I am not a person who likes goodbyes. And this topic is a difficult one to tackle as it is deeply personal for me. As I write this piece, however, I am preparing my children to say goodbye to their beloved grandfather. My father was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain cancer that there is. It is also extremely rare, with an incidence rate of 3.19 per 100,000 persons in the United States. What that means is that around 14,000 people will be diagnosed with glioblastoma every year out of a population of 330 million. I never imagined my father would be among those 14,000. And I never imagined I would be preparing myself and my children to say goodbye to my father who just turned 73. I remembered saying to myself when I first learned about his diagnosis that this must be impossible, that the elders in my father’s family had lived to be 90+ years, and surely we could plan on 20 more years with my amazing Dad.
But here we are getting ready to write letters to my father and read them to him as he is placed in hospice care. The children call him “Jiddou” in honor of his Lebanese heritage. I’ve always called him Dad. But these names don’t convey the depths of our love for him, nor do they convey how grateful to him we are for all he has done for us, nor do they make up for all I wish we could have done to cherish our time with him. Alhamdulillah, he is still with us. He still comprehends what is going on around him and recognizes faces even though the names don’t readily come. He can still speak a little even though the tumor is causing tremendous swelling in the brain. And he still wants to get better. We all want him to get better. But we have come up against two things: A terminal diagnosis and the qadar of Allah, both of which have brought us to this moment of trying to figure out how to say goodbye to a man who means everything to us.
When my husband died in 2015 in a motorcycle accident, I was in a state of shock. In the weeks after his death, I walked around in a daze trying to understand how my life had been completely turned upside down. I remember talking to someone who rattled off a list of the most common causes of death, noting that sudden death ranks highest on the list of traumas impacting the surviving family. For me, that helped to explain why I was feeling the way I was. I was simply not ready to say goodbye to my husband and the abrupt nature of the loss meant that I wasn’t at all mentally or emotionally prepared for it. So I consoled myself by telling myself that some types of loss are “easier” to handle than others. I remembered saying that surely in the cases where a loved one falls ill, the family is better equipped to deal with the finality of the situation. And now here I am in just that situation. And I can say this: Loss is loss, no matter what, but there are lessons I have learned that I am trying to apply to this experience. And, no, it doesn’t make it “easier” in the most common sense, but it makes it possible to navigate this with more patience and awareness. With the tips below, I’d like to offer some advice to families dealing with the pain of a terminal diagnosis:
1. It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault.
Really. I think in our haste to find a “logical” cause for puzzling diagnoses, we want to look at everything and start second-guessing. Maybe it’s cell phones. Maybe it’s microwaves. Maybe it’s environmental. The reality is that no one knows what causes glioblastoma or the many other types of cancer that claim the lives of numerous people from all walks of life. Elderly people will die from cancer. Middle-aged people will die from cancer. Teenagers will die from cancer. Even young children will die from cancer. Now I’m not saying we should be fatalistic and not study the etiology of disease and fund cancer research. We should! What I’m saying is that Allah (swt) tells us in multiple recurrences in the Qur’an, “Every soul shall taste of death” [21:35].
2. We will all leave this dunya some way or another.
We all have to take that exit ramp. And we don’t get to choose when to take that exit ramp, how long we get to live until we have to exit, nor the circumstances under which we will exit. We don’t get to say to Allah (swt), I want this kind of death and not that. We can certainly make du’a for a good end that is free of suffering. But what we really need to be asking, for ourselves and our loved ones, is husn al-khitam, the best ending, which is to die upon faith, upon the firm belief of la ilaha illa Allah Muhammadun rasul Allah.
3. Help your loved one to remember this reality.
You should absolutely be encouraging them to be hopeful, trust Allah’s judgment, and ask Allah for shifa. Constantly make the following du’a for them
أَسْأَلُ اللَّهَ الْعَظِيمَ رَبَّ الْعَرْشِ الْعَظِيمِ أَنْ يَشْفِيْكَ
As’al Allah al-Adheem rabb al-arsh al-adheem an yashfik
I ask Allah the Magnificent, Lord of the Magnificent Throne, to heal you
for healing as this was the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). As to how many details to share with the person facing a terminal illness, that really depends on the person’s emotional and psychological makeup and their ability to process such difficult information. I used to think it was sugarcoating to not tell the person about the diagnosis, but after speaking to a number of people who’ve cared for a terminally ill loved one, including religious scholars, I’ve concluded that the best thing to do is to encourage them to maintain hope in Allah’s (swt) mercy so that they meet Allah with the best opinion of Him.
4. Provide appropriate spiritual counsel.
A terminal diagnosis is really frightening and the person experiencing such a diagnosis (and those around them) may react with sorrow, anger, or disbelief. During this time, it’s really important to validate those feelings while also reminding them of the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him). He always taught us to feel those difficult feelings but not to utter that which is displeasing to Allah. Anas ibn Malik reported: We entered the house of Abu Sayf along with the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) who was the husband of Ibrahim’s wet-nurse, upon him be peace. The Prophet (pbuh) took hold of Ibrahim, kissed him, and smelled him. Then, we entered after that as Ibrahim was breathing his last breaths. It made the eyes of the Prophet shed tears. Abdur Rahman ibn Awf said, “Even you, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet said, “O Ibn Awf, this is mercy.” Then, the Prophet wept some more and he said, “Verily, the eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except what is pleasing to our Lord. We are saddened by your departure, O Ibrahim.” [Sahih Bukhari]
5. It’s okay to smile and even laugh.
The topic of death and dying is such a heavy thing on the person who is ill and their loved ones but even in the midst of facing one’s mortality, it’s important to hold on to those light moments, those human moments of happiness. So reminisce about special times, encourage them to share stories about their childhood if they are able to speak, and even add a little levity to the conversation by reminding them how much you love (or groan) over their jokes. This is not inappropriate. This is actually really important for your and their mental health. It means that even in the midst of this hardship, Allah has blessed you with some ease, and that is a good thing.
Am I ready to say goodbye? Probably not. But do I trust that God knows best? Yes. I am grateful for my father’s legacy of faith, service, and joy. I will forever be indebted to him for believing in me and my sister and providing us with a sound Islamic education. Whenever I look at a Persian rug or browse an Islamic book, I will remember those as my father’s great loves after his family and community. And my children will forever remember their beloved Jiddou as the father figure in their lives after their father passed away. And very importantly, I am grateful to Allah that I get to say goodbye, that my father is surrounded by people who absolutely adore him, that he is being well taken care of by my amazingly courageous mother. Not everyone facing a terminal illness has such an opportunity and I want my Dad to know that Allah does not task us with that which is beyond our reach. My father was my first Qur’an teacher and when I go to see him, I think I will recite the following verses for him:
مَن كَانَ يَرْجُوا۟ لِقَآءَ ٱللَّهِ فَإِنَّ أَجَلَ ٱللَّهِ لَـَٔاتٍۢ ۚ وَهُوَ ٱلسَّمِيعُ ٱلْعَلِيمُ
وَمَن جَـٰهَدَ فَإِنَّمَا يُجَـٰهِدُ لِنَفْسِهِۦٓ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَغَنِىٌّ عَنِ ٱلْعَـٰلَمِينَ
وَٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَعَمِلُوا۟ ٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتِ لَنُكَفِّرَنَّ عَنْهُمْ سَيِّـَٔاتِهِمْ وَلَنَجْزِيَنَّهُمْ أَحْسَنَ ٱلَّذِى كَانُوا۟ يَعْمَلُونَ
“Whoever should hope for the meeting with Allah – indeed, the term decreed by Allah is coming. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing. And whoever strives only strives for [the benefit of] himself. Indeed, Allah is free from need of the worlds. And those who believe and do righteous deeds – We will surely remove from them their misdeeds and will surely reward them according to the best of what they used to do.” [Qur’an, 29:5-7]