The death of her grandmother gives Deepa Krishnan a glimpse into the wisdom of life where even dying can be a moment of exhilaration
Ashen face. Eyelids heavy and drooping. A frail body. Sagging skin. Arms and legs swathed in bandages. As if the soul were trapped, with no escape from this world. My grandmother had a massive heart-attack and could hardly breathe because of a collapsed left ventricle. We knew that she would die if we left her as she was. But we were unprepared to let her go. We put her on a ventilator, gave her life-support.
It is believed that death, or union with eternity, is a moment of exhilaration. So by putting my grandmother on the ventilator, were we preventing her from that experience? Were we doing it more to help ourselves?
Meanwhile, I sat for hours outside the ICU. There was a 'danger-list', which contained the names of patients at 'death's door'. A nurse walked up to this list and cut off the name of a 'body'. It made me wonder that if everything we worked and lived for, is left behind in death, then what was I struggling for in life? I also thought about what my grandmother meant to me. She had lived for her family. All with an unconditional love. She could talk about anything and everything. We would sit, laugh and joke with her. Now I wished I had spent more time with her, told her that I loved her. I had to look at my life all over again.
When the doctors told me that they needed to sit my grandmother up for a while everyday and reduce the ventilator count to strengthen her, I saw it as their way of empowering her. But no. They reduced the ventilator count from 8 to 0-all in one day and then sat her up for hours.
When a treatment does not heed anything in the body save the data of vital parameters, is it really a treatment? When empowerment becomes more a wish of doctors than the need of patients, is it really empowerment?
Our worries were proved right. That night my grandmother had a major cardiac arrest from which she never recovered. This was a valuable lesson to me. I had also tried to push my body beyond limits without heeding its signals.
When my grandmother died, I spent the night with the body. The Oraon tribals in Bihar never cry when a person dies, believing that the deceased has joined the ancestors. But I found it hard to let go. When I saw her, eyes closed, lying on ice, I couldn't believe that she was gone. My grandmother had now attained a permanent identity. It needed a paradigm shift to understand that. That's when I realized that the rituals associated with death were designed to help a person make the transition.
I remember watching when the lump of rice representing my grandmother's soul was mixed with another lump that represented the ancestors; the microcosm united with the macrocosm. It was a moment of realization and letting go. I also understood why the chief mourner was almost always the son. Nature initiated women into adulthood with the menstrual cycle and childbirth. But in death, she allowed them to express their grief openly, as children do.
On the 12th day of my grandmother's death, we gave away many of her possessions. The 13th day was a day of celebration. We shared, with relatives and friends, the joy of the crossing over, the divine merger.
The rituals were the enactment of the transcendence of the soul from the personal to the cosmic realm. They were designed to allow us to experience it as a family. It brought us closer and I was thankful for that.
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