When Umm Isa took her daughter Hajjar to hospital with breathing difficulties, she suspected the two-year-old might have a chest infection. On arrival at the Rochdale Infirmary in Greater Manchester, her maternal instincts were proved correct.
What Umm Isa could not have seen was the precise nature of her daughter’s infection, that she had pneumonia – or that two hours later, Hajjar would be dead.
“Afterwards I discovered that she had also had leukaemia,” Umm Isa explains. “That was when the shock really kicked in.”
Unfortunately, the bureaucracy associated with Hajjar’s death, and Umm Isa’s desire to have her daughter buried according to Islamic tradition, left the wife and mother of five bewildered and with little time for mourning or for grief.
“Ideally I wanted everything to be done in three days. We were able to organise a post-mortem on day two and on day three we were given the death certificate. That enabled us to proceed with the funeral on day three.”
Soon after the funeral, the UK National Health Service (NHS) offered Umm Isa one-to-one bereavement counselling. It was an opportunity she embraced, but soon came to regret, when confronted by the cultural gulf that existed between the counsellor and herself. Umm Isa is a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, a background her counsellor – who was none of these things – struggled to understand.
“I just felt overwhelmed by the burden of having to explain who I am and what I believe,” Umm Isa explains. “It was just too long a process for me to have to explain everything so that he could then try to support me. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t keep going back when I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”
What Umm Isa was looking for was support from somebody who was culturally and religiously “on the same page”, the kind of support she believed could really only come from a fellow Muslim.
“I needed support. What I needed to hear were little reminders of hadith about grief, about being sad, about being able to cry.” Unfortunately, the support Umm Isa needed was not forthcoming, even from her family and friends, the people who knew her best.
“They didn’t know how to support me because I didn’t behave in the manner they expected. They would come and sit in front of me and just stare at me,” Umm Isa explains. “I was told repeatedly, ‘Have patience. It’s OK. You have other children.’ But each child is their own little person. You can never replace any of them.”
The main problem the family had with Umm Isa’s continued grieving – beyond the three day period that is commonly understood to be allowed for public mourning within Islam – was the fact that they viewed her behaviour not only as being contrary to the tenets of Islam, but as something that was sinful, or haram.
Left alone with her grief, it was two years before Umm Isa found the kind of support she had been looking for. Her consolation came from Sorrow to Serenity, a book that combines recognised grief recovery techniques with passages from the Quran and the hadith. It was written by Hafizah Ismail, the founder of Children of Jannah, a charity dedicated to providing faith-based support to Muslims who have experienced the loss of a child.
The organisation takes its name from the Islamic belief that children who die enter Jannah, or paradise, where they are cared for by the Prophet Ibrahim.
“During the period between the death of my daughter and the founding of the Children of Jannah, I had nothing,” Umm Isa explains “but when I downloaded Sorrow to Serenity, it gave me the help and the encouragement I needed to continue.”
Ismail established Children of Jannah in 2011 in response to a cry for help from her sister who was struggling to deal with the loss of her own two-year-old son.
“‘Hafizah, please help me’ [she said]. ‘How am I meant to work through these emotions? It’s not getting any easier’. I just didn’t know what to say to her. I didn’t know how to help her.”
Even though Ismail was able to access a wide array of bereavement support material online, none offered the kind of faith-based support that she knew her sister needed.
“I remember one particular night when I stayed up, scouring the internet, using words like bereavement, death of a child, Muslim, Islam. Key words that I thought would help me support my sister and my family but I couldn’t find anything.”
Ismail started to do her own research into the science of bereavement, mourning and grief as well as Islamic teaching on the subject, but it was when she established Children of Jannah as a Facebook page that the project was transformed from a very personal attempt at self-help into a charity that has since provided support to thousands of Muslims around the world.
A registered charity since 2012, Children of Jannah is staffed entirely by volunteers and depends upon sales of Sorrow to Serenity – 4,000 copies sold so far – and donations to fund its website, telephone help lines, bereavement support groups, and one-to-one counselling for family members and siblings.
“I didn’t set up Children of Jannah from an intellectual perspective,” Ismail explains. “It wasn’t a matter of coming up with a business plan, or that I thought it was a good idea. It was because there was this massive need.”
It wasn’t long before Ismail, an educational consultant who is now also a certified grief recovery specialist, was overwhelmed by the response.
“We didn’t advertise Children of Jannah when it started but the response was crazy. It just snowballed and was really taken out of my hands. People I had known for a long time were suddenly coming forward and saying ‘I’ve experienced something similar’. I sat there thinking, Why do people not talk about these things? Why did I not know that?”
Ismail is keen to point out that communication problems surrounding loss and grief transcend communities and that it is essential to distinguish between practices that are determined by culture, and those that are defined by religion.
“Islam teaches patience and perseverance and the fact that all good and bad things are predestined, that they come from God, but if you say to a parent ‘Be patient’, what you’re sometimes doing is putting a block on their grief.”
For Ismail, it is when the distinction between culture and religion becomes confused that the kinds of problems experienced by her sister and by Umm Isa are most likely to arise.
“A lot of the parents that we’ve supported have said ‘We were advised that after the three days we shouldn’t talk about it. That there should almost be a block on our grief and that we weren’t being patient.’ Islam doesn’t teach that.”
From its origins in Ismail’s family home, Children of Jannah now operates from permanent offices in Rusholme, central Manchester where Ismail volunteers for the half of the week when she is not working.
The charity has already spread to Nigeria and Australia and within a month it will launch its second UK-based operation in London, with events designed to reach out to the police officers, health service professionals, coroners, chaplains, imams and mosque leaders who increasingly contact the charity with requests for assistance.
In June, Ismail will travel to Houston, Texas, where she will launch the charity’s US operation, an expansion in operations that is both a source of pride and a source of sadness for its founder.
“In a way that makes me sad, but in a way it makes me happy, because people who need it are finding support. We want to be a beacon of hope, but there’s so much demand.”
Ismail attributes the charity’s success to its non-judgemental approach and combination of spiritual knowledge with its volunteers training in listening and empathy skills and techniques born from experience.
“We’ve worked with thousands of parents and family members and we’re basing our approach on what they have said to us, not just what we think works. The whole charity is based on the reactions of real people, of Muslim mothers and fathers and siblings and aunts.”
Even when Children of Jannah cannot provide the kind of personal support that defines its operations in the UK, the charity still attempts to reach out to communities that it identifies as being in need. The day before our interview, Ismail and her team had given a second batch of 1,000 copies of Sorrow to Serenity to a Manchester-based doctor who was joining an aid convoy destined for Syria.
“People give money, they give food, they give blankets, they provide shelter and medication to practically support the people of Syria, but who is looking after the emotional needs of these people? We thought, we have the book, let’s translate it. It took us almost six months to get an Arabic version translated, but we wanted the best version possible.”
The Charity’s only conditions in sending the book is that the convoy record the book’s distribution by taking photographs and collecting testimonials. It is a technique that Children of Jannah have previously employed when sending copies to Palestine and Libya.
“Hopefully we can raise more money and send even more books that can be left with parents. Some of these children will have died in horrendous circumstances, you cannot bring them back, but what you can do is to try to provide some support and some hope of their reuniting in another place, Jannah, the place we think of as Heaven.”