‘What would happen if he died?’ I mused, as the topic we least like to think about became one I had to confront upon the passing of a dear friend’s spouse. Death is a known reality that we like to keep at a distance, but it hit me at full-speed, leaving me lamenting about what would become of me and my family if my husband was to be beckoned back to our Lord before me.
It was less about the heart-tugging sorrow of losing a loved one, but more a lucid string of thoughts about the more practical aspects: What would happen to the kids? Would I be able to cope? What would I do with all his stuff? Would I ever marry again? – of course not, my mind screamed – and what would things be like with my in-laws?
The in-laws. We talk so much about in-laws prior to marriage – how to maintain a zen-like balance and stay in the mother hen’s good books – but there’s little mention of family dynamics if our husband was to leave us and his parents behind on the next leg of his journey. And so I set out on a quest to find out what life with in-laws is like after the death of their son, and I was equally surprised and comforted by the stories Maryam, Sara, and Dr Kemi* shared with me. Each of their situations differed greatly, thus the aftermath of their husbands’ passing was unique. While Sara was a carer to her father-in-law, Maryam and her in-laws lived on opposite sides of the city, and Dr Kemi resided miles from her in-laws, so also didn’t have daily contact with them.
My initial surprise stemmed from the beauty in the dynamic of Maryam’s relationship with her in-laws; with so many in-law horror stories floating around, it was refreshing to gain insight into the other side. “My husband was very close to his sister and parents,” Maryam told me. “Often you hear people complain about their in-laws, but I always thought I am so lucky to have a really amazing set of in-laws. They were so kind to me, accepting of me and very welcoming. They took me immediately under their wing, and I always felt at home whenever I was visiting.”
Sara, on the other hand, had a rather lonely experience. With no mother-in-law around, and an ailing father-in-law to care for, looking after her husband in the run-up to his passing was not easy. “My husband was the only son and had a sister a year older than him,” she told me. “His mother died 10 years earlier, and his very elderly father lives next door to us. My husband and I shared his care. His sister did not assist at all. During my husband’s illness, I looked after my father-in-law for the last two years as an unpaid carer. Now my husband has passed, I look after him on my own with no support from his own family, not even his daughter.”
Dr Kemi’s other half came from a large family whom he was close to, which has its benefits as well as its trials. “I have a cordial relationship with his family,” she said, “but you know, as an African family, some people were not happy since I was his only wife and they felt that with his status, he should have had more than one wife.” Negative dispositions within families can often be masked under normal circumstances, but they easily come to the fore at tender times such as the period of grief, as a loved one’s loss leaves a void that many so desperately want to fill.
Sara saw the truth of this more than she would have cared for. “My sister-in-law has stopped talking to me since seeing my husband’s will. This was very distressing and upsetting for me. This happened very early on, and I find it very stressful as she was my husband’s sister, especially as she wishes to maintain contact with my three young children, but wants to cut me out of the picture.”
Laying to rest
How often do we consider how we’d like to be laid to rest? It’s so easy to take for granted the fact that Islam has rites and rituals to be followed when we pass away, but what about those of us who have non-Muslim relatives, who we know would love to send us off in a way that helps their healing? Despite the wonderful connection Maryam shared with her in-laws that aided her grieving – as they were able to grieve their lost love as a solid family unit – the issue of her husband’s burial became a point of contention that completely threw her.
“This is the part where things got interesting and challenging. His parents became a united front, and for the first time since I knew them, I felt like anything I wanted for my deceased husband as a Muslim was fast being overlooked by the arrangements being made by the non-Muslim family.” In many respects, this is understandable as he was their child, after all. They had raised him, and the truth of this wasn’t lost on Maryam, although it was difficult to contend with. “I felt I had lost all control of the situation as his side of the family had made arrangements, and I had to just go with it. I completely respected the fact that this was their son, and their claim to him was not to be overlooked.”
Maryam felt at a loss and was stunned to silence, but the tides turned and his family came round to respecting her wishes, which were ultimately an extension of her husband’s. “What happened was that his side of the family beautifully agreed to my husband’s body to be collected from the hospital, the washing of his body ritual to take place, to shroud him in his kaffan, for his funeral prayer to be prayed at the mosque he held close to his heart and to be buried with the imam and all present to make the Qur’an and Sunnah part of the entire event. It was such a turn of events that the women of his family turned up at the mosque wearing ‘abayahs and headscarves.”
While Maryam finally got what she’d silently prayed for, Dr Kemi had her hands tied and was unable to have a say in the arrangements of her husband’s funeral. “He died in a plane crash, so it was the federal government that arranged it. Though the families wanted individual burials, it was denied and a national burial was organised, with the Muslims among them buried according to Islamic law.”
Becoming a widow is never at the forefront of our minds despite the knowledge that spouses are but a loan to us from Allah (SWT), and that they – as well as we – will eventually return to Him. The three widows I had the opportunity to interview had differing experiences not only in their in-law interactions during the wake of the death of their husbands, but also in how they all dealt with the pain of such an insurmountable loss. Their tests gave them an opportunity to grow, and they have an insight into a domain of life that many of us are oblivious to. These are their gems of wisdom:
Sara says, “I’d say the greatest challenge is to ‘expect abandonment’ as this happens. Be it mother-in-law, father-in-law, sisters-in-law, or brothers-in-law etc., especially regarding the will. They may not like the fact they haven’t been left with much. Despite your spouse making his will, they may take it out on you. Be prepared.”
Dr Kemi shared the same sentiment, “The greatest challenges have to do with the sharing of assets, as in-laws always care about the assets more than the welfare of the children or the immediate family the man leaves behind.” Although this was a potential roadblock for her, Dr Kemi still became triumphant, and her heart was put at ease. “The greatest triumph with my in-laws came when I decided to follow exactly how the Qur’an said things should be shared. I took all the assets to a shari’ah court for it to be shared, and accepted all what was given to me and my kids in good faith and prayed for Allah (SWT) to bless it.”
To avoid the stresses surrounding inheritance, Sara advises that, “If your husband is sick, prepare a will and gift anything prior. Protect yourself, if possible. Try to maintain ties of kinship but if they don’t reciprocate, let go for your own sanity. There is enough to deal with in terms of ‘ibadah, bills and adjustment, so try to keep away anything negative that will bring you down further at a time when you have hit rock bottom.”
Dr Kemi reminds widows to, “Hold on to Allah (SWT), and hold on to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Fasting and prayers are what brought me to this point.” And with regards to widows with children, she stresses that widows, “Teach the children to work hard and get their own [wealth] by studying hard and achieving success.”
As a widow navigates the crest and fall of the emotions and immediate responsibility left on her shoulders when bereavement strikes, there is so much wisdom in the pertinent parting words from Sara:
“Please remember this is not a punishment but a test from Allah (SWT), as Allah (SWT) tests those He loves. For months I thought it was a punishment, but now realise it wasn’t. We are all going one day and Allah (SWT) deemed the time for our spouse to go as the best time for him.”
Indeed, love lost is love gained, and Maryam reminds us that in the melee of the days and months after losing one’s spouse, we should remember everyone, including the in-laws, is hurting. “Communication is key; balance this with giving each other enough space to deal with the loss. Maintain good ties and rely on each other as much as you can for support.”
LaYinka Sanni is a UK-based writer and editor who has been writing for longer than she can count on two hands. Her works of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry have been published in various publications online and in print. When she’s not mentoring writers or editing, she taps words on her blog: http://FromTuesday.wordpress.com.