I remember the first time death touched my life.
It was my seventh or eighth birthday when Stevie, the family cat, died. Prior to that, death was just a minor inconvenience in a video game, or something that happened in movies. I knew what death was, but I didn’t fully grasp what it meant until that day. I lay in bed crying because I had finally realized the finality of death: Stevie was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
Death came into my life many times after that.
The first person in my life to die was my Grandma. She was the first person in my life to die. Though I had known her and loved her, I was surprised that I wasn’t saddened by her passing. It may have been the distance (she lived in Ontario and I in Alberta). Yet it may also have been that I acknowledged that death was a part of life; that we all inevitably pass away. Death was, brutal as it is to say, somewhat anticipated with an elderly relative. She died in her sleep. I imagined it was the ideal way to go.
The shock of sudden death hit me in High School. My friend was killed in a car crash involving a drunk driver. It was here that I realized the threads that death left unconnected; stories unfinished, promises unfulfilled. I had given her a story to read that I wrote, and she was going to give me feedback on it. But I never found out what she thought of it. I never would. Just as she would never fulfil her dreams.
These two contrasting extremes both teach the same lesson: death can happen any time.
I tried not to think about death too much; I had bigger things to worry about, like black holes, tornadoes, alien invasions, etc. My fear was widespread chaos and destruction, but the intimacy of an individual death—my own or someone else’s—was something that rarely crossed my mind. When it did, it was usually from the death of a family pet, whether a dog, cat or fish.
I grew up with many ideas around death. Death as an end of existence; death as an awakening; death as a transition from one life to the next. I believed that there had to be something after death. The notion that death is mere non-existence, a sleep you never wake from, never made sense to me. However, the process of death was never entirely clear to me. Having grown up with Christian beliefs (though reluctant to label myself as a Christian), I always believed in God, Heaven and Hell. I was told that when you die, if you’re good you go to Heaven, if you’re bad you go to Hell. It seemed so simple—but what about Judgment Day? I was too afraid of it to learn about it, and so it remained nebulous.
Becoming a Muslim changed all that.
After becoming a Muslim,I gained a much richer understanding of death, the dead and dying. The process of death is quite detailed, as is the description of life (if you could call it that) in the grave, and ultimately resurrection.
Prophet Muhammad (p) encouraged us to remember death. This was not, however, out of cynicism or despair. Rather, it’s for a sense of perspective. Death is an acknowledgment that this world is temporary; that no matter how much you amass or how much prestige you achieve, everyone ends up in the same state, from prince’s to paupers. Many analogies of life and death have been made. But for me, the most effective one is like being on call for work; you should pack light and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
In the Qur’an, God reminds us of death through the cyclical nature of seasons. It’s a reminder that death is temporary, and is followed by resurrection and eternity—a life without death. Our brief, temporary lives will be a testament to our eternal souls.
We live in a time when people are so drunk on life that they choose to ignore or fight perspective of death. It’s a losing battle: inevitably you will die. But before then, you got a lifetime of good that you can send forward.
In the Tim Burton movie Big Fish , the hero of the story, Edward Bloom, recounts his life through a series of whimsical tales. One of the youngest tales he tells is of a witch with an eye that can show you when you’re going to die. He willingly looks so he can know how it happens. Later in his life, he is confronted with near-death situations and reminds himself not to be afraid because “this isn’t how it’s supposed to happen”.
The movie juxtaposes the fantastical visions of Edward’s life with the reality that, in his old age, he is about to die. After suffering a stroke, Edward asks his son, Will, to tell him how he dies. His son embraces his father’s gift of storytelling and weaves a fantastical escape, ending at a farewell by a river, attended by all the people Edward touched in his life. It’s a stark contrast between the saturated golden hues of fantasy, and the steely grey-blue of the reality of death. The last thing Edward says before he dies in the hospital is: “That’s exactly how it happens.”
But as Will attends his father’s funeral, he sees that many of the outlandish characters he described in his tales are real people, all of them touched in one way or another by Edward’s life.
While none of us knows when we are going to die, and nothing can tell us how it will happen, we do know that we can choose how to live. In all of the deaths I’ve witnessed in my life, there comes a realization that each teary eye or saddened heart is a testament to the ripple that the good of one life can have.
And so I’ll end on the words of Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad (p): “Lead such a life that, when you die, people may mourn you, and while you are alive they long for your company.”