Coping with Grief: A Spiritual and Psychological Guide
For more on this topic, see Trauma: Your Lord Has Not Forsaken You
What is grief?
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ visited Saʿd ibn ʿUbādah during his illness. He was accompanied by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿAwf, Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqāṣ, and ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd (may Allah be pleased with them). The Messenger of Allah ﷺ began to weep. When his Companions saw this, their tears also started flowing. He ﷺ said, “Do you not hear, Allah does not punish for the shedding of tears or the grief of the heart but punishes or bestows mercy for the utterances of this (and he pointed to his tongue).”1
- The loss of both his wife Khadījah (ra) and his uncle Abū Ṭālib in one year, called “The Year of Sorrow”
- The death of 6 out of 7 of his children during his lifetime
- The deaths of numerous companions and friends
- Watching his entire tribe go hungry as Banū Hāshim was boycotted by the Makkans due to the Prophet ﷺ refusing to stop spreading the message of Islam
- Losing his status and many relationships in Makkan society once he began to publicly proclaim the Words of Allah (swt)
What losses are people experiencing now?
And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.2
Loss of a way of life
Loss of control
Loss of life itself
Loss of social gathering
Loss of spiritual connection
Loss of economic security
Loss of structure
Loss of roles and identity
What to expect during times of grief
Denial and shock
Anxiety and/or fear
What is traumatic grief?
- Children who lose one or both of their parents
- Medical professionals who lose coworkers
- Medical professionals who are pushed to work under inhumane work conditions out of necessity to cope with hospital demands
- Families who lose their homes due to economic insecurity
Stages of grief from a psycho-spiritual perspective
Stage 1: Denial
- Calling the situation a hoax
- Blatant disregard for social distancing or quarantine protocol
- Making jokes that administrations are overreacting and taking away civil liberties for no reason
- Thinking, “This virus won’t affect me or my daily life.”
- “Will the coronavirus have a direct impact on me?”
- “What kind of effect will this have on my family, friends, and community members?”
- “How much is the right amount of preparation?”
- “Am I overreacting or underreacting?”
Stage 2: Anger
- “People are being completely irresponsible and deserve to get sick.”
- “I didn’t deserve to lose my job; this is completely unfair and shouldn’t be happening to me.”
- Inadvertently, this anger may extend to Allah (swt). You may find yourself asking, “Why would Allah allow this to happen?”
- “My uncle can’t even have the janāzah he deserves. How is this right?”
- Saying aloud how you’re feeling (to yourself, someone else, or Allah)
- Seeking refuge in Allah: Two people insulted each other in the presence of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and the eyes of one of them became red like embers and the veins of his neck were swelling. The Prophet said, “Verily, I know a word he could say to calm himself: I seek refuge in Allah from the cursed Satan.”8
- Grounding: When your mind is in overdrive, grounding brings your focus to what is happening to you physically instead of being trapped in the emotions and thoughts that are maintaining your anger. The Prophet ﷺ described anger and prescribed grounding as a coping mechanism: “Anger is an ember in the heart of the son of Adām. Do you not see the redness of the eyes and bulging of the jugular vein [when a person becomes enraged]. Anyone who [goes into a fit of rage like this] should cling to the ground [until the anger subsides].”9 Other grounding techniques based on the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ include:
- Wuḍūʾ: The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “Verily, anger comes from Satan, and Satan was created from fire. Fire is extinguished with water so if you become angry, then perform ablution with water.”10
- Changing your posture: The Prophet ﷺ taught us, “If one of you is angry while he is standing, let him sit down so his anger will leave him; otherwise, let him lie down.”11
- Pause and breathe: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “When one of you is angry, he should remain silent.”12 When feelings of anger become overwhelming, pause rather than react. Allow yourself time to breathe, reaffirm the fact that it is ok to feel angry and your choice not to react in anger.
Stage 3: Bargaining
- “If only we had been more cautious, she wouldn’t have gotten the virus.”
- “If only I had prayed more, this wouldn’t have happened.”
- “If only we had gone to the hospital sooner, he would still be alive.”
- Control Your Thoughts Through Reframing: Although this current struggle may feel like a punishment from Allah (swt) due to the overwhelming emotions you’re experiencing right now, keep in mind the response of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ when his wife Aisha asked him about the plague.14 He said, “It is a punishment that Allah sends upon whomever He wills, but Allah has made it a mercy for the believers. Any servant who resides in a land afflicted by plague, remaining patient and hoping for reward from Allah, knowing that nothing will befall him except what Allah has decreed, will be given the reward of a martyr.”15
- Control Your Goals: Focusing on turning to Allah (swt) during these difficulties can be a means of coping with difficult emotions. When the wind would blow strongly, the Prophet would ask Allah, “O Allah, I ask You for its goodness and I take refuge with You from its evil.”16 Rather than focusing on factors outside of his control (i.e., whether something was sent as a punishment or a blessing), he would focus on turning to Allah in hopes of the best outcome.
- Rein in Regrets: Hindsight is always 20/20. We can look back at every circumstance in our lives and consider multiple alternatives in the hopes that things would have been different but, in actuality, the only reality is the present moment we are faced with. This moment will only be more difficult if we choose to focus on “what ifs.” Instead, consider what ʿUbādah ibn al-Ṣāmit said to his son: “Son! You will not get the taste of the reality of faith until you know that what has come to you could not miss you and that what has missed you could not come to you. I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ say: The first thing Allah created was the pen. He said to it: Write. It asked: What should I write, my Lord? He said: Write what was decreed about everything till the Last Hour comes...” Changing the past is not feasible so channeling our energy into something unchangeable is a recipe for intense pain.
- Instead of “What if…” Focus on “What is…”: The one thing we consistently have within our locus of control is what we choose to do with the present moment. Shifting our focus away from regrets of the past and worries about the future allows us to take advantage of the present moment. Ibn al-Qayyim beautifully reflects on this, “But then your attention must be directed to your life in the present—the time between two times. If you waste it, then you have wasted the opportunity to be of the fortunate and saved ones. If you look after it, having rectified the two times—what is before and after it, as we have said—then you will be successful and achieve rest, delight, and everlasting bliss.”18
Stage 4: Depression19
- “This situation is never going to end.”
- “What’s the point of getting up every day if my mom is no longer here?”
- “I can’t imagine living my life without a job. It’s hopeless.”
- “I never even got to say a real goodbye because I couldn’t be with him when he died.”
- Remind yourself that feeling intensely sad is normal, appropriate, and healthy when grieving. When the Prophet ﷺ witnessed his young son, Ibrahim, taking his final breaths, he began to cry and was questioned about this. In response to being questioned about his tears and clear sadness, the Prophet ﷺ said, “This is mercy.” Then he wept more and said, “The eyes are shedding tears and the heart is grieved, and we will not say except what pleases our Lord, O Ibrāhīm! Indeed we are grieved by your separation.”21
- This stage, just like the other stages, will not last forever. Remember the promise of Allah (swt), “For indeed, with hardship [will be] ease. Indeed, with hardship [will be] ease.”22 The depression stage is part of the process of moving forward after a loss. Remember that every moment of sadness and pain, no matter how overwhelming, is a part of the process of healing.
- Grief and bereavement support groups can be very helpful at this time as talking with others who have experienced similar losses to you can be cathartic and validating.
- Focus on small steps to take each moment. Instead of focusing on the stretch of days ahead of you with this loss feeling like a looming storm cloud over your future, focus on the one step you can take today to get through the day. When experiencing feelings of depression, putting one foot in front of the other can make a huge difference.
- Visualize the promise of Allah: There is nothing in this life that can ever replace the loss of a loved one. Visualizing the life you have yet to experience with your loved one in Paradise and what those eternal moments will be like can provide some peace during this difficult time. Allah (swt) describes this beautiful scene, “They will enter perpetual Gardens, along with their righteous ancestors, spouses, and descendants; the angels will go into them from every gate, ‘Peace be with you, because you have remained steadfast. What an excellent reward is this home of yours!’”23
- Make duʿāʾ for the reunion you dream of and find comfort in the promise of Allah, “We unite the believers with their offspring who followed them in faith…”24 Also remember the statement of the Prophet ﷺ: “There is no Muslim who is stricken with a calamity and reacts by saying as Allah has commanded: ‘Innā lillāhi, wa innā ilayhi rājiʿūn. Allāhumma ʿindaka iḥtasabtu muṣībatī, faʾjurni fīha, wa ‘iḍnī minhā (Truly, to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return. O Allah, with You I seek reward for my calamity, so reward me for it and compensate me),’ but Allah will reward him for that and compensate him with something better than it.”25 Although nothing can replace the loss of someone you love, living an eternal life of happiness and peace with them in jannah is the best compensation we can pray for.
Stage 5: Acceptance
- Reorganizing roles to others or deciding to take them upon yourself (e.g., paying bills when your late spouse used to take care of that; caring for your late father’s pet; etc.)
- Accepting and asking yourself: “This is really happening. How can I adjust?”
- Addressing your needs in this new stage in life.
- Reaching out to others for help and support
- There will still be ups and downs even once you’ve reached the point of accepting the reality of your loss. This is normal.
- On the difficult days that come up, name the emotion you’re experiencing and remind yourself that this is simply a manifestation of the love you have that can’t be shared physically or verbally with the person you have lost. Use duʿāʾ to channel that love forward.
- Finding meaning and creating new relationships is not a betrayal of your loved one. Those we love and those who love us want the best for us. You are honoring your loved one’s memory and honoring the gift of continued life that Allah (swt) gave you by finding new meaning in your day-to-day.
Stage 6: Finding Meaning
- Remember Paradise: Imagine your deceased loved one in the highest levels of Paradise, at peace and surrounded by everything that brings them joy. Imagine reuniting with them in a place of eternal peace and the feelings that will arise. Picture the scene Allah (swt) sets forth of your loved one in Paradise, “They will have Gardens of lasting bliss graced with flowing streams. There they will be adorned with bracelets of gold. There they will wear green garments of fine silk and brocade. There they will be comfortably seated on soft chairs. What a blessed reward! What a pleasant resting place!”28
- Memories: Recall your favorite memories of your loved one and share them in some way (tell them to your children, write them in a journal, create a memory box).
- Create Changes in Your Life: The loss of someone or something dear to you can often lead to reevaluating your priorities in life. When the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was asked which of the believers is best, he replied: “The one who remembers death the most and is best in preparing for it. Those are the wisest.”29 Allowing this loss to push you toward positive changes in your life is one of the most profound ways of creating meaning.
- Ṣadaqah Jāriyah: This type of charity is something you do one time but yields continuous good deeds because it has ongoing benefits for those you assisted. Support a cause that was meaningful to your loved one like building a school or water well in an impoverished area; plant a tree in your loved one’s honor; care for others with the intent of your loved one sharing in the reward. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The best of what a man leaves behind are three: a righteous child who supplicates for him, ongoing charity, the reward of which reaches him, and knowledge that is acted upon after him.”30
- Continue the Legacy: Was there something your loved one was particularly passionate about? Did they volunteer anywhere or talk about how they wished they could do something to support a particular cause? Consider something your loved one would have loved to see you continue doing as they did and consider ways to do that.
- Support Others: Be a support for others in their time of loss. After the intense sadness of losing someone you care for deeply, you have the unique ability to empathize with the struggles others face in similar circumstances.
Grief in children
Talking to children about their fears and anxieties surrounding the coronavirus
- Be aware of your own emotional reaction to all of this.
- Exercise self-compassion when feeling overwhelmed, fearful, or worried. It's completely normal to be worried about coronavirus when you see so much change around you.
- Notice that if you're obsessed with coronavirus media updates, it's an attempt to find certainty, but that's a losing strategy because there is no certainty. It makes you feel worse.
- Choose only responsible media sources to influence your thinking (and social media is not a responsible news source).
- Notice what thoughts and emotions you have in response to what you read, see, and hear.
- Turn off the TV and set aside a certain time each day to stay informed rather than being constantly inundated with information.
- Practice managing your anxiety and your mood by managing your thoughts.
- Remind yourself that Allah is the Almighty, The Most Powerful and The Protector. “No disaster strikes except by permission of Allah. And whoever believes in Allah,He will guide his heart. And Allah is Knowing of all things.”32 He is the One Who created the coronavirus and is more powerful than it. We rely on Allah's protection in every moment—from the air in our lungs to the beating of our hearts. Our health is always in the Hands of Allah (swt) but the coronavirus is an intense reminder of this. Allah reminds us of this when He says, “Who has fed them, [saving them] from hunger and made them safe, [saving them] from fear.”33
- Focus on the things in your control and what you can do in this situation.
- If the child is too young to understand, is not bringing up the subject, and is clearly not affected by what is happening, then there is no need to address it.
- If the child brings up the subject, discuss it in the context of how they understand it and are experiencing it. For example, if your 8-year-old is upset that they are not able to see their friends, then address their concerns. There is no need to bring up extraneous information that would unnecessarily cause anxiety.
- Adolescents are able to process information and discuss far more complex topics, but it’s also better to avoid issues that have nothing to do with them—like you being able to pay next month’s rent on time or the death toll around the world.
- Do not be upset with your child or teen if they seem immature about the severity of the situation, as brains continue maturing into their mid-twenties.
- Mūsá (as) was a tiny baby when he was placed in a basket and floated away yet Allah kept him safe.
- Firʿawn had an entire army at his back and was a powerful, feared ruler yet the same sea that protected Mūsá drowned him at the command of Allah.
- Yūnus (as) was in the depths of the belly of a whale and was released by Allah (swt) from this impossible situation.
- Try to frame concerns in relation to action items. Anas ibn Malik reported: A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied and trust in Allah?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Tie her and trust in Allah.”34 This can help explore feelings, but direct the conversation in a productive manner.
- For example if your child is discussing angst about germs, you can discuss the importance of washing hands and social distancing.
- If your child is missing an extended family member, validate his or her feelings but then identify action items like doing FaceTime with the person or writing them a letter.
- Deep breathing
- Talking to someone about how they’re feeling
- ”Name it to tame it” technique: When you notice your child is experiencing a strong emotional reaction, help them describe or “name” the feeling you’re seeing. This helps to calm them down and feel validated.
- Set small daily goals to keep them feeling proactive. Some ideas:
- Say 3 nice things to family members today
- Practice a sports skill for 30 minutes
- Learn to fly an awesome paper airplane
- Read a certain number of chapters in a book
- Try a new recipe
- Empower your child spiritually:
- Teach your child to recite the final three surahs in the Qur’an as a form of protection based on this hadith: “Say: Qul huwa Allāhu Aḥad and al-Muʿawwidhatayn in the evening and in the morning three times and they will suffice you against all things.”35
- Pick a duʿāʾ to teach your children from the morning and evening adhkār and tell them the benefits of the duʿāʾ.
- Teach your children a few of the Names of Allah to help them to get to know Him so they can turn to Him during times of worry.
Talking to children about loss
- Let the child guide you in the discussion. Explore topics and questions they want to talk about.
- Reflect back feelings and content brought up by your child so they feel heard.
- If they cry, let them. It may be difficult for you to see this, but telling them to stop or minimizing their feelings can make them feel worse.
- Do not fib or make up information about unclear matters; it’s ok to say “I don’t know” or “I can get back to you on that.”
- If a child is not very talkative allow them to draw how they are feeling or write it out if they prefer those mediums of communication. Allow your child to be creative in expressing their grief if that is something they would like to do.
- Offer resources like who your child can talk to, books, or any other materials that may be of benefit to your child.
- Ask your child how they would like you to support them.
- If there is important medical, funeral, or logistical information your child needs to know, explain it to them so they know what is to come and feel included. For example, if there is a janāzah, explain the process and what to expect.
- Tie the loss into your faith and Islamic values. If appropriate you can discuss the hope of seeing the deceased in jannah or talk about concepts of life and death from a spiritual perspective. Discuss doing deeds on behalf of the person as a means of staying close to them. Model making duʿāʾ for them.
Manifestations of grief in children
Helping children to cope with grief
- Patience can be hard to come by during times of grief because it doesn’t just affect your child but the loss also likely affects you as well. But exhibiting frustration toward your child can make things more difficult for both of you. The best way to increase patience is to take care of yourself by eating healthily, sleeping the recommended amount, and finding time to decompress. When you are in a better state of mind it’s easier to cope with a child’s challenging behavior.
- Remind yourself that this is a small snippet in time. If your child is bedwetting or waking up at night this is likely temporary and will subside. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this will last forever, which is easy to do, because it will likely increase your levels of frustration.
- Stick to routine and structure. It’s tempting to let children stay up late during times of chaos or when everything feels out of control anyway, but children need structure and stability. A consistent but flexible schedule can help your child feel more safe and secure. Note: Do not let your children forgo important tasks like prayer or school (beyond a few days in the case of a deceased loved one), because it could be challenging getting them back on track.
- Compassion and mercy go a long way as recommended by our Prophetic tradition. This advice can be especially useful during times of grief.
Narrated ʿĀʾishah, Umm al-Muʾminīn, that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said to me: “Aisha! show gentleness, for if gentleness is found in anything, it beautifies it and when it is taken out from anything it damages it.”36
ʿĀʾishah, the wife of Allah's Apostle ﷺ, reported that Allah's Messenger ﷺ said: “A'isha, verily Allah is kind and He loves kindness and confers upon kindness which he does not confer upon severity and does not confer upon anything else besides it (kindness).”37
It was narrated that Aisha said: “Some Bedouin people came to the Prophetﷺ and said: ‘Do you kiss your children?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘But we, by Allah, never kiss (our children).’ The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘What can I do if Allah has taken away mercy from you?’”38
Coping with grief and loss
1. Coping as an individual
2. Coping as a family
3. Coping as a community
How to help someone who is grieving
1. Supporting vs. comforting
2. General things to say or not say
- Be genuine and don’t talk unnecessarily, especially using cliche statements, to pass the time. If the person cries, it’s ok to sit there in silence.
- If you feel like you want to hold the person’s hand or hug them, ask first. Some people are very sensitive to others touching them without permission and the gesture can be disturbing to them.
- If the person who is grieving wants to talk about the dead, follow their lead and participate in the conversation however they want to engage. If the person wants to talk about everything except the dead, this is ok too and should be respected.
3. Ways you can support others
- Spend time with them. If it’s safe and appropriate, you can do this in person. If there is a health hazard, you can do this on the phone or by Zoom. Please note that bereaved family members are in a lot of pain and have lots of things to do. If they ask you to spend prolonged time with them, then do so; otherwise, don’t take up their time unnecessarily. Also under no circumstances should you impose yourself as a guest and expect them to host you with food and drink. Keep in mind that this type of imposition is not from the Prophet's ﷺ sunnah.40
- Offer to help by buying groceries, doing household chores, or watching their children. Make sure not to insinuate that they have a messy home or need your help as this may make them feel self-conscious or guilty. The Prophet ﷺ said, when the news of the death of Jaʿfar ibn Abī Ṭālib came, “Prepare food for the family of Jaʿfar, for there has come to them what has preoccupied them.”41
- Ask if they would like you to check on them from time to time, and follow up with that frequency. Many times people stop asking about mourners’ well-being shortly after the funeral.
- Make duʿāʾ for them. If they are sensitive about this (and some people are), you don’t need to remind them that you are making duʿāʾ for them—you can do this in private.
How to be there for others when you are grieving
Ibn ʿUmar (may Allah be pleased with them) reported: the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “A Muslim is a brother of another Muslim, so he should not oppress him, nor should he hand him over to an oppressor. Whoever fulfilled the needs of his brother, Allah will fulfill his needs; whoever brought his (Muslim) brother out of a discomfort, Allah will bring him out of the discomforts of the Day of Resurrection, and whoever screened a Muslim, Allah will screen him on the Day of Resurrection.”42
- Get adequate sleep and eat healthily
- Make sure that your basic needs are met like going to work on time, paying bills, and spending time with your own family
- Find time to decompress, however that might work for you. For some people this may include praying, making duʿāʾ, reading, art, working out, or engaging in a hobby.
- If you are feeling depressed or fatigued, take time off. Your body and well-being are an amānah from Allah that you need to take care of. Taking time off doesn’t mean that you are lazy or neglecting others.
When to seek professional support
- Not getting enough sleep when the person needs rest or sleeping too much
- Feeling immobilized and unable to get basic daily tasks done
- Anger, irritability, and frustration with those around them
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Desire for death or being preoccupied with thoughts about death
- Hearing or seeing things that are not there
- Substance abuse
- Impaired concentration and focus (beyond what the average person in the pandemic might be experiencing)
- For children, tantrums beyond what is expected for the age of the child
- For children, aggressive behavior towards others including hitting, throwing objects, damaging property, or biting
Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.43
But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.44
No disaster strikes except by permission of Allah. And whoever believes in Allah, He will guide his heart. And Allah is Knowledgeable of all things.45
ʿAbd Allāh ibn Masʿūd reported: I entered the home of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, while he was suffering from fever. I said, “O Messenger of Allah, you are suffering from a strong fever.” The Prophet said, “Yes, for I am afflicted with fever like two men among you.” I said, “Is it that you have a double reward?” The Prophet said, “Yes, it is so. Likewise, there is no Muslim who is afflicted with pain as much as the prick of a thorn or more but that Allah will expiate his sins just as leaves fall from a tree.”46
It was narrated from Abū Hurayrah that: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Allah says, ‘I am as My slave thinks I am, and I am with him when he mentions Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws to Me a hand-span length, I draw near to him a forearm's length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him in a hurry.”47
On the authority of Abū ʿAbbās ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: One day I was behind the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) [riding on the same mount] and he said, “O young man, I shall teach you some words [of advice]: Be mindful of Allah and Allah will protect you. Be mindful of Allah and you will find Him in front of you. If you ask, then ask Allah [alone]; and if you seek help, then seek help from Allah [alone]. And know that if the nation were to gather together to benefit you with anything, they would not benefit you except with what Allah had already prescribed for you. And if they were to gather together to harm you with anything, they would not harm you except with what Allah had already prescribed against you. The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.”48
Narrated Abū Hurayrah: Allah's Messenger ﷺ said, “The example of a believer is that of a fresh tender plant; from whatever direction the wind comes, it bends it, but when the wind becomes quiet, it becomes straight again. Similarly, a believer is afflicted with calamities (but he remains patient till Allah removes his difficulties.) And an impious wicked person is like a pine tree which keeps hard and straight till Allah cuts (breaks) it down when He wishes.”49
Narrated Abū ʿUthmān: Usāmah ibn Zayd said that while he, Saʿd and Ubayy ibn Kaʿb were with the Prophet (peace be upon him) a daughter of the Prophet (peace be upon him) sent a message to him, saying. “My daughter is dying; please come to us.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) sent her his greetings and added “It is for Allah what He takes, and what He gives; and everything before His sight has a limited period. So she should hope for Allah’s reward and remain patient.” She again sent a message, beseeching him by Allah, to come. So the Prophet (peace be upon him) got up and so did we (and went there). The child was placed on his lap while his breath was irregular. Tears flowed from the eyes of the Prophet. Saʿd said to him, “What is this, O Allah’s Apostle?” He said, “This is Mercy which Allah has embedded in the hearts of whomever He wished of His slaves. And Allah does not bestow His Mercy, except on the merciful among His slaves.”50