Dr. Sameera Ahmed, Ph.D. is Director of The Family & Youth Institute; co-editor of ‘Counseling Muslim: Handbook of Mental Health Issues & Interventions’; and Associate Editor for Journal of Muslim Mental Health.
Dr. Zainab Chaudry, Pharm.D. is an American-Muslim civil and human rights activist, blogger, and community advocate.
Tragic incidents involving gun violence are commonplace in America, and Muslims are not immune to them. They affect all parts of society, and victims’ loved ones always pay the highest price.
Recently, Maryland-area Muslim communities were rocked by the devastating news of a double murder-suicide spanning two counties and involving an American-Muslim family.
Shocking reports indicate the husband – a former Lt. Col. in the United States Army – murdered his wife at their Harford County home, then traveled to his son's college campus where he shot and killed first him, then himself.
As authorities piece together details, community and religious leaders have rallied together to provide support to the surviving family member, campus Muslim students and extended communities.
Losing someone we know and care about is very painful. Regardless of our religious affiliation, confronting a loss abruptly and unexpectedly is especially difficult.
People experience the various stages of grief differently, but there is no right or wrong way to grieve. However, there are healthy ways to cope with it that - over time - can help bring closure.
It is natural to feel overwhelming sadness and regret, and a terrible sense of loss. It's also natural to ask questions or wonder whether there's something we could or should have done to prevent the tragedy.
But each individual of sound body and mind has personal choice and agency. This means they have control over the decisions they make. We should be careful to not wrongfully assume or assign blame.
Surrounding ourselves with supportive friends and family in the aftermath of a tragedy can help provide comfort and ease the burden of grief. Some people crave solitude, and that is ok too.
Grief doesn't follow a pre-determined schedule. There's no timeline or pattern. Give yourself time to adjust and accept the situation.
Most people worry about what to say to a grieving person. But it's more important to know what not to say, and how to be a good listener. Speaking with grief counselors and therapists can help process emotions and gain valuable insight.
Sometimes we think putting on a brave front helps those around us, but expressing our authentic feelings - no matter how uncomfortable - is liberating and cathartic.
Grief is not pretty. Some level of extreme behaviors, words, and emotions may occur.
It's natural to feel vulnerable, sad, frightened, and lonely. Don’t try to stop yourself from crying. Contrary to some opinions, tears are cathartic and actually help the grief process.
But just because someone isn't crying doesn't mean they're not experiencing pain. People enduring it the most could, in some cases, be the least likely to express it.
Pain demands to be acknowledged and nurtured. Ignoring it does not make it go away faster; it can, in fact, increase its intensity especially when triggered by memories.
If you know someone who is suffering the loss of a loved one, here’s how you can help:
- Acknowledge the situation.
- Express your concern.
- Be genuine in your communication and don't hide your feelings.
- Offer your support with concrete ways you can assist them.
- Ask how he or she feels without making any assumptions. Grief is a cycle.
(Source: American Cancer Society)
Examples of what to avoid saying:
- "I know how you feel."
- "Look at what you have to be thankful for."
- "He's in a better place now."
- "This is behind you now; it's time to get on with your life." Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
- Statements that begin with "You should" or "You will." (Instead, use: "Have you thought about" or "You might")
- Don't give unsolicited advice
(Source: American Hospice Foundation)
Other ways to be supportive:
- Accept and acknowledge feelings. Create a safe, non-judgmental space to cry or be angry and emotional
- Be willing to sit in silence. Sometimes, we feel compelled to fill the silence, but you can offer comfort and support with your presence and non-verbal communication
- Listen patiently, even if you've heard the story dozens of times
- Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. If you've suffered a similar loss, share your own experience if the person you are comforting says it would be helpful
- Offer practical assistance (grocery shopping, running errands, drop off/cooking meals, coordinating funeral arrangements, receiving guests and taking phone calls, doing household chores)
- Offer extra support on significant dates (holidays, family milestones, birthdays, anniversaries)
Maybe one of the most critical aspects of navigating the stages of grief is to watch out for warning signs. It’s common for the bereaved to feel depressed, dissociated from others, or lonely. But if - instead of gradually lessening - symptoms begin worsening with time, this could lead to more serious problems.
Anyone going through the grief process should be firmly but gently encouraged to seek professional help if over two months after their loss, they still demonstrate:
- Difficulty functioning or performing daily activities
- Substance abuse
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Excessive bitterness, guilt or regret
- Constant feelings of hopelessness
At any point, anyone talking of dying or possibly contemplating suicide should be gently but firmly encouraged to immediately seek help. This could be symptomatic of clinical depression or other more serious problems that need immediate intervention.