The Principal Died

25 Nov

Recently, I spoke on the phone to a dear friend, an expat living in Morocco, whose children’s’ school principal died suddenly after complaining of chest pains. Earlier the same day, her daughter spoke to the principal about a problem with another classmate. After lunch, he never returned.

One moment here, the next moment…..

How do we speak to children about death? How do they do it in Morocco? I wondered.

Matter of factly, my friend, a former school nurse in the States explained. This isn’t America, she chuckled as if to let off some of the pressure. There isn’t a grievance counselor or special team to talk to the kids. Her children found out when fellow students came running up at school yelling, l’moodeer maat!!! {The principal died}.

Everyone went home. The next day the children filed down stairs to wait for the school bus. The driver came by on his rounds, reporting to the children {not their parents} that school was closed  – the principal died.

There were no notes sent home to parents, or phone calls made, or condolence messages posted on the website {what website?!}, or candle lighting ceremonies, news crews, or crisis hotlines. Within 24 hours He was buried, swiftly, without embalming, in the Islamic manner.

She spent time talking with her kids about their feelings. Then, they curled up under blankets on a grey, misty, Casablanca morning, and watched a movie to pass the time. She’s agonizing. Her third grade son, especially, loved the principal. They had built a deep attachment to one another over the past few years. What will happen now?

I prayed for my friend’s son and for her. I prayed for the principal’s family as well. He left a widow and minor children behind. I shivered, ruminating selfishly, what if that tragedy reigned down upon this house?  Another thought: Would this Moroccan principal have known that a Collard Green mama of three would be praying for his family upon his death? Would I have ever known? It’s strange how strangers connect after life.

Then, in the aftermath of the latest bombardment of Gaza, scanning the news, my eyes caught a photograph of a classroom – the young students sat in desks, two by twos.  A child looks up into the lens, a diluted smile on her face, eyes defiant and ruminating. The seat next to her is empty, in its place is a wide placard. In Arabic it reads: “The Student Martyr, Sarah Al-Dalou.”  The photo’s caption explains: Sarah and 10 of her family members were murdered …during the Israeli assault on Gaza strip. Out of 160 Palestinians killed and 1,000 injured, about one-third were children.”  I looked back at the classmate again. This child must feel her companion’s absence as heavily as she feels her own survival. I could not make out the expression of the girl before, but now I saw it clearly.

The news somehow made me flash-back to the ninth grade when a fellow classmate drowned over Labor Day weekend at the beach. For a week, our guidance counselor followed the boy’s schedule – he sat in all of his seats to fill the otherwise vacant space. I don’t remember exactly what he said, just that it seemed dainty and somber. He sounded like the preacher on the pulpit – only irreverent, because he didn’t mention grown-up Jesus, or even baby Jesus- not once.

What do you say when a child dies? He lived a good life? I do remember that the guidance counselor assured us that we should feel comfortable to come to him at any time to talk things out. The boy sat behind and to the left of me; he was soft-spoken and pale, sporting square glasses that dipped below his cheekbone, overshadowing his small features. I can’t remember ever exchanging a single word with him, yet when I found out he was erased from our world forever, I could remember the exact tincture of his sandy-blonde hair. The absence of his presence hung heavily for many days. In his desk, the guidance counselor looked over-grown and I thought, goofy, towering with his bulky forearms and clasped hands extending over its perch. The ceremony only punctuated the boy’s absence more, yet the absurd sight of that balding, middle-aged man, with the concerned eyes, sitting in the lost boy’s seat, made me feel like the earth might not be trembling after all.

I asked my very Arab husband who is from a small town in Morocco, how adults spoke to him about death. He told me that growing up when folks died, the funeral procession would have to take its course on foot over the hard-packed dirt paved alley in front of his home. As children, they’d peer from the second floor window perch, say a litany, and acknowledge, within themselves, that humans die, just as their farm animals do. They understood that one day they would die as well, along with their mothers, fathers and all their loved ones. Everyone is born and dies.

“Did anyone ever talk to you about this…topic?” I asked.

“Death?” He said effortlessly.

“Yes, death?” I repeated.

“What would they have said?” He asked earnestly.

{What would they have said?!} I could think of a dozen things! As a natural talker of all trades, I can always think of at least a dozen things. No one said any of them?!!

That didn’t cut it for me. I’d have to say at least three of these dozen things. I’d have to solicit my children’s’ responses and surgically analyze them in my private moments. It’s a heavy subject; it seemed that his people dealt with it…errrr….callously.

And, yet, I pondered it’s not a callous people by any stretch. People from my husband’s town, Oued-Zem, are some of the most sincere, hug you by the neck and never let go people. They are so affectionate with each other, you find two people walking in pairs engaged arm and arm, or attached to one another even if only by the thread of intertwined pinky fingers. Even alpha males will hold onto one another when they walk. Their display of outward affection, when compared to even Collard Green folks, known for their gregariousness, is more apparent and uninhibited. Children are less often seen fidgeting in strollers and more often slung on their mother’s backs or hoisted over their father’s shoulders, or that of their uncles, or maybe just the neighbor five doors down. If a child howls for as much as a piece of candy, it is not uncommon for a perfect stranger to assuage the wailing boy or girl.

Upon further reflection, I surmised that it’s not a matter of dealing with death unceremoniously or without deep reflection; rather, it is  because on the whole my husband’s people have a shared understanding of what happens upon death; they’ve conveyed that understanding from generation to generation, through recitation of the Qur’an. Muslims believe that the children of Adam and Eve die, and then they are questioned about whether they were obstinate disbelievers. They are shown their final end -whether heaven or hell. In preparation, they pray for the deceased feverishly during this time and repeat after his/her name- Allah yurhamuhoo(a) { Allah, have mercy on him (her)}.

The sorting out is not for the living who still have the opportunity to repent and seek the Mercy of God; the intense focus, rather, is concentrated on the deceased who cannot return to shed any remaining traces of what separated them from God – their ego’s excruciating pull, and with it, their ambivalence about the finite substance of life.

Muslims believe that the deceased are aware of everything happening around them until they are buried. So, they speak soft, loving words, and facilitate recitation of the Qur’an in beautiful, soothing voices. Not to prolong the deceased experience of this mourning period, and in accordance with Islamic law, they bury the body within 24-hours. They do not delay the proceedings for make-up sessions or to make flights for eulogizers.

Days after talking to my friend, I was at the mosque for Friday prayers with my children. My eldest son was on the men’s side alone because his father was attending prayers at a mosque closer to his office. After the sermon and prayer, the imaam announced that a member of the community had died the night before. “Please stand up,” he instructed us to pray the janaza (funeral) prayer. And so, it was…my son alone. He watched them bring the closed coffin out and set it down, and with the rest of the congregation he prayed.

Afterward we met in the atrium of the mosque before heading out into the parking lot. Of course, the first thing my son asked was: “Why did that man die? Who was it? How old was he?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?! Can you ask someone?,” he pleaded with me.

I looked around; it was a large congregation, people were flying by us left and right trying to make it back to work as they’d likely used their lunch break to attend Friday prayers. I didn’t see any familiar faces. By this time we were well into the path of swerving cars in the crammed parking lot. I clutched both of my smaller children by the hand.

“I can’t ask anyone, we have to go,” I said, as my son trailed beside us trying to keep up.

“Pray for him,” I said making my voice audible over the traffic and strepent voices. “Pray to Allah to forgive his sins!” I called out, weaving my way between two parked cars, into an opening to pass into another lane. “He’s dead. That was the appointed time for him and now his life is over.” My son heeled on my footsteps, while I pressed on. “He can’t go back. No one can be at peace but by Allah’s mercy and His name is All-Merciful.”

We snaked our foot-path between more cars, until finally emptying into the outer-bound hilly, grassy area where I parked. My son spotted two friends from his homeschool co-op. “Hey!,he called out smiling. Are you done with school for the day?!”

“Yeah,” his friend bragged. “I’m always done at 1:00. “But not him,” he chided, nudging his little brother, “He’ll drag it out until 5:00.”  The younger brother looked down and smiled sheepishly as if to convey that he was half annoyed and half pleased with himself.

Alright, see ya’ later,” the older brother tipped his hand

O.K. bro, bye,” my son replied, which is the pre-teen boy version of stately.

I haven’t made up my mind about how best to talk to our children about death when they face it head on. Like most things ‘child-rearing’ – I sigh and grovel at the thought that I’ll figure it all out in retrospect. At least the grandchildren will profit, if our brood ever warm up to the idea of me as sagely; and then, I’d also have to reckon with that notion myself.

All I know now is that the principal died.

Sara Al-Dalou, and 10 of her family members died.

The unknown man at the Friday prayer died.

One day I will die, my husband will die, and our children as well.

Knowing that scathes, and yet, mercifully refreshes the entire outlook for today.

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4 Responses to “The Principal Died”

  1. hidayah514@yahoo.com November 26, 2012 at 4:16 am #

    Your posts always, always make me cry.

  2. CollardGreenMuslim November 26, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Me too:-) I have to write when my kids sleep. For a good laugh check out Mama Fatwa and Climbing in Dollar Store Flip Flops, or 12 Rolls of Toilet Paper!

  3. Cici November 26, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Salaam…I guess I have a “backward” perspective than yours. I grew up in Indonesia (predominantly muslim), and found that people in America as too afraid to talk about death. When I was in Junior High, we lost a classmate. He was a quiet boy, and I can’t remember much about him except that he passed away when we were in 8th grade. We collected money from all of the school students, who ever wanted to give. Then we walked to his house, quite far from school, as I could recall. We said our condolences to his family, and walked back to school. Most of my classmates were in low income class, so we knew what ever money we collected would’ve helped his family.

    By the time I was in college, two of my closest friends in junior high also passed away. They died because of a motorcycle accident. To this day (13 years later), I remember when they passed away, and I still hold on to one letter that one of these friends wrote to me. They were really, really young men…one died only several days after he turned 20. Last year during ramadan I still had a dream about one of them.

    None of us hold vigils, but we remember our dead with fondness. We pray for them, we still visit their families from time to time. Death is never a forbidden subject around our house, in fact there were some years when my daughter obsessed asking about death. She saw from very, very close range the dead body of my family-friend’s grandma while we visited Indonesia. But subhanAllah, she looked so calm in her death, that my daughter didn’t feel afraid looking at her. My oldest son, upon hearing his baby second cousin died, said “His parents must’ve been sad. But the baby is happy, he must be enjoying himself with prophet Ibrahim AS now!”

    • CollardGreenMuslim November 26, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

      Those are very compelling stories of how you deal with loss in Indonesia. You and your children are fortunate for the opportunity to make peace with this inevitable stage. May Allah (SWT) have mercy on us and make us always content with His Qadar.

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