of the Prophet:
People talk about regretting time with a loved one as if that regret is fleeting and only something they will bear for this lifetime, as if they can compartmentalize that regret and never have to face it. That death will somehow free them from that regret. Perhaps it will! The Mercy of God is exponential but that does not absolve you of responsibility from striving to correct your regrettable actions. Repentance without action does not guarantee dissolution of your wrongful actions and your causing pain to another person. If you broke the heart of a loved one, you will come to pay a hefty price.
Imam al-Shafi’i remarked, “There is a verse in the Quran that every wrongdoer should be terrified of.”
He was asked, “Which verse is that?”
Therefore be swift to repentance and making amends.
Just as there are several levels of enlightenment, several levels of love, there are also several levels of repentance and it is incumbent upon us to expend ourselves in trying to reach the highest levels.
3. Death gives your life and time purpose
Allah says in the Qur’an:
Thinking about death gives our lives structure and meaning, it reminds us to invest our time wisely in pursuits that will benefit us in both lives.
Thinking about death daily helps us to avoid life going off on harmful tangents, of course some tangents are a necessary part of our learning and development but remembering death can help steer a more sirat-ful course!
Perhaps the most poignant message Allah gives us about the importance of death is in Surah Mulk, the 67th chapter of the Qur’an where in the commonly used phrase “life and death”, God instead writes “death and life”.
And why is death placed before life? The placement is not frivolous, it is incredibly meaningful. For a believer, God here reminds that the real life is the Hereafter. This world is temporary, a testing ground, the exam hall which will determine, upon death, how your real life will fare.
Death is the means by which your real life begins.
The outcome of your death depends on the quality of your deeds. When you think about death in this new way, you are more adamant not to squander your precious time in pursuit of temporary happiness the earthly realm can provide.
The pursuit of eternal happiness lies in death.
4. The right way to grieve
This article has been brewing within me since January. In January my best friend lost her father to cancer. At the end of the line, he told his daughter he has so much to be thankful for; he reached the ripe old age of 82 without having entered a hospital. People spend a lifetime plagued with injuries and illnesses, in and out of hospital and in the face of death, this noble man showed gratitude to God for a life well lived.
The ability to see good, to see God as good, especially in death is not an easy feat to master but one that his story awakened in me. But the truth is, it’s easier to see the good when I am not the one in my friend’s shoes.
I call to mind the dignity and composure her family showed in the days that followed the death of her father. And I write now as a memo to myself on how I wish to behave when the time comes for me to handle such grief.
I hope above all I remember that whoever returns to Allah as a believer is free, is loved and embraced by the Mercy of the Most Merciful One. I hope I call to mind that whoever returns to Allah as a believer in His Oneness has finally tasted death, so that his soul can finally taste life. The prisoner has been released. The student has graduated. The door is finally unlocked and the Beloved awaits.
Today I am strong because most of the major characters in my storyline are still breathing. At some point in life I will have to face the reality of losing a loved one and I’m afraid of how I will cope, how I will measure up against honouring their memory, their legacy, the lessons they imparted to me, the memories of the life they shared with me and a life I will have to continue living without them.
This is where the story began for me in compiling my thoughts here. I was inspired in seeing my friend cope with the death of her father, how much courage, resilience and optimism she has shown in the face of grief. After a week off, she returned to work, carried on with her home life and work, taking care of her mother, banding together with her siblings and bolstering that God-given support network. I am writing this as a reminder to myself on how I wish I behave when the time comes for me to face that inevitable reality.
It’s okay to break down and cry but it’s not okay to become stuck. Death is not the end, it is the beginning. When our parents and loved ones return to God, they are in the best possible place and it is up to us to then honour their memory by striving to be the best possible legacy of their time on earth. If we continue to live in a manner befitting their teaching, we will continue to be of benefit to them in the Hereafter.
Death isn’t goodbye, it’s finally Hello.
Death is the reunion.
Death need not be a sorrowful contemplation for in remembering death we recall the heavenly world and all its rewards to come, the prospect of witnessing the countenance of our Creator, meeting all the heroic men and women who tarried before us and reuniting with our loved ones. In writing about death, I call to mind that death is the end of an exam hall I am eager to get out of in order to reap the rewards of sitting in it, an end of human suffering. If you truly reflect and “live life by death” you will realize that the most incomprehensible and limitless joy is available only through death.
We rejoice at birth yet ironically, Islam and the contemplation of life’s purpose and death would remind us that birth in this world is only the beginning of a human being’s exam, it is only in death that we are born to the eternal world.
Islam teaches us not to feel defeated by death for it is only in death that we draw nearer in proximity to the beginning of the eternal promised utopia (okay there’s the hurdle of the day of judgement to get through unscathed but if you guarded against evil in the first life, you shouldn’t be losing winks over death, well maybe lose a couple cos humility!)
There is nothing more to look forward to in life except death, where the limitless, eternal potential for perfect happiness is unlocked.
Until death you have no achievements but a life of becoming. Death becomes us.
May God give life whilst there is khayr (good) in it and may He grant death when there is khayr in it.