Living with widowhood


The faint light of early dawn had barely entered the small apartment and she could just make out her husband’s silhouette under the warm bed covers from where she sat on the prayer mat.  With her hands still damp from her morning ablutions, she gently shook his body again.  "Wake up, it is time for fajr [the morning prayer]" she whispered. 

The faint light of early dawn had barely entered the small apartment and she could just make out her husband’s silhouette under the warm bed covers from where she sat on the prayer mat.  With her hands still damp from her morning ablutions, she gently shook his body again.  "Wake up, it is time for fajr [the morning prayer]" she whispered. 

It was strange that he was taking so long to wake up this morning.  Gulshan Tajri shook him again and then felt an unusual sense of foreboding.  Why did he feel so cold?  She shook him again and then felt all the energy drain out of her legs.  She sat down on the bed in shock.  What was wrong?

"I didn’t know what to do", she recalls quietly. "We lived alone, we didn’t have any children.  I phoned my brother and he was the one who called the ambulance.  It was a Wednesday.  By 2 pm that day, my husband of 29 years, at only 51 years of age was already buried in the sand."

Thirteen years later, Tajri is a true survivor.  Having never written a check or even opened a bank account in her life, she now lives alone and learned how to drive at the age of 48.  For her, as for the other brave men and women interviewed for this article, the death of a spouse brought with it challenges and adjustments unlike anything they had ever experienced before.  In an instant, all of them were unexpectedly hurled into a vortex of grief and bewilderment.  The struggle to come to grips with this new reality was even more difficult amidst the whirlwind of grieving friends and relatives, phone calls and funeral arrangements.

A few hours later, in the utter loneliness of the aftermath of the burial they found themselves facing the grim prospects of a future without their loved one by their side.  For many it meant losing the main breadwinner of the family.  For all, it made even the most humdrum day-to-day chores of life, such as cooking, car / house maintenance, and driving to the corner store, difficult and daunting tasks.

The grief

"Being married to someone for 25 years means that you are no longer two separate people", says Shama Dhala, mother of three, who lost her husband five years ago.  "Together you are almost like a new entity and when one part of that entity dies it can feel as if half of your body is cut and buried.  A part of you has become lifeless and you are told, ‘live’.  It is absolutely the most painful feeling in the world."

The depression that is accompanied with losing a spouse can leave some people feeling as if they are losing touch with reality but most of the people interviewed pointed out that this is a very normal part of the grieving process.  Along with the usual signs of depression which include crying, loss of appetite, lack of sleep or paradoxically feeling extremely sleepy and exhausted, many spoke of memory loss, feeling intense anger, numbness, withdrawal and listlessness.  The routine of everyday rituals that they shared with their spouses made some feel as if they could hear the deceased spouse’s footsteps or the sound of them doing their ablutions for prayer.  For others, it became unbearable to enter their bedroom or to sleep in their bed.

"It never really gets better," explains Shama who says it took her 3 years to be able to say her husband’s name without crying and feeling all choked up.  "You just learn to cope with it, to live with the sadness.  As a mother your first priority is to give your children comfort and strength and if they see you upset then they can’t be strong.  So for me, the hardest part was hiding my emotions from my children, keeping it all bottled up until I was alone.  Spending time with my children, seeing a smile on their faces, that was what gave me the most peace.  Children can be a real blessing because the person that you are missing so much is in them!"

Rituals of mourning

The waves of grieving relatives and well-wishers can often, ironically, add a huge amount of stress upon the new widow or widower.  Relatives from abroad can mean making accommodations for their sleeping arrangements, bedding and food.  With the custom of having majalis every night at the home of the deceased comes the emotional and financial stress of having to order and serve food to the constant flow of visitors.  It is not unusual, then, to see the grieving widow in the kitchen even if she is there simply to point out where the cutlery is kept.

When visitors arrive with a plate of food or take the initiative to clean up the house and receive guests, it takes a big burden off the family to play host at a time when they are at their most vulnerable.

Almost all of the people interviewed expressed their discomfort over the custom of surrounding the bereaved and having to answer the question "how did it happen?" again and again.  It is important to let the mourners have room to breathe as the shock and stress of crying, being constantly hugged and touched can often cause dizziness and fainting.

Many women spoke of having to field questions and comfort grieving friends when all they wanted to do was to spend those last few moments with their loved ones before the hearse drove away.  The need for closure and a few quiet moments is important and it may not always occur to the grieving widow to ask for it until it is too late.

Others spoke of the added burden of having to decide what would be served after the funeral–including some who found themselves having to assert their right to choose what the menu should be. It can be even more difficult to think straight when medical and Islamic issues such as the performing of a post mortem need to be discussed and decided.

Other widows spoke of the trauma of having women taking their rings and chains off or putting black clothes on them, unsolicited.  Some were made to cry even when all they wanted to do was keep their composure for fear of losing control of themselves.  The culture of encouraging great displays of grief can pose difficulty for those who are private people by nature.

"It hurt me when people commented on how strong I was because I wasn’t crying," said one widow. "If only those people knew how much I cry every night when I am alone." 

Words of comfort are vital for helping the bereaved find courage but it is important to choose one’s words carefully.  Some of the most unpopular choices were the words, "I feel sorry for you," "I pity you" and "I know exactly how you feel."  Most recommended simply lightly touching the person

and saying, "have patience.  Allah is great.  We are here for you whenever you need us." 

If your spouse is alive …

"Each day that you spend with your spouse is truly a blessing", says Mohamedhussein Dhala who lost his wife to cancer 14 years ago.  "It’s like winning a million dollar ticket each day and not knowing it.  It’s like missing an accident by five minutes and not even realizing how narrowly you missed a catastrophe."

When asked what advice they would give to people who haven’t faced widowhood, answers ranged from the philosophical, "cherish each other" to the practical such as "buy insurance today."  Wives spoke of the importance of taking night school courses, taking up a skill and paying attention to where husbands store important documents.

"I think every woman should do an exercise in paying the bills and visiting the bank if she has never done this before," recommends Batul Dhala who lived alone in Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania, for a year after her husband passed away last July.  "I didn’t even know where the water bill was to be paid."

Mohamedhussein Dhala stresses the importance of writing a will.  "Some people think that if they write a will, they will suddenly die.  You have to leave your affairs in order.  Women should also clearly write whom they want each piece of jewelry to go to."  Tajri advises wives to help their husbands to get organized and to help them find appropriate safe places for important documents.  "I was lucky that my husband was so clean and efficient.  For some women, it can take months to find what they are looking for."

Shama Dhala advises that wives should not get emotional or embarrassed when husbands attempt to discuss death or their wills.  "You have to be practical and listen.  There may be assets that you need to know how to access, safety deposit boxes and keys to take care of."  Many stressed the importance of having joint accounts, updating a will whenever there is a change in the assets, showing an interest –however small–in how the family business operates and even learning to do small repairs around the house. 

Gulshan Tajri, who often climbs up ladders to do small repairs, chuckles when she remembers how her building superintendent found her and exclaimed, "Mrs. Tajri!  You will break your neck!"  She shrugs at the memory. "You can’t keep bothering people to do things for you all the time.  You have to be independent," she said. 

The challenge

"I always knew how to cook," says Mohamedhussein. "But eating alone is so difficult."  The men in our study spoke of the loneliness of an empty house and the sense of futility they felt in making an effort to keep the house clean.   "My wife was the motivation behind my life to do things.  When she was with me, there was no question about attending family events or the mosque, rain or shine," says Mohamedhussein.  Men used metaphors like "engine" and "glue" to describe how important their wives were to their family life.  Some spoke of the pain of finally realizing how much their wives did.

"From the time a woman wakes up, till she sleeps at nights, she does a thousand things to make your life more comfortable.  The bed gets made, clothes washed, food on the table, the kids are clean and fed.  Now, that cup on the table can sit there for days and days, that shirt you threw on the sofa will not move until you move it," said one widower.

Tajri, who had never even written a check in her life, now does her own taxes.  "At first I used to give everything to the lawyer and he’d take care of it.  Now I do it myself!"  From changing light bulbs, attending parent-teacher meetings alone, driving on the highway, balancing bank accounts, to filling out forms for spousal benefits, the women we spoke to all had stories of courage and triumph over the adversity in their lives.

Often, being widowed even meant making new friends because one’s single status made them a threat to married couples that they once spent time with.   All of the participants spoke of the need for more adequate services by the community.  They stressed that a special committee consisting of lawyers, accountants, counselors and volunteers needs to exist.  It seems that the debilitating effects of losing a spouse can render even the most educated women helpless.  The prospect of standing in line at government office or making a phone call to retain a lawyer can be very intimidating.  "We need volunteers who are willing to stand in line with new widows.  Help them fill out forms, to advise them of their options.  If your husband has worked in this country [in Canada] and paid his taxes, it is your right to get something back from the government.  A lot of women don’t even know about spousal benefits, pension or disability benefits," says Tajri.

Others spoke of the importance of supporting the efforts of widows and widowers to make their own living.  Says Tajri: "When you buy achar [pickled vegetables] from a widow, or employ her services to sew, I think you are doing an ibadat there too.  In fact, the mosque should be a place where we women can sell whatever we have freely.  It is our only connection and place to network.  All we are doing is trying to be independent.  That sentiment is worthy of supporting." 

The road ahead

"The priority of taking care of the children was foremost in my mind," says Amina Alloo.  "I reasoned with myself that since I was the one left behind, I had the responsibility of making sure the children were alright.  I had to ask myself, what can I do so that the kids don’t feel that their father is not around.  You do whatever you have to, to do the job of both parents".

"You have to keep yourself busy or the loneliness will drive you crazy," says Tajri. "I sew.  It is my hobby and it pays my bills too.  I have a group of friends and we travel together.  I’m the photographer for the group and people sometimes see the pictures and think I’m a professional!  I volunteer at the mosque.  There are volunteer opportunities at mainstream organizations too.  The point is to try not to be miserable or it will eat at you.  You have to nurture things to come out from inside."

Tajri has recently purchased a computer and is taking classes.

"Even if you are past 60, you have to DO something… it is important to stay connected with the times!"

Eloquently, the men and women we spoke to, shared with us, their positive philosophies about life.  They spoke of the healing power of Allah, of having to keep busy to stay sane and developing a "thick skin" to avoid being sensitive.  Their lives have changed dramatically, but each and every one of them has come out a stronger person.  Many have made an effort to reach out to others who have recently become widowed to make the transition less lonely for them.  Everyone grieves in their own way but there is no doubt that we all need to grieve.  For all of the participants in this study, the pain of losing their life partners is a reality that they live with each day of their lives.  But their strength in the face of adversity, their grace and dignity, and creativity can be a valuable lesson for all of us.

We ask that Allah (s.w.t) continues to bestow his mercy and give courage to all those who have lost their spouses. Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to all who have shared their souls with us. We ask you recite a Surah Al Fatiha for all the marhumeen. Al Fatiha.


Author Shyrose Jaffer Dhalla has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology and a Master’s degree in Education.  She originally wrote this piece for the Toronto, Canada-based October 1999 issue of Ja’ffari News.  It has been reprinted here with permission.



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