Grief & Loss: On Coping With Life’s Pitiless Storms
The following is less about the reason or meaning behind suffering and loss (which I’ve written about here), and more to do with coping with personal tragedy or grief. It was written for a close family, to help console them on the loss of a dear loved one. I have added a note on the nature of trials, as understood by Islam, and the appropriate faith-based responses it asks of us.
Many are the emotions that assail the heart, but grief, without doubt, is the hardest of all. The pain felt at the loss of a loved one awakens grief, yet seldom is much gained by yielding too far to grief’s cruelty. Yes, tears must flow. Pain must be endured. Souls must sorrow and be scarred. That you grieve not, none have the right to insist. Weep, then, but wail not; and let not sorrow’s suffering tarry too long. For your loved one would not have you sorrow more than is fitting.
What would he say to you, he whose loss you lament? That he welcomes the love you thus show to him; but that he doesn’t want your grief to be prolonged. He’d ask that you gently put your sorrows to slumber and remember him in the splendour of his days. And that although time will assuage the pangs of grief, he’d want that we move on from such grief by choice.
Remember and recollect: recall the most cherished things about the one who is loved but is lost; of how he enriched our lives and the lives of others too. For this honours our departed loved ones, and consoles us and keeps them with us in our hearts.
If death taketh away, life doth giveth. If so young a life is taken and an older one still remains; but when did death ever promise that it’d take us in order of age?! Now is a time to reflect, not just that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality follows no fixed law.
If tragedy darkens our days, how can we deny that the sun still shines. If destiny deals an unexpected blow, how can we give up on life. If we have buried one of our loved ones, other of our cherished ones still live on. So now is the time to cherish our living loved ones even more: celebrating our love of them and spending time with them. For we cannot love only when we’ve lost.
And while we honour those who have passed on with loving remembrance, we know that such remembrance is not without its bitterness. Yet still, let’s put our sorrows to slow slumber and remember him in the glory of his days.1
And We test you with evil and with good as a trial, states the Qur’an [21:35]. According to Islam, life is not seen as being a random act of chance with no purpose and meaning. Instead, life is a theatre of signs and tests for the life to come. Trials, tests, ordeals and adversity are the inevitable price that we each must pay for the privilege of being born into the human drama. Providence allots to each of us opportunities, circumstances, talents and abilities so as to engage life’s tests and ordeals. Revelation also tells us that what counts, isn’t so much the form or nature of the actual tests, but how we respond to them. Sometimes we are tried with the obvious: hardships, misfortunes, calamities. At other times, with the less obvious: wealth, wellbeing, or material abundance. Both, nonetheless, are seen by the believer as tests.
As for the obvious, Allah says in the Qur’an: We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and of lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who are patient. [2:155] If the one being tried in this way is a person whose faith is generally upright, in terms of observing the religious injunctions and avoiding the prohibitions, then such trials are a sign of Allah honouring them and seeking to raise them in rank. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘When Allah loves a person, He tries them.’2 He ﷺ also told us: ‘No Muslim is afflicted with hardship, pain, anxiety, grief or injury; even to the extent of being pricked by a thorn, without Allah causing it to be an atonement for his sins.’3 This is the case provided they show patience, continue to observe the religious duties, and their conviction in Allah’s essential goodness does not waver.
Those who are not upright, especially those who make little or no attempt at being so, then such trials are the upshot of sins and rebellion against God: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, whatever ill afflicts you is from yourselves. [4:79] Such ordeals, then, are either a mark of divine wrath and punishment, or a caution from Allah to repent and amend our ways.
As for the less obvious tests, we read in the Qur’an: If they had but followed the path of rectitude, We would have given them abundant water, so as to try them. [72:16-17] Again, if a person is upright, then the ease, blessings or opulence Allah gifts to them is also a trial, to see if they are thankful; and to see if they enjoy such blessings in a lawful way, utilise them in the worship of Allah, as well as in the service of others. When blessed with Allah’s bounties and blessings, the believer acknowledges: ‘This is the favour of my Lord, that He may try me whether I will be thankful or ungrateful. He who gives thanks, he only gives thanks for [the good of] his own soul, and he who is ungrateful [is so only to his own soul’s hurt], for my Lord is Rich, Generous.’ [27:40] Now those who show gratitude, or shukr, Allah says: ‘If you are thankful, I will increase you. But if you are ungrateful, My torment is indeed severe.’ [14:7]
As for those who aren’t upright, nor attempt to walk the path of rectitude; those who neglect religious observance and who languish in the domains of disobedience, when they are surrounded by ease or blessings, it is nothing but istidraj – Allah seizing them little by little; His punishment coming upon them gradually without them realising it. The Qur’an says: We shall seize them by degrees from whence they know not. And I shall grant them respite; for [assuredly] My devising is firm. [69:44-5] Echoing these words, the Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘If you see Allah granting a servant something of the world that he desires, despite him being deep in sins, then [know] it is istidraj.’4 Indeed what trial could be worse than when blessings are, in reality, nothing but curses?
Allahumma nas’aluka an taj‘alana mimman idha
u‘tiya shakara, wa idha’btuliya sabara,
wa idha adhnaba
1. Adapted and reworked from A.C. Grayling, The Good Book (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011), 93-5.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.5645.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.5641.
4. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Awsat, no.9426. Its chain is hasan, as per al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ani’l-Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), no.3772.