by Rabia Mills
1. When a loved one dies, and you are telling your little one the tragic news, keep it short, use simple words like 'dead' or 'died'. Avoid euphemisms like 'sleeping', 'passed on' etc. because those words can create problems later on because small children are very literal.The following is part of a letter written by our webmaster to a friend of hers. The recipient was a mother whose husband had just been diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and whose prognosis was bleak. He was given less than three months to live by his doctors. He died 2½ months later. The mother was very distraught and concerned about how to explain death to her two young children (aged 3 and 5), so Rabia wrote her the following letter. It has been altered slightly so as to protect the identities of the individuals concerned. We thought that this very Islamic response might be of interest to some of our readers, so we decided to publish it. For more information about Rabia's background, she mentions a little bit here.
2. If possible, before the tragedy can occur, sit them down and use a flashlight with batteries and without batteries. Demonstrate to them physically a flashlight working and then not working when the batteries are removed. Then demonstrate the same thing using a toy with and without batteries as well, and explain that people have something inside them that is like batteries. But only with people, it is different and it is called a spirit (ruh). So when people's spirits are inside them, they work very much like batteries and people run and laugh and work and play and be mothers and fathers and so on. But when the spirit is taken out, they don't work anymore. Just like a flashlight when the batteries are removed. When the battery (which is called the spirit) is inside of people, they eat, sleep, play, talk and laugh. When the battery that was inside people has been taken out, people don't work either. So we say that they have died and they are dead. Only with people you can't put a new battery in like you can with a toy or a flashlight. So once the battery doesn't work anymore you can't fix it. Only God/Allah can take the batteries out of people. Nobody else can.
[If your child is able to understand (say a 5 year old compared to a 3 year old), you can also use this description] Most of the time Allah waits for people to become very old before He takes their batteries back. Since He's the one that gives people their batteries to begin with, He doesn't like to take His batteries back too soon because most of the time He wants people to have their batteries working inside of them because He loves them so much. Sometimes Allah has a big big decision to make, and He doesn't like to do this but He has to take people's batteries back to Him. He knows that all the people who loved the person whose batteries He took will be very very sad for a long time. This makes Him very sad too. But just like you have to eat all your supper before you can have your dessert, Allah has to do the difficult things first too. We don't know why He has to do this to us now, but we do know that He is doing it to make us strong because He loves us very much.3. Say to kids that they can talk to Allah [Again, 5 year olds would have more comprehension here so you can use the word "pray" instead.]. Stress that Allah especially loves little children, but He is invisible and that even though nobody can see Him, He can see us. He's the one that makes the clouds and day and night and thunder and lightening and makes it rain and snow. We can talk to Him and tell Him all of our secrets and also ask Him for things and even ask Him to make things better. Sometimes He will give us what we ask for. We can talk (pray) to Him when we are sad or scared or happy or just want to thank Him for something. He loves us all very much. Especially little children. And we all love Him too.
4. Say also: Allah wants little children to grow up to be big and strong because He loves them so very much. Did you know that Allah is always there? He's there beside you right now, but you can't see Him because He's invisible. Allah knows everything that is happening to grown ups and to little kids too. It is so nice. He is our best friend. He really loves little children because they are so special.
5. Sometimes Allah wants someone to be with Him, which means they can't be with us, and so He has to take their spirit (use explanation of the batteries) to be with Him. Once He does that then they can't come back to be with us anymore because they live somewhere else. But don't worry, Allah will take good care of them. And only Allah knows why He wants [mommy, daddy or loved one] to be with Him and we don't know why, but we do know that it is for a good reason. That is why we don't have to worry about [mommy, daddy or loved one] because he [or she] is being taken good care of.
6. Explain the battery analogy beforehand so that if the loved one does pass on, then you can remind your child that [name of loved one's] spirit has been removed, just like the batteries in a toy or a flashlight. Allah has taken [name of loved one] to be with Him and so they won't be able to come back. Tell them to never ever forget that [name of loved one] loved them very much. Tell them that they can talk to Allah any time they want to because He can help them.
7. Another way to explain it is that everything dies in winter, then the snow comes, then spring comes. But this can be problematic especially with very young children because then they think that they just have to wait until spring for their loved one to return. Kids are very literal that way.
8. When kids lose someone they love, they often become afraid that they will soon lose another person that they love or will even die themselves. Assure them that Allah mostly takes His batteries back to be with Him after a long long time because He doesn't want to make us any more sad than we are already, and so He probably won't take my batteries or your batteries until you are very old. That is good to know because we don't have to worry anymore. And it is also good to know that because we miss being with [name of loved one] so much and we are already very sad.
9. It's not a good idea to tell very young children that sickness was the cause of a death because that can create even more problems for them. You see, very young children (especially pre-schoolers) are unable to differentiate between temporary and fatal illnesses and so even minor illnesses (like colds and coughs) that they might get could cause them unnecessary concern.
10. If your child wants to know what a spirit looks like, take some dirt and a little bit of water and then tell them that the spirit is like water, it is clean and clear. Then say that people are like dirt. Then physically mix the water and the dirt together and show them that you can't see the water anymore because the mixture has turned to mud. It is like that with the spirit. When Allah puts a spirit inside a person, you can't see it anymore because it is mixed in with the body. That's one of the reasons why we can't replace people's batteries [spirits]. Since we can't see the spirit, we don't even know what it looks like and we don't know how big it is either. And even if we could see it, we wouldn't know where to put it because we don't understand it. So, even though we know where to put batteries in a toy, with people we just don't know where or how or what to put. Only Allah knows how to do that.
As to the sending of condolences after the death of a loved one, here is a letter which was written (dictated) by the Prophet Muhammad to a very close friend (M'uaz). M'uaz was an esteemed Companion of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s.) who embraced Islam at the young age of 18. He belonged to the Ansar. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s.) sent him to educate the Muslims in Yemen and while there, his son died. On that occasion the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s.) sent him this letter of condolence, exhorting him to bear the loss patiently:
"In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.