About a year after her unexpected death I started writing about how we tried to overcome the loss and grief that we experienced after my mother’s passing. Every time it became overwhelming to try and put all my thoughts and feelings into words and I let it sit until another year had passed.
As more time passed I realized that what had started with me learning how to cope with the sudden death of a parent had evolved into an ode to my parents. May Allah have mercy on their souls and grant them the highest paradise.
I returned to my homage in our family’s first holiday season after the passing of my dear Aunty Josie, when I was reminded that very soon it would be the second anniversary of my own mother’s passing. Two more years have passed since then, and today I am reminded that it is the anniversary of my mother’s birth in December 1946. A birthday that was seldom celebrated by her parents and siblings because it was too close to Christmas and everyone was too busy with household chores or work.
Anatomy of loss and grief
When my phone rang in the early hours of the morning of New Year’s eve, I thought it was my mother calling to wake me up for prayer, in case I had overslept. It was around 6am and I expected to hear her voice saying ‘Is jy al wakker?’ or ‘Are you awake yet?’.
I had spoken to her a couple of hours earlier, while repacking my suitcase for my vacation in Cape Town. She mentioned that she had stayed home that day when my brother went to fetch Katriena and Simone in Citrusdal. In the afternoon she felt unwell because she had forgotten to take her diabetes medication in the morning, and said she briefly slipped into a diabetes related unconsciousness. I replied jokingly, ‘Please don’t die before I get there’.
My mother had expressed concern that I would be tired from my late night packing, then working all day and having no sleep; before my 4am flight to Cape Town on New Year’s day. I was planning on leaving for the airport at 9:30 pm on New Year’s eve to avoid any traffic jams resulting from road closures to accommodate the city wide festivities in Dubai.
Instead, it was my brother’s voice whispering something that my brain could not quite comprehend. I asked him to repeat himself and heard him say in a very soft composed voice that they had called him to come because my mother wasn’t well. He said he had checked but could not see that she was breathing and was unable to find a pulse, and was waiting on the doctor to arrive.
My very first thought and utterance was ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un’, a part of a verse from the Quran (2:156) that translates as ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to him we will return’.
My second thought was ‘Maybe she’s unconscious and Shiekie just can’t feel her pulse’.
The rest of the morning passed by in a daze and the confirmation came shortly before I left for work, that my mother had indeed passed away.
The tears came of their own volition as I wondered on my drive to work whether my mother had passed away being pleased with me as her daughter. Whether I had done everything in my power to make the last years of her life, since my father’s passing, comfortable and free of stress. Whether she knew how much I appreciated the sacrifices she had made in her own life to give my brother and I a happy childhood.
It was month end, so sitting in my office with the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign was expected. I had not encountered anyone on the way and hoped that no one would see my puffy eyes and shiny nose. One of my colleagues came to bring me some documents and asked whether I was feeling okay, since he thought I sounded like I was getting a cold.
I whispered that my mother had passed away that morning and he murmured something and left. A few seconds later the Finance manager rushed in and gave me hug and comforting words that unfortunately opened the floodgates. She offered to get me on the next flight home, but I knew that would not be possible as the last direct flight for the day had already left. Any other flights would take nearly as long as my scheduled one the following morning.
So instead I stayed to complete my month end tasks, and every now and then when a colleague would pop in to pass their condolences, I would cry a little more. By the time I reached my family home in Cape Town the following afternoon, my mother had been buried and our family and friends were still struggling to come to terms with her unexpected loss and their grief.
I felt like I was all cried out, and was the epitome of what my mother called ‘cold and heartless’. Relatives hugged and cried and all I could do was nod or smile weakly. One of my cousins remarked at how smooth and clear my skin was, and I said ‘I had a salt water scrub, it does wonders’. When she asked what exactly it was, I smiled and said: ‘all you need to do to burn off all the impurities and dead skin is to cry all day’.
Stages of the Grieving Process
There are no courses or lessons to prepare one in how to overcome the death of a loved one or how to stop grieving. There is no feeling to describe the pain and grief we experience after the loss of a loved one.
Or the regret of not seeing them or being able to say goodbye one last time. These emotions and coping mechanisms are similar whether we have lost a loved one to death or divorce.
How long does mourning last you wonder? The grieving process is different for everyone. For some it can be days, weeks or months. For others it takes longer to reach the place of acceptance and hopefulness for the future.
The stages of grieving identified in the Kubler-Ross model reflects the emotional states that one could encounter after receiving a diagnosis of terminal illness. However, these and additional stages may apply to any significant loss that one may suffer including job loss, divorce or the death of a loved one.
- Shock and denial
- Pain and guilt
- Anger and bargaining
- Depression and reflection
- Acceptance and hope
The feeling of helplessness and not being there when my mother needed me the most, preyed on my mind more than anything. That feeling that I should have been more observant and realized that she was much sicker than I thought, or than she let on. The flicker of anger and resentment that no one thought to call me when they could see that she was fading on the morning of her death.
Everyone deals with a traumatic loss and its resultant grief in a different way and may experience the stages of grieving in a different order to that mentioned above. Some people remain stoic and calm while everyone around them falls to pieces, and others are the ones who fall to pieces.
There is no right or wrong way to deal with the pain and loss of a loved one, so be kind to yourself and at some point you will find the strength to deal with the emotions and repercussions of the grieving process.
Coping with the loss of a loved one
‘May Allah make it easy for you to overcome her loss’… that was the kindest supplication anyone could have made for me. Because the void is unimaginable.
It has not been easy for other members of our family who shared my mother’s daily life and daily routines, or her friends to whom she spoke on a regular basis. Every single one of them felt like they were her best friend and they felt her loss in the same profound way. For Katriena and Simone who spent the last years of her life with her, my mother’s passing was unbearable, in more ways than one.
It was very different for me when my father passed away. He had been sick for many months and we had come close to losing him on a number of occasions over the course of the previous year. There was a moment of clarity in the hospital on September 11, 2001, when I realized that Allah had given me another opportunity to be a better daughter. That I had to make the most of every minute I had left with my father and prepare myself for his eventual departure.
I had the flu during the last week of his life and stayed home from work to recover and heal. During the nights I would sleep in the armchair and watch over him while my mother and Katriena rested. My mother was always within earshot of my father during the final months of his life, and never left his side except to make arrangements and purchases for my brother’s wedding. Katriena was always on hand to assist with whatever he needed and between the two of them he was always taken care of.
On the morning of my father’s passing I helped him to eat breakfast, bathed him and dressed him and held him while his body was wracked by seizure after seizure. I was in another room taking a nap when he passed later that day, holding my mother’s hand. When someone came in to wake me and tell me that my father had passed away, I mentally and emotionally braced myself for what I knew was coming.
I didn’t cry except when I was alone, in the deep silence of the night. I held myself together while the rest of the household grieved and mourned, and prayed that my father was finally at peace. There were so many things left unsaid between us, but in the end I knew that he regretted the harsh words he’d spoken to me when he was in better health.
In the months after my father’s death my mum was mostly confined to the home to observe her Iddah, that lasted for four lunar months and ten days. I didn’t realise until much later that my mother had fallen into a depression during that time.
- Her true love and life partner had died and her days were empty without him.
- I worked long hours and saw her briefly over dinner in the evening, before going back to work in my room.
- My brother had gotten married and moved elsewhere a week and a half after my father’s passing, and he was not able to visit or call her as often as she would have liked.
- For many of our relatives we ceased to exist because my father was no longer around. During that time the only constant companionship my mother had were her two sisters Rachel and Josephine, who visited her every single day. Her other sister Doreen often called to check up on her when she wasn’t staying over.
During the whirlwind two weeks that I was around family after my mother’s passing, we spent much time with my surviving aunts and my mum’s friends who missed her much. Somehow hearing about why they missed her and how much she meant to them was a salve to my own grieving heart.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Bilkish, a couple of months after my father passed away. We were getting out of the car and I was telling her about something my father had said and she said: ‘I don’t understand it, you are never sad or tearful when you speak about your dad’. I thought about it for a second and I told her with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes: ‘I only have happy memories of my father and speaking of him and remembering his wisdom and goodness make me happy, Alhamdulillah.’
I could not bear to go into my parent’s bedroom until this past year. I could not bear to be at home during Eid without my mother there supervising the cooking and festivities. This year was the first time since her passing that we stayed home for Eid lunch and invited family to join us.
My role models
My mother – from high school dropout to business owner
My mother used to say that you have to dream big, because without dreams you will never achieve anything. She left school at the ripe old age of twelve to start working as an apprentice hairdresser. By the age of eighteen, she opened her own hair salon and had a thriving and successful full time business for around fourteen years.
When I started first grade my mother decided to work half day so that she could be home by the time I returned home from school. By the time my brother started high school my mother had reduced her business hours to three days per week only. I honestly cannot remember a day during my childhood and teens when we reached home after school, and my mother did not have dinner ready and waiting for us.
I never realized until I was in my teens, learning about feminism and the burning bras of the 1960’s and 1970’s, how much of a pioneer my mother had been in her youth. She built a successful business from the ground up and practically gave it up to spend much of our formative years with my brother and I. And she never complained, Alhamdulillah.
My father, may Allah have mercy on his soul and grant him the highest paradise, never showed any preference either way. If she wanted to work, she could. If she wanted to stay home and make puff pastry all day, she could do that too.
My father – orphaned but not abandoned
My father was orphaned at the age of four years old when his mother died due to complications from an asthma attack. He had no memory of his father who had passed away from tuberculosis contracted during his North Africa tour of duty during World War 2, when my father was barely two years old.
My parents knew each other since their teens, so much of what we knew about their youth were from their shared memories. However my father had traumatic memories from his childhood that stayed with him throughout his life and informed much of his parenting style.
My father’s earliest memory and one that still brings tears to my eyes was from after my grandmother died. He remembered that the adult men were sitting in a room reciting Quran and making supplications for my grandmother in the days after her funeral. Every time the assembly said ‘Ameen’ as an assent to the prayers and supplications being made, my father thought they were calling to him. He sat outside the door waiting to be called inside.
After the prayer meeting the family discussed what was to be done with him. He remembered someone saying ‘wie gaan nou vir Armien vat?’ meaning ‘who is going to take Armien’. And he remembered his eldest brother saying without hesitation ‘Ek is sy boeta, ons sal na hom kyk’ meaning ‘I am his eldest brother, we will take care of him’.
Though he subsequently went to live with his eldest sister, Fatima, who taught me to make Cape Malay Pancakes, my father always remembered that his older siblings loved him dearly. My father lived with Tietie and her family until the day he and my mother were married. However, during his youth he spent as much time in his sister Zuleiga’s house when they lived next door, and weekends were spent at his sister Gadija’s house after she was married.
After their own marriage my parents stayed first with my father’s sister Mariam and her family, for a few months and then with his brother Abdu Rahmaan until I was nine months old. Thereafter Mummy Rachel (my mother’s sister) asked my parents to live with her after her husband passed away, and a few years later we moved again when I was around 3 years old.
My father was a young teacher earning a pittance at the time, but after seven years of marriage they were finally able to afford to buy their own home. Even though my mother had her own business and earned more than my father in the early years of marriage, he never expected her to pay or even contribute to the expenses of running the house. She did however buy what she liked, including furniture and decor and whatever pretty items (usually Venetian glass, crockery and linens) she required decorate our home and bring herself joy.
Life Lessons from my parents
The very earliest lesson my mother taught 3 year old me, was about sharing. One day I came back from crèche and my friends were waiting to play with me. My mother, as was her custom, gave me money to buy my afternoon snacks at the corner shop. Now, that little can of coke was probably half a cup’s worth and the packet of potato crisps probably less. So my child’s mind figured that even if I shared, not everyone would get a sip or some crisps, so I ate my snacks alone.
When we went back upstairs my mother asked me if I had offered my friends some of my snacks, and I replied that I did not, because there was not enough for everyone. I can still see the look of shock and shame on her face. She called me to come back into the salon with her, and took more money from her purse. Then she told me: ‘It is not nice to eat your chips and drink in front of your friends and not offer them any. Whether you have a little or a lot, whenever there are others around, make sure to offer them first before taking any for yourself.’
My brother, may Allah bless him with goodness in this life and the next, exemplifies my mother’s lesson. On my first day at the same company as him, I watched him take out his lunch box. He offered a sandwich to everyone in the room and eventually had one slice left for himself. A week later he asked my mum if she could pack a few more than the eight slices she made for him every day; because there were more people in the office now; and he wanted there to be a slice for everyone.
When I was little I attended an allergy clinic at the Red Cross Children’s hospital because I suffered very badly from Eczema on my hands, feet, back of the knees and crooks of the arms. After every visit we would pass a child size statue of a little girl with a money collecting box in her hand. It totally freaked me out and to get over the fear my mum gave me coins to put in her collection box. Eventually I asked why we kept giving money to the statue and my mum said that we were helping other children who needed to go to hospital to get the medicine they needed to be better.
My parents were always ready to lend a hand to anyone who required assistance, whether it was by giving of their time or resources. During my teens my father faced legal issues resulting from bad debts run up by a man with exactly the same name but a different date of birth. As the lawyers fees added up, I asked my father why he didn’t call up a friend who owed him money, and ask him to repay the loan. My father declined and told me two things that day that I have never forgotten:
- If you lend money to a friend or relative, never ask for it back because you do not know what their situation is or whether you will make their difficulties worse.
- Do not shame or humiliate your friend or relative by reminding them of the debt.
My mother had a saying whenever I asked her why she was doing this or that for someone: ‘I’m not doing it for myself, I’m doing it for you.’ I never quite understood what that meant until one day when she was uncharacteristically annoyed with a relative, and I had to repeat her words back to her. Whatever good deeds or acts of kindness we perform in this life, will be remembered. It may be reciprocated in the future, perhaps not to ourselves, but towards our children when they are in need. If not, we will always have the supplications and kind thoughts of the recipients.
‘Do not waste your food, there are starving children in Africa who have nothing to eat.’ I had heard this for as long as I was eating solid food, yet had never seen those starving children. Until one day I was watching the news, and they were reporting on the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Seeing the withered and shrunken frames of adults, children and babies shocked me like nothing else before. I felt ashamed of the fact that I had three meals a day, yet complained that I didn’t like rice or that I wouldn’t eat meatballs.
The children who regularly came to our door to beg for food were no longer little rascals up to no good. I became more mindful and my mother always reminded us to share only what we would be willing to eat ourselves. They were sent to our door to be a mercy to us, so that we would not be wasteful, and as a means for us to accumulate good deeds.
One day were driving past another squatter camp that had sprouted up along the N2 highway. I wondered aloud ‘Daddy, why do these people come here from the Eastern Cape to live in shacks along the highway.’ My father’s response was swift and succinct and I have always remembered his words: ‘You don’t know what they have endured to come here, so do not judge a person before you have walked in their shoes or know their hardships.’
How to stop grieving
One of the things that has helped my healing has been sharing my memories on this blog. Every family gathering or vacation with my parents had a story, and the food and the stories are inextricably bound together in my mind.
For me, the healing and coping with my loss and grief comes from remembering my parents in my prayers, honoring their memories and re-telling their stories.
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