Following the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya and across the globe, the way people experience and express loss, and grief have been impacted due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. These include social distancing, restriction to visit the sick, and limitation to perform “normal” burial rituals and funeral practices among the Muslim community are impacting the way individual and community mourn their loss and provide social support to each other at their time of need.
Despite the increasingly fatigued in adhering to the COVID-19 regulations, these measures are important and seek to reduce the spreading of the disease at the population level. Nevertheless, these disruptions on ritualistic aspects of mourning and psychosocial support are likely to negatively impact people’s mental health.
Islamic traditions believe that life, illness, and death are in accordance with the will of Allah and the timing of death is predetermined with a fixed term for every human being.
Muslims believe that death marks the transition from one state of existence dunya to the Hereafter akhera, the ultimate destination. Hence, death should not be resisted or fought against, but rather a transition to be accepted as part of the divine plan.
The COVID-19 has not only robbed Muslims the right of not caring for the sick but also denied them the opportunity to visit them when hospitalized as ordered by the prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.):
“The messenger of Allah has ordered us to visit the sick, to follow the funeral, respond to the sneezer, to help those who vow to fulfill it, to help the oppressed, to accept the invitation extended by the inviter; and to promote greetings. [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Furthermore, family members are not allowed to visit the sick to prevent contracting or spreading the disease. Forcing the sick into desperate isolation. During the visit, the family and friends are encouraged to pray for the sick quick recovery and or praying for their husnul khatim (a good ending). During this period, Muslims seek each other forgiveness for misdeeds that were inadvertently committed.
It is in these times that immediate family members surround the sickbed reciting Quran, praying for a quick recovery to the sick, or seeking husnul khatim. In his teachings, the prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) said:
“Ask your dying fellows to pronounce, “Laa ilaaha illa Allah.” (There is no God but Allah.)” [Reported by Imams Muslim, Abu Dawood, At-Tirmidhi, An-Nisa’I and Ibn Majah].
In another instance, the prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) said “The one whose last words are ” Laa ilaaha illa Allah.” (There is no God but Allah) will enter Paradise.” [Reported by Imams Abu Dawood].
It is more disheartening if the person dies of COVID-19, the family will have to mourn in isolation and face stigma associated with the loss of their loved one. Relatives and friends keep their distance in fear of contracting the virus leaving the family to mourn in isolation. Subsequently, the family is denied the opportunity to perform the last burial and funeral rites that would help them ease the pain.
Subjecting the family to trauma and guilt for not being able to carry out the Islamic funeral rituals including washing, shrouded in an unsewn piece of white cloth, praying for the departed, and lay the body to rest.
Within the Islamic practice, as in many cultures and religions, the management of dead bodies is the object of specific rules that aim at ensuring the dignity and respect of the dead.
For the ones living funeral and burial rites mark a significant opportunity in helping the Muslims finding meaning and purpose in their continued living, even in the face of loss.
These burial rites help to truly acknowledge that someone who is loved has died and provided Muslims with a support system jointly with the family members, friends, and community to face the sorrow of the loss.
The nature and sheer scale of the current pandemic, however, has created a number of questions, dilemmas, and challenges in Muslim communities not only in Kenya but around the globe. Losing a loved one at the advent of COVID-19 is the most difficult thing that one goes through and exacerbates traumatic grief.
Coping with the loss of a significant person is undeniably difficult. COVID-19 has left many people bereaved, contributing to the feeling of anger, guilt, regret, and loneliness.
Muslims are advised to comfort the bereaved person by visiting them, strengthening their faith, offering them food during three days of mourning, while the bereaved are encouraged to perform prayers and seek solace from Allah, and reciting the Qur’an.
For some Muslims, such religious beliefs in relation to death and bereavement serve as resources helping them understand and react to their loss.
For instance, in accepting loss and grief, the bereaved persons are urged to be patient (sabr) and accept Allah’s decree. “And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, and a loss of wealth, lives, and the fruits, but give glad tiding to those who patiently persevere. Who, when disaster strikes them, say: “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return” (Qur’an: 2:155-156).
However, it should not be misconstrued that those who succumb to the mental health stressor such as anxiety, depression, prolonged grief, traumatic stress, and maladaptive coping behaviors such as substance abuse are any less in their Islamic faith or practices as per the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (S.AW):
Anas bin Malik reported that: the prophet Muhammad (S.AW) entered the room and we accompanied him…And Ibrahim breathed his last. The eyes of Allah’s Messenger (S.A.W.) were filled with tears. Abdul Rahman Ibn Auf said: ‘You are weeping, O Messenger of Allah (S.A.W.)’. He replied: “Ibn Auf, This is mercy”. Then he (S.A.W.) said: “Our eyes shed tears and our hearts are filled with grief, but we do not say anything except that by which Allah is, please. O, Ibrahim, we are sorrowful due to your separation.”
Instead, it should be known that bereavement is a distressing and traumatic experience and it is comforting for the mourner to know that such feelings and actions of shock, disbelief, denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and finding meaning are universal responses to loss and they are not sinful.
Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) described many instances among them when he re-visited the grave of his mother and he cried and encouraged others to weep – this was after many years following the death of his mother (prophet’s mother died when he was six years). Thus, it is clear that grieving is more than three days and can last years, and Muslims are advised to express these feelings of grief and loss and it will be injurious for Muslims to suppress or postpone mourning.
[Public Health Psychologist and Member of the National Muslims Covid-19 Response Committee Mr. Soud Alli Tengah. Photo/Tom Fondo].
One of the major indicators that a Muslim needs professional help is when they exhibit an inability to function normally in their day-to-day life with their family, at work socially, emotionally, and even spiritually.
For children demonstration of aggressive behavior towards their peers not limited to throwing objects, hitting, biting, and damaging properties. This does not mean the person is mentally ill but they would likely benefit from talking to an expert in the field of mental health.
Several coping mechanisms are available during this period of COVID-19. These include seeking professional expertise online such as Telecounselling, participating in virtual group sessions for people faced with similar tragedy, socially connected with family and friends through telephone, video chats. Additionally, taking care of your physical well-being by doing exercise and practice self-care in ensuring you have enough sleep and eat a balanced diet.
Muslims struggling in mourning are therefore encouraged not to suffer in silence but apply the above coping skills which it is believed that they can bring with them some solace and eventually healing InshaAllah.
For support on loss and grief, contact the National Muslims Covid-19 Response Committee (NMCRC) toll-free line on 0800 210 000.
[The writer, Soud Alli Tengah is a Public Health Psychologist and Member of the National Muslims Covid-19 Response Committee].