The realities of death, from my grandfather’s passing

9:26pm on Friday, April 23, 2010 is a night that will remain in the forefront of my consciousness for the rest of my life. The front part of my brain devoted to memory has a visual stamp of this night, when my limbs let loose and all I could do was close my eyes for reprieve.

It was the night my Dada (the Bengali word for my grandfather on my father’s side) died.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji’un1. Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return.

When I heard the news, I ran to my father, touched his back and asked, “Are you okay?” It was isha time and he was making wudu. The tears falling from his eyes were quickly wiped away by the water from his wudu ritual, like the ebb of ocean waves. Bapi (the Bengali word for father) never responded to me. Instead he rushed to the mosque like a man possessed. I thought, is he in denial? What should I do?

Bapi didn’t come home for a very long time that night and when he did, he turned off the lights and went straight to bed with the covers over his head. My little sister and I went to him, Muna cocooned near his right side, me at his feet. We waited for him to speak.

“Do you know why I ran to the mosque?” he asked. Bapi loved starting conversations with riddles and I can’t remember a single time when I actually got the answer right, but I always gamely tried.

“Because you’re training for a marathon?” I feebly joked.

“I ran to the mosque so I could catch Sheikh Muhammad to ask him to lead the congregation in dua for your grandfather after prayer. Dua is the only thing that can help your grandfather now.”

Bapi continued, “what are parents’ most important responsibility?” He answered “To raise kids who will make dua for them while they are alive, and when they are gone.”

That night, instead of talking about memories of Dada and times they spent together, instead of letting out wails of grief and lying listlessly on his side, for solace, Bapi turned to the realities of death. He talked and talked about what I should do with his body when he dies, who to call (the mosque funeral services), where his will is located, who takes care of the bathing of the body, and who takes the body from the casket to bury it into the deep earth. I let him talk, because I know this is how Bapi heals. He is a doer. When faced with something that will strike a human at his knees, my father instead gets up and does twenty things at once.

Bapi spent the rest of the night on the phone with our family in Bangladesh where Dada had died, speaking with my cousins there and my uncle in America, as they all came together to finalize the funeral arrangements. Before he went to bed, a phone call interrupted him. It was my youngest aunt who had broken down. All you could hear was the most piercing sound that could emanate from a human’s being. It was the sound of deafening sorrow, the kind that no amount of soft words and tight hugs could repair. In between her sobs, Bapi repeated again and again “What will help him now? Your duas. Your duas. Your duas.”

The next morning I woke with my right arm hung over the side of my bed. Every day, the moment I wake up from unconsciousness is the moment I feel the most alone in the world. This morning is no exception, except I sense something is different. As I sway my right arm up and down, it hits me. Dada is dead. Ever year we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, Ramadan, Eid, and life follows a pattern. But the next Eid will be celebrated without Dada in this world, and the next, and the next. Dada’s death has marked time in a way that can never go back and this thought makes me panic.

In his time Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said, “When a son of Adam passes away, he is cut off from his deeds except for three things: a current or perpetual charity, good knowledge that benefits someone, and a good child who makes dua for him.”

With that in mind, I begin to make dua in the purest form I know. I ask that my grandfather find light and peace in the grave, and that the gates of heaven will inshAllah one day welcome him. I recite a dua that has been recited for centuries: Inna lillaahi maa ‘akhatha, wa lahu maa ‘a’taa, wa kullu shay’in ‘indahu bi’ajalin musamman faltasbir waltahtasib. Surely, Allah takes what is His, and what He gives is His, and to all things He has appointed a time, so have patience and be rewarded2.

Like my father taught me, I yearn to help my grandfather in the most meaningful and simplest way I can. I want to do what Dada can no longer do for himself but what he needs the most: remembrance of Allah and supplication. An alternative to reading the entire Quran is to recite its backbone: surah Fatihah, surah Iqlas three times, surah Falaq, surah an-Nas, and surah Yaseen.

As I begin to read these surahs in his memory, I think about the time I was closest to Dada, when I was ten. I never really knew him since he lived his entire life in Bangladesh. When I did visit Bangladesh, we had our share of conflicts, with him scolding me. But I will never forget the summer he stayed with us in America. Every day of that Texan summer when he took a nap, I forced him to wake up and tell me tall tales and fables from Bangladesh instead. He’d close his eyes and start to snooze until a little voice piped up to ask “what happened next!?!” I inherited my lifelong love for stories from my mother and Dada is the only person in my life who took the time to indulge me. Those summer days remain to be some of my most cherished childhood memories.

The next night, my close friend who is of no particular faith called to express her condolences and said “you’ve told me before that Muslims have a really different view of death. You spend your whole life preparing for it.” I believe that’s true and now, more than ever before, I know it. My father taught me to live my life trying to be the most moral, kind person I can be, so I’d have no reason to fear death. I see this reflected in the end of surah Yaseen: Fasubhana allathee biyadihi malakootu kulli shayin wa’ilayhi turjaoona. So Glorified is He (Allah) and Exalted above all that they associate with Him, and in Whose Hands is the dominion of all things, and to Him you shall be returned.3

Nearly a month has passed and I once again find myself turning to the realities of death. In that time, I’ve asked my close friends and co-workers to make dua for Dada. I am grateful that I know I can turn to them. As for myself, I end all of my prayers in dua for him and I read Quran at night in his memory.

In my life, I’ve gone to janazahs, burial sites, Quran khatms, but it hadn’t hit me until my own family’s loss, the importance of ongoing dua for those that pass on before us. It is our greatest comfort from grief and our most powerful ally. It is our way to do something beneficial that can help the deceased in a way that simple flowers on a gravestone cannot. It is the constant stream that propels us in the right direction, as time goes by and humans pass on.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji’un. Surely we belong to Allah and to Him shall we return.

My Dada, Mohammad Abul Hossain: 1923-2010

1. Quran, Surah Al-Baqara, Verse 156
2. Al-Bukhari 2/80, Muslim 2/636
3. Quran, Surah Yaseen, Verse 83
Mahin Ibrahim works for a technology company. She is interested in gender issues as well as the acculturation of Muslims in America. In her spare time, she likes to make films, which is a passion she would like to pursue full-time. She lives in Santa Clara, CA.


(Photo Source: BBC)


  • mohammed husain says:

    Mahin, I really appreciated this piece. 

    I was just thinking today that we live in a culture that makes it more difficult to appreciate our parents. But perhaps its important for us as children of our parents to remember that they [our parents] are more often wisdom embodied than wisdom articulated.  In describing your father’s response to your granddad’s death I feel like this was very much the case. 

    May your Granddad be showered with God’s mercy.  Ameen.

  • mahinu says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you that western culture does not emphasize appreciating/listening to your parents, rather it emphasizes appreciating youth/listening to oneself. As for my father, I feel he both embodies and articulates wisdom, but it took me getting older for me to really be open to receiving it with an open mind. Thanks for your thoughts again and take care. – Mahin

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