I lost my mother when I was 19. It was obvious to anyone that she had been unwell for some time, yet I refused to accept the clear signs of her terminal illness. To me, denial would somehow keep death at bay, and of course I was wrong.
Years later, my best friend in her late 20s lost her newborn baby. She passed away at the tender age of twelve hours old. She was taken away before she could even enter our lives.
More years passed, and a friend of mine lost her husband without warning. He was fine in the morning, suffered a heart attack around lunchtime, and was buried by evening.
What exactly is the “correct” age for death? There is none. It's always too early.
These deaths, together with the other deaths that I have witnessed in between and since, drove home the point that death is definite and indiscriminate. It can happen in a flash, or with months of warning signs, but when the time comes, nothing can hold it back.
How do we handle it when we lose someone?
We know that death is a certainty but in reality we tend to harbour illusions that we will live forever. We feel as if those around us will not be taken from us, and we form deep attachments that make it difficult for us to cope, or even comprehend, when someone is not there anymore.
In understanding death, we have to first understand life. The nature of this world is that everything in it is temporary. Monuments crumble, civilizations perish, people come and go. Health alternates illness. The old make way for the new, and the cycle of life continues.
People are placed in our lives for a reason, but we lull ourselves into the false sense of security that they will be around indefinitely. This is why we cannot cope with the loss. We feel as if the death of a parent, a relative or a loved one is against the natural order of things, almost a betrayal, when in fact, the opposite is true – death is the only certainty in life.
We also approach life with an inherent sense of ownership. We feel as if people belong to us – our parents, children, spouses or friends – and many of us rely on them to be there for us forever; even more than we rely on our Creator.
In truth, we enter this world owning nothing and we leave taking nothing. We do not even own our bodies - our souls occupy them as trustees or as custodians, and our physical flesh is the temporary vessel for hosting our souls in the journey of life. Our permanent life is in the hereafter. Meantime, everything that crosses our paths, and everything that is placed in our hearts and hands, were put there as a trust from God.
People are placed in our lives for different periods of time and at different points in our lives, as a trust and for a reason and wisdom that only Allah knows. We have to accept these relationships for what they are – something transitory. The situation will change: we will leave them, or they will leave us. We cannot claim a permanent stake in any relationship.
In fact, one of the things already ordained for us before we were even born, is when we will die. It is written for everyone and beyond our control to prevent or delay: from the cancer patient to the person who suddenly slipped on the pavement, death is an imminent appointment, not a random accident.
If we can fathom this, we will appreciate that everything in our lives is on borrowed time. Even those who we feel should be in our lives forever, aren't there to stay. When the Prophet SAW passed away, some of his followers, including Umar Al Khattab (RA), initially denied reports of his death, until they were reminded that like the rest of us, even Prophets die, and that the only permanent presence in our lives is the Almighty Creator. The One who will be waiting for us on the other side; the One who will never die.
It is a part of Life
Instead of shielding ourselves from the certainty of death, we should accept it as a part of life. We cherish, celebrate and appreciate those who are in our lives when they are still alive, and we accept Allah's decree when their time is up. Resisting and denying death will not prolong their lives. By accepting the reality, we rid ourselves of the notion that life is everlasting, and instead acknowledge that like all who came before them, their time will run out.
Death is also an acute reminder of our goal in life. It brings us back to the basic purpose of our existence, which is to worship our Creator. Everything else that is placed in our lives are simply embellishments, to either support us or detract us from our journey to Paradise. Therefore, all relationships, love and attachments that we form should be relative to that goal.
We are placed here on trust for each other. This is beautifully illustrated by Umm Sulaim (RA), in a long hadith reported in Muslim. While her husband was away, their son died. She forbade her family members from breaking the news to her husband until she had relayed it herself. When he came home, she presented him with his meal, decorated herself and relaxed him with physical intimacy. She then asked him "Abu Talha, if some people borrow something from another family and then (the members of the family) ask for its return, would they resist its return?" He said: "No." She said: "I inform you about the death of your son." The story continues, her husband, being annoyed with her for conveying him the news in such a fashion, consulted with the Prophet SAW, who endorsed her actions. As time passed, she was blessed with nine other sons, all of whom were pious.