In April, my family received news that my mother’s friend passed away from COVID-19. We were overcome with grief—especially because we were still grieving another recent death. Our last memory of her is watching the EMTs carry her to the ambulance outside of her house as we waved goodbye. We all feared the worst but were hopeful that that goodbye wave would eventually turn into a welcome back gesture. It didn’t.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, loss and grief are two themes that transcend age, race, religion, and location. The U.S. alone has reported more than 100,000 deaths and counting. Because of shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates, many have lost loved ones without the opportunity to properly say goodbye. Public gatherings, including funerals, are limited to 10 people or less. These restrictions make it difficult to complete burial rituals and funeral practices, especially in the Muslim community.
Muslims adhere to a burial process that incorporates religious and community elements. After the body is released from the hospital, it is ceremoniously washed. This is a crucial step, but because officials prohibit the touching and washing of bodies because of virus transmission, Muslims are implementing another method called tayammum, a dry purification process where sand is used instead of water: “Instead of washing the body with water, we would use dry dirt from the earth to rub on them while they’re clothed, so we’re not touching the body directly,” says Fuad Mohamed, the imam at the Muslim American Society of White Center in Seattle.
Typically, after the body is purified, it is wrapped in a white cloth, placed in a coffin and transported to a mosque for the funeral prayer. But because of current circumstances, this step is skipped and the body is taken directly to the grave. There, 10 people can stand 6 feet apart and pray on the body. This is called Salat al-Janazah, the funeral prayer.
If a person is hospitalized for COVID-19, family members are usually not allowed to visit to prevent spreading the disease. It gets even more complicated if the person dies and the burial process starts without the family.
The words of an imam, prayers mixed with tears, and quiet sniffles in a crowded mosque is usually what a Muslim funeral sounds like. Funerals represent a transitional act for the deceased to be put to rest, and, for many, the process itself is an opportunity to say goodbye and an important step in the grieving process.
“Imagine not being able to pray on a loved one. It’s double the grief. The grief of losing somebody, and the grief of not being able to be there in their last moments,” Imam Mohamed says.
Besides the shift in burial practices, the grieving process in the Muslim community is also changing. It’s customary for Muslims to convene at the family’s house and bring food and water. Many will stay for hours to provide comfort and support for the grieving family however they can. Now, we can’t do that. “The community is losing the opportunity to be there for one another,” Imam Mohamed says.
My mother and our community are mourning our friend’s death from afar and sending condolences through the phone. Still, my mother is struggling with the reality of not saying goodbye properly.
“It’s still not registering in my mind that my friend is gone. I would’ve liked to be there in her last moments, go to her funeral, say goodbye. I can’t even be there for her kids and visit them and comfort them. This virus is unforgiving, and I hate it,” my mother shared with me in Somali.
She grieved her own mother’s loss a couple of years ago. Knowing her mother received a proper goodbye, surrounded by loved ones, helped her cope. “Not being physically there hurts differently,” she told me. Beyond helping our communities grieve, our funerals serve as a reminder that death is part of worship. Muslims believe that death signifies the end of this life and the transition to the next one.
Similar to other social distancing accommodation methods used for work and social interactions, virtual support is how many are showing up for loved ones right now: texting, calling, video chatting, and stopping by their house while maintaining 6 feet of distance.“I think the best thing to do is to go back to our family homes, if you don’t already live with them. So even if the people from the outside are unable to help us during a crisis, then maybe your parents and siblings can help you through this,” Imam Mohamed suggests.
The coronavirus outbreak has unleashed a collective sense of grief, whether we mourn a loved one or the life we had planned for ourselves. The Muslim community is feeling this, compounded with the loss of our death care practices.
Trying to grieve amid the instability and barriers around traditions has been challenging. I feel myself constantly reaching to give my emotions some space to breathe. But I’m finding comfort in the Arabic word Tawakkul, an Islamic concept that loosely translates to perfectly relying on God. It’s practiced in times of uncertainty or when things feel so out of our control. My faith has gotten me through many strenuous times before, and aligning myself spiritually is how I’m finding some peace.