When death speaks to you

Sometimes, we live moments that feel unreal. Emotional. Out of normal reality. This evening was like that.

To put this into context: by the time I got to high school, I felt like I’d seen more than my fair share of death. In junior school, I lost 3 grandparents, a young uncle, and – hardest for me (while I was 8 years old) – a beloved baby cousin. The day before my 18th birthday, another uncle passed, and my auntie (his wife) went a few years later. Them aside, I haven’t really faced many deaths in my family – or to those close to me – in my adult life. Especially since my life changed.

This afternoon, I got the message that my wife’s cousin was in a very bad state. Touch and go. We were to go to the hospital that evening. He’d struggled with cancer for much of this year, and chemo hadn’t helped. A week ago, he had a bone marrow operation – a very risky op, which was a long shot. It didn’t turn out well. He’d withered away to almost nothing over these last few months. His immune system was non-existant, hence he was in isolation. His 2 small kids – a 5 year old boy and a 2 year old girl – had to see him through glass, with tubes in his nose. His wife was still amazingly strong, through this. We saw her and the kids a week ago, at a children’s birthday party.

We got to the hospital half an hour before Maghrib tonight, and the room outside his room was very full. People were spilled out into the space outside the building. Everyone was somber. Some read Quran. Many were crying. About 15 minutes before Maghrib, I went back in with my older daughter (I was keeping her company outside, since she didn’t want to be contained inside). The mood was devastating. Everyone was crying. Shattered. He had passed on.

It was incredibly sad. Most of my wife’s family was there, and everyone had just broken down. I’d never, in my adult life, been around death. Been so close to it. And here it was – right with me.

The most devastation I remember is a vague memory: when i was 8 and my grandmother died. My eldest aunty was hysterical and inconsolable. I think they had to give her a tranquiliser or sedative to calm her down.

Now, at the age of 33 (almost 34), I was in a room – right next door to a young man, 6 months older than me – who had just died. Just like me, he had 2 young kids. Though I didn’t really speak to him much, he was always around at the family functìons. He was my age. He was in my situation in terms of marriage and kids. And he was taken from this dunya.

‘Shattered’ is the word that describes the scene best. They all were shattered. It was incredibly sad for me too, though not as strongly as everyone else since I had only seen him on rare occassions over the last 7 years, and not known him a lifetime.

My eldest daughter (who is 5 years old) didn’t know what was happening, and despite my telling her, I don’t think she understood. She was still wanting to be a little wild and uncontained. My youngest daughter was surprisingly calm – for her 13.5 months – when she’s usually so active.

The cousin who passed – his sisters – were broken. His father was devastated, but – by the mercy of Allah – he managed to regain composure and strength a while later. I didn’t see his mother. I can’t imagine how awful it was for her. His younger brother didn’t want to leave his side, so I didn’t see him either.

His grandmother – now in her 80s – was crushed. She’s faced so much tragedy in recent years – an array of family crises – and now this. Allah must really give a special level of sabr and strength to the elderly when they can see their family members go through such trauma, and yet they still go on.

I didn’t know him well. But, like many times before when I experienced a funeral, I felt the closeness to him. I felt the desperation. The feeling of his time being up. That now, the angels were taking his soul up. And soon they will send it back to earth, and it will enter his grave. His companions will cover him with dirt. He will hear the footsteps as they depart. His grave will constrict, squeezing his body. Munkar and Nakir will make their entrance. He will be questioned. And his answers will come not from intellect, studying, or wisdom. It will come purely from the way he lived.

And I feel for him. I feel so close to that experience – the sheer desperation, most of all. He has no more chances to prepare for these monumental events. His Qiyamah has begun.

And I made dua for him. Deep, sincere dua which connected me to his situation right this moment. Because I will be in that position one day. And when I think of it, and know that – at this very moment – he’s going through it; it connects me to death. It connects me to reality.

I remember what awaits. I truly, truly, truly know that all the frivolous pursuits of this life – the time spent ‘destressing’, the pleasures of food and entertainment, the lack of adequate effort in spiritual striving….I truly feel and know that those things are worthless. Because when I’m in his position, it will all count for nothing. It will count against me, if I went too far in them without balancing them out with enough good deeds.

And I never know when I will be him. When I will be in his position. Lying there, lifeless. Unable to speak, breathe, communicate with my grieving loved ones. Yet my soul being alive. Seeing them all. Worrying about how they will go on without me – my final worldly concerns as I’m about to embark on my journey to Eternity.

‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures’….

If only I could take these feelings, internalise them so deeply, and make them last for as long as I will live beyond this moment. I so want this experience to permanently change me. I so NEED it to change me. But I faced the same 3 years ago, in Madinah on my first and only visit to Jannatul Baqi. And I was so confident and hopeful then – that that experience would solidify this reminder forever…and yet it faded so quickly.

I make dua that this experience stays permanently imprinted in my heart, soul and mind. That the feelings I feel right now will make a lasting change – even when the intensity and memory fades.

And I make dua that for him, his months of suffering have purified him; and that he embarks on his journey in a state as clean and beautiful as the day he was born. And that this tremendous, devastating loss serves as a motivational force – a catalyst – for his family, loved ones, and all whose lives he touched…a means by which they will all come even closer to Allah. A means by which they…WE…can all remember the reality, the impermanence, of this life.

To Allah we belong, and to Allah is our return.

May we all make that return in the best possible state.

Baqi grave

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