Feeling endless heartbreak after loss is natural, normal and not in opposition to eeman.
When it comes to grief, the triggers are everywhere, from a joke you once shared, in spotting their favourite flower in bloom, in the piece of jewellery they gave you that will now never leave your wrist. The triggers lurk in the million strands of conversation you are bursting to share with them, picking up your phone and putting your finger on the call button before the truth of their absence slaps you back to reality. What were your last words to one another?
Are you able to freeze that final exchange before the forever-ness of their loss begins to drown you daily?
When wading through the full waves of grief, the triggers for pain are open and hidden, low-level and thundering overhead, constant and occasional. The grief becomes a lens through which your experience of life takes on a whole different hue. Experiences are not lived through in the same way: the joys are forever tainted while the hardships forever sting even stronger for their absence.
For such a universal human experience, grief manages to be so individually crushing and often isolating too.
There are many different ways people have tried to describe grief. There’s the analogy of the handbag you carry that slowly diminishes in weight. There’s the one about the ball within a box that presses against a ‘pain’ button.
CS Lewis even went as far up to the heavens to describe the loss of his wife as “the sky”, simply because ‘it covers everything’.
The stone-cold reality of life is that everybody you love will either leave you, or you will leave them. The loss is impending, like a package of eternal heartbreak that has already left the warehouse, is with the courier and has your address marked. If you don’t open the door, it’ll be waiting on your porch, in your designated safe space or the well-meaning neighbour might even hand-deliver it to your door.
Arguably, understanding the temporary nature of this life is the key to eeman, however this doesn’t render the pain of loss any more bearable.
Those two realities are not at odds with one another, as strong faith does not necessitate immunity to pain or ban the expression of it. The heart was created with the tremendous capacity to love, and this inevitably leaves it openly vulnerable to the anguish in store when it leaves. The feeling can be so intensely unbearable that your only desire is to make it stop. In times like that, one begins to truly understand why those without eeman turn to destructive coping mechanisms just to numb the pain.
As with the entire spectrum of possible mortal emotions, we have natural and beautifully human examples of how the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the blessed men and women who surrounded him, dealt with this emotion. There are so many examples we could draw upon and endless lessons from each, but one that particularly stands out is how the blessed first mu’addhin and beloved companion Bilal Ibn Rabah (R.A) dealt with the loss of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
It is always hard getting to the end part of the Seerah because we know what is to come. To be transported to the scene of the human reactions of those who lived, loved and walked with the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), teaches us so much about grief and loss.
Famous for his strong, beautiful call to prayer, when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed away, it was said Bilal was rendered unable to speak, it was as if he had lost his voice.
When the Caliph Abu Bakr encouraged Bilal (R.A) to call out the familiar words of the adhan, he simply responded “Oh Abu Bakr, I do not have the strength to call the prayer after the death of the Messenger of Allah. Do not force me, please let me be”. Abu Bakr persisted, asking “After being deprived of Allah’s Messenger, should the Ummah also be deprived of it’s muaddhin?”. Bilal reluctantly gave in, and feeling duty-bound, ascended to the minaret to call the Fajr prayer. As he attempted the first words, his voice cracked and he was unable to restrain his tears. He began to weep and continued to do so.
Upon seeing this, Abu Bakr comforted him and never made the same request of him again.
It didn’t stop with not being able to call the adhan anymore however. The entire city of Madinah became unbearable for Bilal (R.A) to stay in. The same morning of his failed attempt to call the adhan, he decided to leave Madinah altogether, departing for Damascus in Syria where he lived as a teacher. One night, he saw the Messenger of Allah in a dream asking him, “Oh Bilal, what is this pain? Is it not time for you to visit me?”
Taking this as an immediate call to action, Bilal (R.A) wasted no time in setting off back to Madinah- a journey that took many days. He ran straight to the grave of the Prophet and collapsed upon it when he reached it. He lay his head on the bare earth of his grave and cried “I have come, Oh Messenger, I have come”. At that moment, the two blessed grandsons of the Prophet- Hasan and Hussain- appeared. Embracing them tightly while he cried, he referred to them as “Oh the lights of the Prophet’s eyes”. The younger Hasan said, “Bilal, I would like to ask you something, but will you do it for me?” Bilal (R.A) insisted on knowing what he could possibly do, to which he was told,
“We long to hear you call the adhan as you once did in the masjid of the Prophet”.
Upon hearing this, Bilal (R.A) began the opening takbeer of the adhan, with this voice shaking.
Upon the sound, waves of people began flooding out of their homes at the familiar voice of a beloved friend from a time that felt long gone. As he continued through the words of the adhan, crowds gathered to quiz one another whether the Messenger of Allah was alive, they were delirious, confused, overjoyed and entirely overcome. The voice of Bilal (R.A) took them back to a time of pure bliss before the loss of the Prophet clouded their world forever. With the people of Madinah around Bilal (R.A) openly weeping and inconsolable, Bilal (R.A) himself was unable to hold back his tears and again, broke down during the adhan- unable to complete the call. (1)
Aside from the raw portrayal of the life-long effects of grief, there is so much to unpack from this reaction of Bilal (R.A). The undisputable strength of his eeman was not in opposition to the weight of anguish he carried, and nobody ever chastised or ‘gently reminded’ him that his heartbreak was out of place for a believer. On the contrary, the depth of the loss Bilal (R.A) felt could only be proportionate the to immense love he had for the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) He even once remarked, “How can I call the adhan when the one who loved to be soothed by it is no longer here?”. His association of this beloved act of worship with the Messenger of Allah rendered him unable to ‘perform’ in his most famous role as the muaddhin. The association of the physical city was too difficult for him to stay in as he remarked on other occasions that Madinah effectively became a “city of ghosts” as every path and turn held memories of the Messenger of Allah.
From this and through looking at how grief and loss was dealt with by the Best of Generations, there are a few areas to focus on:
Allah himself promises us that this life will come with hardship and that loss is an integral part of it. Loss is intrinsically something painful and difficult for the human heart to bear. The love that Allah created within us for one another necessitates great pain will inevitably be in store when they leave. Islamically there are only a handful of statements and reactions which are considered blameworthy (to question Allah’s decree, to wail and make a spectacle of ones grief)- the natural human pain of loss is not one of them. The Prophet Ya’qub (A.S) cried for his lost (but living) son Yusuf (A.S) until he lost his eyesight- this was a Prophet of Allah well aware of the limits set by Allah. He was never once rebuked or chastised for feeling the pain he felt, he was instead commended on showing his “beautiful patience”.
As a vessel created by Allah and for Allah, allow your heart to fully feel what it needs to. The only way through the pain is in the pain. Denying your feelings, trying to compartmentalise them or being guilted into not expressing them will only bury essential emotions which need to be expressed and worked through. Use your support networks around you to find a safe space to express your grief and know that the Safest of all Spaces, is with the company of Allah, who is As Samee’- ever listening to His Slaves.
In a roundabout way, the grief you are feeling is testament to the love you shared with that person. To miss somebody so intensely means you were blessed to have such a close relationship with them in the first place. This is something often overlooked when one is in pain, but it is often surprising the number of people who simply cannot mourn the way you are, because they were never blessed with the love you shared with that person.
Actively having shukr is a balm to the head, even if the heart cannot process it immediately. Be thankful for the time you had with that person, for the joy they bought to your life and for the experience of loving somebody so intensely that their loss leaves you forever hurting. The pain you feel can be a vehicle to Allah, a means by which you understand the temporary nature of life in a way you hadn’t experienced before. Use gratitude to focus on what you did have and use your pain to draw closer to the One who gave you that relationship in the first place.
We know that this is not all there is. We ourselves are headed exactly where our loved one has gone too. Arguably the strongest comfort to a believer is that this life is not the end, it is merely one stage in the eternal life of the soul. This means that the best is yet to come, Allah Himself promises hardship is followed with ease and this includes the bliss of an eternal reunion after the pain of temporary separation.
It is important to truly internalise the promise of Allah when it comes to the aakhirah.
Working towards reuniting with your loved one in the aakhirah is one of the biggest incentives one can rely on. It gives hope, it gives strength, it gives sure knowledge that the fight is not over.
There are practical, beneficial and soul-nourishing actions one can take that will of course benefit their own aakhirah, but also ensure that the best of reunions is in store. Use your heartache as part of your spiritual armour to take you to a place where we shall never experience pain, loss or separation ever again.
The souls are eternal, for now you are tasting an earthly separation- there is still forever to play for.
(1) Adapted from The Story of the Reed by Osman Nuri Topbas, (2005) Istanbul: Erkam Publications, 120-121.
Zimarina Sarwar is a Writer and Editor living in London with her family. She holds an MRes in Linguistics from Kings College London and her interests include all things language, spirituality, social justice and a hearty dose of Tom Yam noodle soup. You can find more of her work on her website below.