A Q&A with writer Salatu E. Sule, author of 'One Breath at a Time'
What inspired you to write this book?
At first, I started writing about my experience with grief to help me process my feelings. I was trying to give voice to what I was dealing with emotionally. It was a personal project. I didn’t have any thought of sharing it. Then, occasionally, I would speak about the death of my baby or my husband to someone who was dealing with grief, or someone who asked about it. I noticed that each time I did so, there was a positive effect on the person listening.
This reminded me of how, after my husband passed away, two women who had lost their husbands spoke to me about their experiences in a way that helped me feel mentally ready for the rough times ahead, and I felt hopeful that though it was going to be difficult, I would be alright. While I felt the need to share, talking about the experience was very difficult. So, I decided to turn the personal notes into a book.
In one sentence, what is ‘One Breath at a Time’ about?
A Faith-inspired frame of mind with actions that help heal a grieving heart
What do you mean by ‘One Breath at a time’?
The title had literal and figurative connotations for me. It is about our psychology as well as our physiology. These threads of meaning are all entwined in the title.
When dealing with emotional turmoil, we sometimes feel the urge to do something, take action in some way but we also feel too weighed down to do much. However, even if you are just sitting still or lying down, you still have to keep on drawing breath, one after another – there is no other way to breathe. You can’t breath in twice in a single inhale, for example.
Focusing on each breath, and letting it come naturally is a way of accepting your state. ‘One breath at a time’ refers to the attitude of not trying to outrun life; it refers to going easy on yourself, not rushing your recovery or trying to hasten change. It’s that approach to life of figure out what you can handle, drop what starts to feel strenuous, then do only that which you can handle at that moment. When it’s done, find the next do-able thing.
Breathing deeply and steadily calms the mind. Breathing in then out, even when your mind wants to run amok, strengthens the muscle of self-mastery.
Focusing on breathing, literally, is a way of focusing on the smallest thing within one’s control – breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.
Do you have any suggestions to help those who've lost a loved one recently? If so, what are they?
Breathe. Deeply and steadily.
Let the words in your head be words of prayer for yourself and for the one who has passed on.
Each time you feel the sting of grief, convert it to a time of dua.
Many words will be said to you – some helpful, some not so helpful and many well-meaning words. Thank people for their good intentions, but repeat to yourself only the words that help you feel hopeful and calm.
The pain we feel when someone passes away is often as deep as our attachment to them was. Deep love, deep pain. Thank Allah for the love and ask Him for relief from the pain. He always eases the pain with time. We just keep breathing deeply and steadily, and praying, while we wait.
What did you wish you knew before you went through this trial?
Nothing, as of now.
How do you balance the demands of writing with other responsibilities?
It is very difficult for me. I have a full-time job which spills over into my after-work time. I therefore have to squeeze out time to write anything. After I decided to write One Breath At A Time, it took my several years to finally complete it. It had to be done in two Ramadans which coincided with a work holiday, so I would start writing at about 6 or 7a.m., stop after about three of four hours.
I am yet to find sufficient time to write another full length book.
Have you always been a writer?
Although this is my first book, I have always loved writing. I've written many short pieces for newspapers, blogs and for Sisters Magazine.
Discuss an ayah or a hadith that you found impactful?
There are very many of them but let me mention two verses and one hadith.
“Call on Me; I will answer you” (40:60)
This ayah is an invitation to turn to Allah. It’s like an answer waiting in the Qur’an for those times when we feel alone or feel that our prayers haven’t been heard by Allah.
“And whoever is mindful of Allah, He will make a way out for Him; and He will provide for him from where he does not expect. And whoever relies on Allah, then He (Allah) is enough for him. Certainly, Allah achieves His will. Allah has set a measure of all things.” (65:2-3)
When facing adversity, one might wonder, ‘How am I going to cope? How can I survive this? Where and when will this end?’ The assurance that Allah will provide from where we do not expect, from sources we could never imagine helps us deal with the uncertainty that often accompanies life’s trials. I took it to mean that I should focus less on the things I could not calculate but focus on simply relying on Allah.
The last sentence – Allah has set a measure for all things – meant, to me, that nothing is forever. Just as the one or the thing we loved left our lives, so will the intensity of the pain leave our lives. The tough time will pass and a milder time will take its place. Everything has an ‘expiry date’.
‘Wondrous are the affairs of the believer. There is good in all his affairs and this is so only for the true believer. When something pleasing happens to him, he is grateful (to God) and that is good for him; and when something displeasing happens to him, he exercises patience and perseveres, and that is good for him.’
This hadith reminded me to hang on; that even though I was going through a deeply unpleasant experience, if I held on with fortitude, it would go well for me. It made me deliberately try to remember the things that I had been grateful about, so that I would not swing to the extreme of despair.
The key take away you'd like to give?
Though your trial or trials might make the future look bleak, believe that it will turn out okay, Insha Allah. Accept that it has happened, that you cannot change it, that there is much about your current state that you cannot control. Trust that the present time can evolve into a more pleasant time; that the pain will fade. Know that you have already been empowered to deal with this loss. Breathe, pray for courage, strength, wisdom and ease.
Where can we follow you?
Facebook: Salatu Sule
Youtube: Salatu Sule
One Breath at a Time: Finding Solace in Faith - 9781847741677 - Salatu E. Sule