I never thought I would ask this here, but I really don't know what to say to my grandmother right now.

This year, she's been admitted to hospital several times. Most of these because of seemingly trivial symptoms, but mostly digestive issues - nausea, diarrhea, and such.

She's in her 80s. Just last year she's been in a perfectly good shape (both of my grandparents are shockingly doing very good in their old age), and this year her health deteriorated so quickly. She had cancer and had received radiotherapy treatment, and doing fairly good - no hostile side effects like baldness or such, although the cancer seems didn't respond to the treatment.

Being a rational person, I've been able to keep my composure around my family and her, however I would like to be able to console her through her sickness, and maybe even to prepare her to accept when it's her time to go (I know I should not talk like this, but though I love her very much, I know maybe it's the time).

I'm in Indonesia, so I'm mainly looking for answers considering Asian culture. Note that my grandmother is not as 'westernized' as my family, so trying to rationalize too much is out of option.

She's out of hospital right now, and doing fairly good (can still walk around without help), however I'm looking for advice what to do/say when she's admitted again, or on the bed because of the illness.

2 Answers 2


I remember, as a Westerner, listening to a radio show about dealing with an elderly, dying relative in China, and thinking about how very, very foreign it all was to me. Please know that I speak only as a well-meaning outsider, not as someone with knowledge of your culture.

The only reason I feel able to comment at all is because that floundering loss -- "what in the world do I say now?" -- is not unique to Indonesia. These questions touch on universal fixtures of what it means to be human. However, you may need to creatively reinterpret some of what I say here in order to reflect your own culture.

You can't fix the underlying problem. Everyone will die, and when we know that it is coming, it is perfectly natural to feel scared, lost, and lonely. That counts for her as well as for you. As a loving grandchild, you cannot fix this, most central, issue for her. But here are some thoughts to guide you:

  1. Do not avoid her. She needs you now more than she ever has. As the old saying goes, everybody dies alone, but we don't need to be alone before that moment.
  2. Don't give false assurances. No one truly knows what happens when we die until they get there. Pulling attention to these matters can only serve to increase her anxiety.
  3. Don't force the conversation down serious paths. Do not try to push her to feel good, or feel bad, or feel any way at all. This is her moment, and she may feel however she'd like.
  4. Be good company. As long as she is living, she will be preoccupied with the concerns of the living. That means that laughter and jokes are great. So is conversation about what is going on in your life, or things that interest you. Ask her how she is doing. Follow her moods; if she wants to address serious matters, then be open to that. If she only wants to play cards or watch the television, offer to enjoy these activities with her.
  5. Hold her hand. Touch is absolutely foundational to how humans interact with one another, and comforting touch soothes the mind in ways that words never can. She may be frail, but you can still hold her hand or give her a gentle hug.

I can't find the link, but I remember hearing from the director of StoryCorps, who has listened to thousands of short interviews between dying folks and their healthy, loving relatives (of all cultures), that there are four things that everyone needs to say before they go. They are:

  1. I love you.
  2. I forgive you.
  3. Please forgive me.
  4. Thank you.

It is wonderful of you to wish to be there for your grandmother. And at the end of her days, that is really all you can do. Be there for her, and be there with her.

(Edit: If you are not the primary caregiver for your grandmother, please consider also providing some support, both emotionally and with chores/activities, to the person who is. They may not be the person dying, but what they do is physically, emotionally, and in every other way draining. They could also use some care, love, and support.)

  • Thank you. I'll keep this in mind. I've been trying to spend more time with her more than before, but I really hope I can do much more. She knows me as a rather reserved person, so she does not force me to talk about things (I wish she know I love to talk about serious things), but I feel that taking shifts taking care of her in the hospital provide more private time for us to talk.
    – Vylix
    Aug 3, 2017 at 18:23
  • My dear gran had sort of the opposite problem --she was in excellent health, but didn't want to carry on-- and even in that case your advice applies very well. Be there for her and enjoy the time you have together. That provides some measure of value (to both of you!), regardless of what else you can (not) do for your relative.
    – KlaymenDK
    Aug 4, 2017 at 9:12

I've been dealing with these issues for my (90-something) parents.

The most important, and necessary thing (which you have been supplying), is your presence. That is more important than words.

People of that age will get to a point where words often don't mean all that much to them. What they can sense, more than words, is presence. And that "presence" includes more of the (soft, comforting) tone than the actual words themselves.

What the elder wants to know is that there is someone there with them for the "journey." The details no longer matter as much (because they aren't capable of interpreting them).

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