I have been thinking a lot about my relationships with my grandparents recently, and the emotional journey has left me baffled. I am surprised by the emotions I am grappling with in regards to these relationships—grief, regret, and retrospection.
I was attending a friend’s wedding in the summer of 2021, about four months after my Nani Ma passed away, and I had to fight the urge to not bawl my eyes out when I saw her grandparents taking photos and blessing her on her wedding day.
It was horrible timing to have the realization that I don’t have any grandparents left, and I will never have any grandparents at any of my life’s milestones—most of which are still to come.
I think that is when I truly began to process the deaths of my grandparents and the impact they had on my life. It took me many months to fully process it all—up until my most recent trip back to India in February 2022.
I went to Nanaji and Nani Ma’s house and saw it empty for the first time in my life. All their stuff was gone, including their immense and beautiful garden. It was just a house – it was no longer my nanke because they were no longer there. It was a surreal experience to say the least. Coincidentally, I visited my childhood home the next day and for the first time since Badhe Mamma’s passing. I let myself feel that she wasn’t there. I had always avoided feeling that.
It all felt very real but simultaneously not real at all. It felt like the childhood version of me was leading the adult version of me through these homes.
My grandparents’ passing brought me another unexpected experience – it was the first time I saw my parents as children themselves. It’s difficult to think of your parents as somebody's children. Seeing your parent lose their parents and go through that kind of grief gives you a perspective you could never gather otherwise.
I know my relationships are unique to me, but somehow the emotions attached to them feel almost universal. It seems that many of us have a hard time deciphering the impact our grandparents leave on our lives.
Since the day I was born, I have had three grandparents; my maternal grandfather (Nanaji) and grandmother (Nani Ma), and my paternal grandmother (Badhe Mamma).
Up until the age of 10, I spent a lot of time with my Badhe Mamma. I used to live in the same house as her, and even sleep with her in her bed every night. I used to hide behind her—literally and figuratively—when I would get in trouble for being a chaotic child. She really loved and spoiled me.
My Badhe Mamma was the first grandparent I lost.
I was still in high school when it happened, and she was in India with my dad when she fell really ill out of the blue. I don’t think I fully processed her death because it seemed so far away. I had already gotten used to her room being empty since she was in India; nothing felt different in my immediate environment. Her funeral took place in India, and I was not able to attend due to circumstances out of my control.
In hindsight, I think because I never saw anything, it never felt real—out of sight, out of mind.
When we’re young, the adults around us try to shelter us from grief. I conceptually understood that she had passed, but I never really rooted her death in tangible feelings, which was just a coping mechanism I picked up at the time.
My Badhe Mamma was one of the biggest influences on my identity. I don’t think she ever realized this, and neither did I until recently. She gave me my name and I deeply root my identity in that name. Anytime someone compliments the beauty or uniqueness of my name, I remember her. She gave me a Lohri when girls didn’t get Lohris.
She fought anyone who made any type of remark that resembled “too bad it’s a granddaughter, not a grandson”. I was never made to feel small or lesser than because of my gender. This directly impacted my confidence and my self worth from a young age and to this day. My self confidence is rooted in my childhood because of her and I can’t thank her enough. I have a tattoo that represents my childhood if it were a bouquet of flowers, and she is one of the most prominent flowers in the forefront.
I lived far away from my maternal grandparents growing up, and would see them a few times a year during school breaks. Eventually, my family moved to Canada and my maternal grandparents lived with my family when they would visit for a few months at a time. I spent the most time with my maternal grandparents in my late teens and 20s, which made up for not seeing them as frequently growing up.
For many years, I only had my Nanaji and Nani Ma and I also didn’t really think much about it. However, they both passed in 2019 and 2021 respectively. I lost both of them within a year and a half of one another. It all happened in front of me this time around and I was an adult trying to navigate through it all.
Both of them had been in the hospital for months, fighting chronic illnesses that deteriorated suddenly. I saw both of them fight for their life, and eventually accept death. It wasn’t a sudden death – it was eventual. I don’t think it’s fair to compare death because it’s all equally painful but the process to accept the gradual death of a loved one is indescribable. You are thankful for the opportunity to say goodbye but you feel incredibly helpless and sad watching them suffer.
Your grandparents dying isn’t something you casually think about or prepare for—you think about it in its entirety only when it happens to you. I believe that experiencing my Nanaji and Nani Ma’s passing is what made me process my Badhe Mamma’s passing.
My Nanaji and Nani Ma left me a legacy with lessons that I carry with me everyday and it’s through these lessons that I chose to remember and honour them.
My Nani Ma taught me about resilience. My Nani Ma remains my favourite person. She is the most resilient woman I have ever known. She was resilient and strong while being kind and soft, which is an impossible feat to master. I have a tattoo dedicated to her which reminds me that resilience can be soft and quiet determination.
She was a woman of strong faith, but she never judged anyone who wasn’t. She taught me that faith is nothing if you have to prove it to others. She showed me that there’s strength in peace and silence. I have a hard time grasping and practicing these qualities. This is why I was and will forever be in awe of her. She fuels me as I attempt to hold onto softness in a hard and cruel world. It’s something that I fail at constantly, but try nonetheless because of her and her impact on me.
My Nanaji taught me the true meaning of conviction. He was simultaneously the most stubborn yet easy going person I have ever met. He was soft spoken, calm and calculated. I have never heard him yell or be upset even when he should have been livid. However, he was stubborn when it came to his values and convictions.
He never steered away from doing the right thing even if it was immensely more difficult. He was a man of his words, and truly believed you have to be the change you wish to see in the world. He spent his entire life helping people and standing up for their rights and freedoms, even at great personal cost. He was an intellectual man, and just like him, I am quick to debate the downfalls of capitalism (which is often if I’m being honest). He taught me the embodiment of “If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything”. I never feel quiver when defending my convictions and I hope that makes him proud.
My Nanaji and Nani Ma also taught me a lot about marriage. I learnt a lot about love & cooperation as I witnessed them navigate their relationship. My Nani Ma was never the same after my Nanaji passed. They spent close to 60 years together, and earned the utmost respect from everyone they ever encountered— – always together. It’s common practice in our culture to rag on the wife, with phrases like for example the “old ball and chain,” and often there’s comments passed as to how “marriage is a prison” etc. But Nanaji never indulged in that, he always spoke to or about my Nani Ma with admiration and respect.
He always said “tusi” (respected version of you) to her, and vice versa. He always treated her as an equal and supported her career in a time when the norm was to expect women to be submissive. My Nani Ma was a baptized Sikh and my Nanaji was an atheist for their entire marriage, and yet they still made it work. Nani Ma used to go to the gurdwara (temple) every morning and bring back parshad to give to Nanaji. He would always respectfully take it, and one day I asked him why and he said “she gives it to me as a blessing, and I eat it as a treat, it’s a win-win”. If that isn’t the key to a successful and happy marriage, I don’t know what is.
It’s easier to coherently describe these lessons in a concise manner now, but it was a long and unpredictable process to get there. It took a lot of reflecting and grief management in order to even recognize the gifts my grandparents left me in the form of these lessons.
I am a doer – I am good in a crisis. I am the person who discusses hospice options with the doctor and goes to the funeral home to make arrangements. I process silently and internally, which can unfortunately take some time and pop up at the weirdest of times.
Relationships are extremely convoluted and personal. It’s impossible to paint every grandparent-grandchild relationship with the same brush. I recognize that I have been extremely fortunate in this department, and that might not be the case for everybody.
I have also come to realize that language is a massive factor, and we often don’t think about how that factor impacts the quality of our relationships. It is so heartbreaking that language is such a huge barrier when it comes to the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren in the diaspora. My grandparents spoke English, and I am fluent in Punjabi as well. This made it so easy for us to converse and I truly got to know them. I got to hear their stories from their perspectives and that is priceless.
I think we often don’t think about the direct or indirect impact our grandparents have on us and our lives, regardless of the quality of our relationship.
The world is changing at an unprecedented pace. You may never see eye to eye with your grandparents on various things. We can’t completely erase generation gaps, but I believe we have the tools and resources to at least bridge them.
I don’t want anyone to view their relationships with their grandparents through my lens. If you take anything away from my experience, I hope it’s taking a moment to realize that whether you realize it or not, your grandparents have taken a part in shaping who you are, and these relationships are brimming with so many life lessons that can benefit you.
About the author
Gurshabad KangMore by Gurshabad Kang
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