A Faithful Word

Living in the Light of God's Love

Hesham A. Hassaballa

Hesham A. Hassaballa
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
July 08
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago doctor and writer. He has written extensively on a freelance basis, being published in newspapers across the country and around the world. His articles have been distributed world wide by Agence Global as well. He has been a Beliefnet columnist since 2001, and has written for the Religion News Service. He is also a guest blogger for The Chicago Tribune. Dr. Hassaballa is author of the essay "Why I Love the Ten Commandments," published in the award-winning book Taking Back Islam (Rodale). He is also co-author of The Beliefnet Guide to Islam (Doubleday). His latest book of poetry about the Prophet Muhammad, Noble Brother, has been published by Faithful Word Press. In 2007, his blog, God, Faith, and a Pen, was nominated for a Brass Crescent Award for a blog that is "the most stimulating, insightful, and philosophical, providing the best rebuttals to extremist ideology and making an impact whenever they post."


DECEMBER 21, 2012 8:22PM

For Those Grieving over Newtown, Hold Their Hand

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In the Name of the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful Precious Beloved

This first appeared on altmuslim.


December is never a good month for my wife and me. Our daughter — who passed away three years ago from cancer — was born on December 30. And so this time of year is always hard. This year, the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut have only made it worse, for us, for everyone.

As I read the news reports of the funerals that are taking place this week, one after the other after the other, it brings back the horror of the days when my daughter died. It brings back the unbearable terror of having to see my daughter breathe no more. It brings back the painful memory of watching as they put dirt atop the beautiful pink coffin that housed my daughter’s frail body.

It has been one week since the tragedy in Newtown, when 20 children and six adults were senselessly gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Because the news is so fresh, the wound so acute and the pain of knowing that innocent children were gunned down is still searing, much of the country have these horrific shootings in the forefront of it’s mind’s eye. But, as time passes, so too will the attention paid to Newtown.

Soon, the media trucks will leave this quiet, beautiful town. Soon, the nation will move to other pressing matters that will seize its attention. Soon, people will stop talking about the Newtown massacre. Yet, the pain and grief of the parents who lost their children will not fade. The indescribable horror of having to endure the loss of a child will continue forever. For the next twelve months, these parents — God be with them all — will have to suffer through the “series of firsts:” the First Birthday; the First Christmas; the First Easter; and, ultimately, the First Anniversary of the repugnant crime.

When we were burying my child, the sight of dirt being hurled over her coffin was too much for me to bear, and I broke down in open grief. Someone whispered in my ear — with good intention, I know — “Be patient.” But, the one thing that helped me the most — and the one thing I will never forget — is the hand that my dear friend extended to me in comfort.

As the dirt piled on, he held my hand. And it made all the difference in the world.

And so, I make this plea to the family and friends of those in mourning — from a parent who is still suffering from the unrelenting pain of the loss of his child. Do not let these grieving parents go. Extend your hands to them as much as possible.
My friend didn’t say one word as they were burying her; he just held my hand. Please do the same to them. They may not need constant attention; many times, they may want to be simply left alone. But, still, be there for them.

There is nothing you can say that can help allieviate a pain that is truly indescribable in its intensity and difficulty. Just be there for them. Give them your shoulders, if they should need them, to cry upon. Give them your time and ears, if they should want to talk to you about the pain they are feeling. Give them your hands, so they can hold them and get some measure of relief from a living nightmare that will never go away as long as they live. Give them your prayers if you are far away.

Just be there for them. Unless you have lost a child, it is truly an unimaginable horror. I have had to be strong for the last three years, strong for my wife, so that I can comfort her. Whatever pain I feel, it is only multiplied in her, for she is a mother who lost her baby. I have had to be strong for my other children. I don’t want their lives to be constantly studded with grief and sadness. I have had to be strong for my patients, so that, when I am in an ICU room that looks a lot like my daughter’s, I don’t break down in sheer agony.

But, sometimes, I want that hand again. Sometimes, I want a shoulder to scream into. Sometimes, I want to be held and comforted, because the pain is so unbearable that I can’t breathe.

And so, just be there for them. Hold their hands. Let them grieve and get out the emotion from time to time. Don’t foreget them. Because, to keep in the pain day in, day out is a torture that is unimaginable.

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I have been there.

I doubt anyone reading this will ever meet any of these parents, though. If they do, you will have done them a favor.

For me, it was hugs. Not words. Language didn't do much of anything. One of the biggest lessons I learned from my son's death is that language is inadequate to certain tasks and this is one of them.

There's a tradition at Jewish funerals. At gravesite, each mourner takes a shovel, pushes dirt into the open grave with the back of the shovel to symbolize reluctance, than puts two more shovelfuls of dirt into the grave. Once I did it, I stood to the side of the grave, and nearly everyone who used the shovel gave me a hug after they did. That helps.

But for me, covering the coffin is an act of love and respect. It is also something I can actually physically do for the dead. When everyone had taken their turn and I could still see the coffin lid, I picked up the shovel and I covered the coffin, mostly by myself. My stepfather grabbed another shovel and helped me after I'd been doing it for a minute or two. Eventually, a Bobcat or something comes over and finishes, but I wouldn't leave the gravesite with the coffin uncovered.

This is an odd time to be addressing this. My son's Unveiling, where they uncover the gravestone for the first time, happens in less than a week. A week and a day from now will be the first anniversary of his death.
Losing a child is truly an unimaginable horror; losing children like those families did in Sandy Hook is more than most people can comprehend even in a world where the incomprehensible occurs regularly. Nothing could make it any better but I wonder, if they'd died from say a tornado, or maybe a natural gas explosion or something falling from the sky like a jet's engine - would the mind be more able to eventually accept it? I can't speak for anyone else but I know how my mind works and what might help me get a toehold to climb out of the pit. My child being slaughtered like that however - it would bury me.
I think, Margaret, it would be a great deal harder to take if someone had actually done this. I don't know if I'd be able to steer my mind toward thinking of a sick human being as a sort of human tornado, as mass murder being a sort of preventable natural event if anyone had seen it coming.

My son died in a thoroughly bizarre accident. It was completely preventable but not forseeable - there was just no way to see this one coming. No negligence; I would not have considered this physically possible.

How do you deal with a series of deaths like these? There was no negligence on the part of the parents. There is nothing they could have forseen, there is nothing they could have done.

So, I don't know how I would have reacted if I were they. There is an aspect of learning to close the barn door so the next group of horses don't escape, and that's what the whole gun thing all over OS/OurS is about. If you can't save these kids, the best you can do is save the next ones. That's a good thing. That's what MADD is.

In the case of drunk driving, I'd probably have been driven nuts because of the disgusting level of irresponsibility involved. Drunk driving is so unbelievable self-indulgent. How does that translate to a kid who goes to a school and shoots children? How do we define an act like that? Is it simply ultimate self-indulgence? The height of irresponsibility? Or are we looking at something in another direction entirely? After all, the mother was on the verge of getting this kid committed. Was he physically capable of getting the self-indulgent aspect of this act?

If yes, I suppose I could hate him. If not, he might be an act of nature, and the responsibility lies with those who didn't take that into account, like the guys who built faulty dams around New Orleans.

It's convoluted. Absurdly convoluted. All I'm trying to do is figure out how I'd attempt to cope with what if I were in this position.

Thank God I'm not. I've unfortunately been (well, am) close, but not there.

I think perhaps you misunderstood; what I meant was, if I were a parent or relative of any of these victims it might have been easier to process if it were a natural, unforeseeable event that killed them – such as a tornado. Not trying to make it somehow more acceptable (if that’s even a word you can use in a case like this) by thinking of Adam Lanza as the event itself.
My husband died of natural causes at home, in bed. It was sudden and unexpected but after the shock, after asking the rhetorical question “how could something like this happen” then finding out exactly how it had happened from reading his medical records and the autopsy, I came to some level of acceptance. Had it happened any number of different ways (for example one thing I did worry about was what if a disgruntled former employee snapped & came back for him) it would have been much harder to deal with.
Even a drunk-driving death would have been easier to handle than murder or mass murder I think. Yes drunk driving is self-indulgent but no one makes a calculated decision to drive drunk and kill someone. And here’s another thing: Most of us can relate to driving drunk because I suspect most of us have done it. If asked I’ll bet a majority of people will tell you they’ve been behind the wheel of a car when they shouldn’t have. I know I have. It doesn’t mean you’re not raging at the driver or that it’s any easier to bear; it’s just that in those quiet dark rational moments we might think to ourselves, “I could have done that too at some point. I could have killed a car full of people that night I insisted I was sober enough to drive.”
One of the worst things about a Sandy Hook is it’s hard to relate to for most people. Even 9/11 was more comprehensible. It makes it starkly clear that it can happen anytime, anywhere, any place, by any one
I didn't misunderstand you. I got that you meant that it would be easier to take these deaths without there being intentionality behind them. My conjecture is that if I were in the parents' position I might try to cope by translating that into a framework I'd be better able to cope with, "better" in this case being extremely relative. I don't mean one should; I mean one might try to in desperation.