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The why’s and what’s of death

On the occasion of Prophet Muhammad(s) demise, Batool Haydar reminds us how to explain death to our children

For many of us, death is a reality we prefer not think too much about.  Yes, we know we all have to do die and we are all aware of the verse of the Holy Qur’an that reminds us that “Every soul shall taste Death.” (3:185) However, we seem to conveniently tuck this knowledge away in the recesses of our minds until it is forced upon us by the passing away of those around us.

When we face the death of others, our reactions are usually standard.  There is shock and disbelief – which is surprising, given that we are aware of its inevitability – followed by grief.  Then with the passing of time, the sorrow fades away and we sometimes recall our loved ones with a sense of nostalgia, but rarely with the intensity of the initial feelings of loss.

This almost superficial relationship we have with the most important event in our lives after our birth is something we inherited from our parents, and we will pass the same attitude down to our children unless we begin to take a more active stance towards it.

Addressing the issue of death with children is delicate no doubt, but they can be guided so that they learn to understand the concept of death without becoming either afraid or morbid.  While each child is unique and will require their own approach to the subject, below are a few general tips on when and how to welcome death into your lives.

  1. Set the Foundation

This is more of a basic daily principle than a specific response to death.  As early as you can, begin to lay the understanding that everything is from God.  Remind your children to thank Him for the food they eat as well as the toys they play with.  Make them aware that all blessings are from God – from parents and family to parks and sunshine. If you establish the foundation of inna lillah (Verily, we are from God) consistently, then it will be easier to introduce the idea of wa inna ilayhi rajioon (And to Him we return) when the occasion arises.

  1. Explain when asked

In our eagerness to raise precocious children, we may sometimes be tempted to bring up the subject of death. This is usually a mistake. As with all long-term life lessons, children need to lead the conversation out of their own curiosity.  It may arise as a result of a discussion at school, through a story or watching the news, or it could be a loss closer to home.  Whatever the case may be, talk about death when a child asks or when it is relevant.

It’s important to remember that for children, this is one of the most confusing aspects of life to understand.  They can barely grasp the idea of ‘life’, so death is simply an added complication.

  1. Don’t avoid or lie about the subject

When I was a child, a very close family friend passed away. I still clearly remember asking where he was and being told that he had gone far away for a holiday.  My natural reaction was to ask when he was coming back and when that question was avoided, I knew I was being lied to and felt the distance grow between myself as a child and the adults around me.

As Muslims, we have a very clear set of beliefs regarding death and the afterlife.  Don’t try to replace these with a glossed-over story ‘for the time being’.  Telling a child that someone – especially if it is a close loved one – has become a star in the sky or an angel in heaven might sound nice, but inevitably that child will learn the truth. They will then grow up either with the memory of being lied to or they will find that reality simply isn’t as appealing as the pretty story it was substituted with.

  1. Less is more

As we emerge fresh from recounting the tragedy of Karbala, it might be tempting to present the ‘reality’ of death and loss to your child.  Do however remember that the children in Karbala were of a different calibre! Whilst honesty is the best way to go, don’t forget that your child is still just that – a child. Depending on his or her age, give as simple an explanation as possible. For a very young child, the answer may be as simple as “He has gone back to God” (remember point 1?) or “God has called her back”.

With older children, there will be more questions of course. They may ask about burial rites and be curious about the grave. They may insist on wanting the deceased to return because for many children, the concept of time is very fluid and there is no permanence in anything.

Give responses as required and don’t be afraid to repeat the same answer if the same question is asked again. Children don’t always need elaboration, a lot of times they only require repetition or reassurance.

  1. Be prepared, but don’t panic

Islam is a way of life and the best way to pass it on is to live it yourself.  We can only explain our beliefs to our children to the extent that we know them ourselves. Reading and exploring the idea of death and the afterlife benefits us as well, not just our children.

Nevertheless, no amount of preparation can prepare you for every question. Children have a way of seeing things we don’t because we have become accustomed or desensitised over time.  It is therefore inevitable that a child will come up with an unexpected observation or question with regard to loss.

The child of a friend used to insist that if we love God and He calls us back then we should be happy that we are going to meet Him.  She wondered over and over again why people cried at funerals and insisted they should be happy for the person who died. This wasn’t something that could be ‘reasoned’ away and the only thing my friend could do was to explain that those left behind were mourning their own loss and missing the one who had left.

It took time and the creation of her own personal attachments, but the child eventually figured out for herself the fine balance between loss on this side of life and gain in the afterlife.

The acceptance of an event as momentous as death is a lifelong process.  Most of us are still refining this understanding for ourselves.  Because death is such an inextricable part of human existence, our children will inevitably face it in all its various forms. Our responsibility is to guide their understanding along the path of Islam and ensure that they do not form a fear for what should ideally be a motivating factor to living the best life possible before uniting with our Creator.

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