Over the years, we've had many requests for advice and books to help a child after the loss of a loved one - sometimes a parent or sibling, more often a grandparent.I've been wanting to write about this for over two years and, with so many losing loved ones recently due to COVID-19, the need to discuss this has been even more pressing. I pray that this series of posts is beneficial for you and your family, and in particular, I pray it helps your little people to deal with the big emotions they go through after experiencing the death of a loved one. Even if your child hasn't yet experienced this type of loss, I pray it helps you to introduce the concept of death to your mini Muslims, in a gentle and positive manner. May Allah envelope us with His Mercy and Comfort always. Ameen.
I have drawn a lot from an article by Ayesha from Ayeina, who lost her youngest son (while having older children too) and also her grandmother (may Allah grant them jannatul firdaus, ameen). Excerpts from Ayesha’s article are included below.
PART 1 – Talking About Death
At What Age Should We Introduce The Concept of Death To Our Mini Muslims?
Assuming you don't experience death in your family while your child is still little, you may wish to delay introducing them to death until they're a bit older. But - depending on your child's emotional maturity and sensitivity - you can actually introduce them to death from a very young age (e.g. as a toddler). As Ayesha from Ayeina writes, "Death is an inevitable part of life and it is our responsibility to ensure our kids are aware of it. You may be surprised at how aware children already are about death. They see dead insects, dead birds and animals on the road. Children read about death in the stories, sometimes watch it in cartoons too or even role-play death in school plays. Without realizing it, they already have some exposure to the concept."
Of course, the thing with death is that it can happen at any time to anyone, so it actually makes more sense for your children to be aware of this fact of life, so that inshaAllah one day when they do lose a loved one (may Allah delay this for as long as possible), they will at least have a basic understanding.
What Exactly is Death?
Your child's first introduction to death will probably be through seeing a dead insect, for example. After such an occurrence, Ayesha from Ayeina advises to “reinforce the concept that all living things eventually die as we all belong to Allah and we all will one day return to Him. Whoever lives, will die and whoever dies will live again."
In order for children to understand death, it helps for them understand the concept of a soul. From Ayesha's experience, "Explaining the concept of “rooh/ruh” (spirit) really helps... I explained (this to) my 4-year-old with the help of her doll. I told her that your doll has a body but no rooh so she can’t talk, move or listen. No matter how you’ll play with it, it won’t feel anything. It won’t get scared. It won’t get hurt. What makes us human beings different is that we have rooh. It’s invisible, but it’s the main source of our life and it belongs to Allah. He can take it away anytime and our soul would LOVE to meet its’ Creator."
Once they have an understanding of what a soul is, reiterate to your child that Allah is our Creator, the Creator of our souls, and our souls will all return to Him at some point. Death comes from Allah and it is simply our souls moving from one place (Earth) to another. For a while, our souls all live here in this world, and then we will all go to the other world - the Hereafter, insha’allah to Jannah / Paradise, forever. (Depending on their level of understanding, you may add that our souls live forever but our bodies, as we have right now, are temporary - for this world only). So the person who has died has just gone on a journey from this world, on Earth, to a new place: it's not the end, but rather just a movement of their soul from one place to the next.
It helps to try to relate death to something they already know and experience: sleep. If they understand the concept of a soul, Ayesha from Ayeina notes that you can liken sleep to Allah taking someone's soul (see Quran: 6:60) - just as our souls leave our bodies every night when we sleep. This concept may be a bit heavy, depending on your child's age, so use your discretion (and also be wary if they are very sensitive and it may cause them to have sleepless nights for fear of dying).
After Someone Passes Away: Talk About It
As parents, it is our natural instinct to want to protect our children from pain. If you yourself are overwhelmed with the grief and possible shock after a loss, it is definitely not an easy time to break the news to your child. It's normal to feel unsure about what to say - before you start, pray to Allah to help you find the right words. As an example, see the dua below, from Surah Taha, in the Holy Qur'an, verses 25 – 28.
When breaking the news to them, provide your children with the information they need and age-appropriate explanations in order for them to make some sense of what has happened. Instead of trying to hide the truth, uphold honesty in your discussion. You don't need to overwhelm them with every little detail either, but adequate information and reassurance from a loved one will truly help your child make sense of their loss. If you're worried about providing too much information, be guided by their questions as to what information they need to know.
Given that Muslim funerals happen very soon after the death, you may not have a lot of time to discuss it with your child initially. When time permits, spend as much time as needed discussing the loss, and their feelings about it (when they are ready). It helps to be in a safe, secure place, somewhere private where they'll be comfortable to open up to you. Talk to them at their eye level, without any distractions if possible. Give them the space to express their emotions (and there will be many). They may not open up initially, it may take days or weeks or even months, but do check in with them and invite them to chat to you about it. Breaking the news is only the beginning of the journey - you need to try have ongoing conversations with your child as they process the information.
It is also useful to check up with other caregivers, family members, or the child's school teacher - their support and influence over the child, particularly during a sensitive period, can be significant.
Preparing Your Child for the Funeral
Although you may not have much time to do so, if your children will be attending the funeral, it will help to prepare them for this. Discuss where you're going, who will be there, what the people will be doing (e.g. the funeral prayer, counting prayer beads, consoling one another). Explain that some people will be crying, they will offer their sympathy including to your own children possibly, and give them examples of what they may say or do (if they want). You may try roleplay the basic conversation, if time allows and if your child is receptive to this.
Importantly, if they will probably see the deceased’s body at the funeral, then try to prepare them for this, by explaining that the body will be there for them to see, but the person's soul has returned to Allah SWT.
Whether your child attends the funeral or not is ultimately your choice, as their parent, and this will depend a lot on the circumstances and your child’s readiness and emotional maturity (not necessarily just their age). Do not feel pressured by others for your child to attend - if you feel that your child is too young to attend, or if you don’t want their last memory of that person to be at the funeral, or simply if your child would prefer not to go (depending on their age, you may give them the choice and involve them in making this decision).
How to Handle Your Own Emotions
You don't actually have to hide your grief from your child. As Ayesha from Ayeina writes, 'It's ok to cry in front of or with your child... Children are sensitive barometers of emotion and are tremendous observers. You may think that watching you break down might frighten your kids, but to your surprise, the kids will end up comforting you and you will comfort them, which will help ease your sadness and even their own grief. Sometimes hugs do the job best!'
By showing sorrow or crying in front of your child, your child also learns that it's okay to show your true emotions when necessary, and to seek support from loved ones. They learn that we are sad when someone dies, and this is a normal and acceptable feeling, because we will miss being with them here, seeing them, and being able to talk to them… Until we also go to the Hereafter, where inshaAllah we will meet them again.
As much as you'd like your children to express their emotions with you, similarly you can share your feelings of grief with them. Together, you can share memories of your loved one who has passed on, things you wish you could have done together, or moments when you miss them the most. In these conversations, try to include a bit of hopefulness if you’re able to - a prayer to be reunited with them in Jannah one day, or a way for you to do good deeds on their behalf, so they're rewarded even after they're no longer with us.
How Your Child May React
Children grieve in a myriad of ways depending on many factors such as their personality, age and their understanding of death. They may also follow the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle (see below and do research this further for more insight) - so you can respond accordingly depending on what they're experiencing at a given point in time.
Image source: psycom.net
They may respond emotionally - through fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness, confusion or guilt.
Physically, they may display lethargy, sleepless nights, a reduced appetite or even bodily pain.
In terms of their behaviour, you can expect them to 'act out' - this may present as tantrums, aggression, irritability, memory loss, and difficulty in concentrating. They may also regress to behaviour they had previously grown out of (e.g. bedwetting or thumb-sucking).
Bereaved children may also experience a loss of self-esteem and confidence, withdrawal from social settings, and their performance at school may be impacted.
These are just some examples - your child may display none, or just a few of these responses. Either way, these are all natural responses - allow your child to express themselves, and respond to their needs either yourself (by providing love, support, information and reassurance) or, if you need / prefer, through the help of a professional (e.g. through counselling, or with the aid of a play therapist or child psychologist).
Ayesha's children reacted in different ways, "One of my daughters seemed completely fine while the other couldn’t stop asking questions and then crying continuously at night…Children’s reactions may vary. Some may cry, some may ignore, some may isolate themselves, some may even be angry with Allah or jealous of others with more siblings… Allow your child to grieve in his or her own way. How kids cope with the loss depends on things like their age, how close they felt to the person who died, and the support they receive. Listen and comfort. Ask them to try putting emotions into words. Encourage kids to say what they’re thinking and feeling in the days, weeks, and months following the loss. Help kids be self aware so they can put their feelings into words in shaa Allah. It can be a great outlet so they don’t bubble things up inside."
If your child expresses fear of dying, you can reassure them that it is normal to be afraid of the unknown (e.g. doing something new for the first time), but we have a lot to look forward to too. Provide examples such as inshaAllah going to Jannah and meeting those who have passed on already, plus meeting Allah, of course! In this way - death is actually a good thing for the person dying - inshaAllah they get to meet their Beloved Creator. Ameen.
Questions They May Have
Your child will have LOTS of questions. Try not to dismiss any questions which they may have - even if you can't find the words at the time, promise to think about it / find out, and get back to them once you've had time.
Ayesha recommends that you 'Share information in small dosages. Gauge what your child can handle by giving information in small bits at a time. You’ll know what more to do based on the questions your child asks. Some may say nothing while some won’t stop asking questions.
– if I shout really loud, will he wake up then?
– can I hold him?
– can we keep him forever?
– can we still play with him?
– why can’t we dress him in colourful clothes?
– is he feeling any pain?
The questions may be difficult to answer if you are going through the loss yourself, but can really help a child understand the concept and accept it wholeheartedly.'
Your child may also try to understand the reason why this has happened, and turn to you for the answers. Why did the deceased have to go, why at this time, and why not someone else? In this case you could explain that this is Allah's decree - the way Allah decided. Allah SWT put us on Earth and then inshaAllah he will take us to Jannah to live forever. Allah created us and loves us more than anyone else - He always wants the best for us. He knows what's better for us better than anyone else, because He created us. So, even when it is difficult to understand the reason why things happen, we know that it has happened through the will of Allah, the One who loves us more than anyone, and the One who always wants the best for us.
Be wary that your child may also hear other family members talking about the death and this may bring up further questions they have - you won't necessarily be able to shelter them from hearing such things, so be open to addressing their concerns whenever they arise.
What Happens After Someone Dies?
After the death of a loved one, your children will surely be curious about life after death. Ayesha lists other aspects which you can discuss with your child: "illiyyeen (wherein lies the record of the righteous) and sijjeen (wherein lies the record of the wicked)... barzakh (intermediary realm – period between a person’s death and his resurrection on the Day of Resurrection)... grave, munkar nakeer (angels who test the faith of the dead in their graves) and so many other things that we will only witness on the Day of Judgement."
Again, please use your discretion in what exactly to discuss with your child, depending on their age, emotional maturity and level of understanding. You don't have to discuss Jahannum (Hell) if you feel your child is too young for this concept - for younger children you may choose to first focus on introducing the concept of Jannah.
If your child is aware of Jannah and Jahannum, reassure them that the person who died will InshaAllah go to Jannah, with full yaqeen (certainty in the strength of Allah SWT). It will help your child through the grieving process to be confident in knowing that they will inshaAllah meet their loved one, one day, in the best of places.
Part 2 of this series will inshaAllah cover more aspects on helping your child to cope with the loss of a loved one, and will be posted soon inshaAllah.
Note: This series has been written with the sincere intention to try and assist Muslim children in coping with the loss of a loved one, and is in no way prescriptive nor exhaustive. Please do consider counseling or other forms of therapy for your child, in order to obtain professional assistance which this post does not intend to cover. May Allah guide your efforts, ameen.
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