by Simran Jeet Singh
I’ve never sat with someone at the end of their life before. And up until now, I’ve considered that one of my life’s greatest privileges. Who wants to watch someone they love approach death? But this week, as I’ve sat by Nani’s bedside in Buffalo, I realized that perhaps I’d been missing the real gift all along: the rare opportunity to smile and sing and hold hands as we come to the end of our life’s journey.
I’m not intimate with death, though I’m not unfamiliar with it either. My grandparents died when I was a child. I lost a a close friend and soccer teammate in high school. Friends and classmates and family members have died over the years. We’ve been surrounded by death throughout the pandemic, including where I live in New York City.
And yet, I’ve always had the luxury of avoiding death as it arrives. Not having to grapple with it in the moment has also meant I haven’t had to grapple much with my own mortality, either. But this weekend, sitting by Nani’s side as she nears the end, I’m no longer able to ignore the reality: Death comes for us all.
As Guru Nanak reminds us, Whoever comes will also go. Everyone’s turn comes.
When I’ve mentioned to friends that we’re spending time with Nani in her final days, they’ve all responded with the same sympathy. “That’s so sad and terrible. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
I felt the same way when my wife first told me about Nani’s rapidly declining health. After all, it’s her grandmother, and they are so very close. But my wife’s response caught me by surprise. “This is such a great blessing: she’s comfortable, happy, and surrounded by love. Let’s enjoy this time as much as we can.”
Nani felt the same way when we walked in, smiling when she saw us, and smiling even more when she saw our girls, her great-granddaughters. She had just enough energy to place her hands on our heads, a blessing for health and happiness.
The first day, Nani was too weak to speak or even keep her eyes open, so we sat beside her as she rested, taking turns holding hands and singing shabads. Our younger daughter sang her favorite, and we all sang along: dukh bhanjan tera naam ji, dukh bhanjan tera naam. aath pahar araadhiai puran satgur giaan.
My daughter’s a toddler, so she wouldn’t have known it, but this shabad beautifully encapsulates Nani’s life in that moment. She is an incredibly spiritual woman and one of the most devout people I’d ever met. She sang gurbani constantly, and she showed us all how to live with the sweetness imbued in our tradition. Nani and my wife called one another mishari, meaning sugar crystal. The shabad we were singing captured that spirit: When we live our lives immersed in wisdom and love, then suffering can never touch us.
We returned to the hospital the next day, and were thrilled to see Nani was more energetic. She was still thin and weak and bound to her hospital bed. But she was awake and happy, and more than that, her mind seemed sharp as ever. We sang more shabads with her, and this time, she kept her eyes open and mouthed the words with us. When we paused, she even recited the entire shabad from memory, just as she had always done. My older daughter sang the shabad she learned most recently, and Nani mouthed along again.
jagat jalanda rakhi lai aapani kirpa dhar.
The world is on fire. Please take care of it — and shower us with Your grace.
Then, in case there was any doubt that Nani was still Nani, she turned to us and asked if we had eaten and what we would like to eat. We all laughed, pointing out how typical her question was. But after the laughter subsided, I kept thinking about how remarkable it was, too. Can you imagine being so selfless and generous that, even as you lay on your death bed, you’re still trying to take care of the people you love?
I realized in that moment that Nani’s life was also beautifully reflected in that shabad. Her life was like all of ours: difficult, complicated, and tumultuous. She learned to persevere through her own challenges with grace — surviving Partition, living in Amritsar through the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, watching her own loved ones die, including her husband of decades and one of her own sons.
What’s more, as she watched her own loved ones struggle through life, she supported them generously, showering them with grace and helping to put out their fires, too.
This is who Nani is and who Nani has been. Her life has been one of love and sacrifice. Of course she would continue to live this way to the very end. This is the only way she’s known.
As I sit here next to her, watching her come to the end, it strikes me that these are profound lessons for me and for all of us. How might we live so that we die with peace and satisfaction, knowing we had lived a good life? How might we live so that we care for those we love and so that they care for us too?
My lesson from Nani’s life is that we can live meaningful lives by incorporating kindness, sweetness, selflessness, devotion, and generosity into our daily living. She may not be with us for much longer, but may her life and memory continue to be a blessing.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Simran Jeet Singh is Executive Director for the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program and author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life (Riverhead, Penguin Random House). Simran is a visiting professor of history and religion at Union Theological Seminary and a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations, and in 2020 TIME Magazine recognized him among sixteen people fighting for a more equal America. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, and he is a columnist for Religion News Service.