Should you take your children to visit sick relatives?

During the final weeks of her life, all spent in an Indian hospital, my grandmother deteriorated peacefully, and gracefully, until she slipped into a coma and breathed her last.

My 10-year-old self remembers a thing or two about this time.

The hospital’s egg curry, a much-loved north Indian dish, was amazing.

The tiny cakes with real butter icing that defied all dietary guidelines weren’t bad either so my cousins and I, gathered in the small room, took turns selecting the menu and outwitting the nurses, who sweetly played along, praising the voracious appetite of our fading grandma.

Enveloped in grief at their mother’s impending death, the adults couldn’t bear to look at the food – if our mirth seemed out of place, they never said so.

As we wolfed down the food and settled down to another game of Scrabble, my diminutive grandma would open her eyes to peer at us.

We often sat within her line of sight and sometimes when she wasn’t tired, she would lift her hand in blessing.

She didn’t have any last-minute advice for us neither did she say goodbye.

She never cried and she never complained.

In fact, she barely spoke but she smiled when possible.

The kind of quiet, contented smile that said she was at peace with life even though she was dying far too young.

I remember thinking how much she loved her grandchildren – the feeling was so powerful and visceral that it never struck me there could be suffering behind it.

But my grandmother’s skin had turned bright yellow and explanations were called for.

“Why is she yellow?”

“They say it’s jaundice,” the adults replied.

“Why does she have a drip?”

“The doctor ordered it.”

“Why is she sleepy?”

“She is tired.”

“Is she hungry?”

“No.”

“Then, can we have the egg curry?”

There were no doctors in our family and there was no sophisticated understanding of the process of illness and dying.

Since the adults didn’t know much, there were no customised, careful explanations for the children. In fact, as loss stared us in the face, there was very little to say. But what we lacked in words we made up for in another way – we stuck together to observe the ritual of dying. Continue reading

  • Dr. Ranjana Srivastava is an Australian oncologist, a Fulbright scholar and an award-winning author. Her latest book is After Cancer: A Guide to Living Well.

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