Don't Tell Grandma

By Helen Mo

One night when I was nine, my mother explained that my paternal grandmother would not return to our home in Canada. My grandparents had returned to Hong Kong for what was intended to be a short visit and it was there that my grandmother’s cancer made itself known. Doctors gave her three months. Because my father’s siblings all lived in Hong Kong, they decided that my grandmother should stay with them to be cared for in what time remained.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was unaware of her diagnosis. Her adult children shrouded her in unknowing. She had been told that her treatments were cancer “prevention” treatments, her medications also “preventative.” When my family flew to Hong Kong soon afterward, she was the only one not in on the secret that it was no ordinary reunion, but a last goodbye.

This story has a twist, however: to everyone’s surprise but her own, my grandmother defied her prognosis. She thrives to this day, seemingly oblivious to her fortune.

The next story has no happy escape. Two years ago, my teenage cousin died in an Algonquin Park car accident. My mother and grieving aunt called their sisters in Hong Kong; together, they decided not to tell their elderly mother. Her heart was bad, her spirits low. They reasoned that she was better off untroubled in what time remained.

When I flew to Hong Kong soon afterward, it was once again to meet an unknowing grandmother - the only one not in on the secret of her family’s bereavement. This time, I was complicit. This time, the twist was unkind: on my second night there, my grandmother suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. Eventually, I left her bedside and returned to Canada. She passed away a few weeks later. “You know, when she gets to heaven and sees [our cousin] there, she’s gonna be like, ‘Assholes,’“ said my brother.

In both instances, my family made a choice between harmony and honesty. My grandmothers weren’t senile, just old. Maybe their children, empowered with fine educations, wanted to spare them the burden of knowledge. Maybe the fact that these matriarchs had no schooling and relied on their children to negotiate modern life made the decision easy. They had been spared knowledge their whole lives. What was one more bit about life and death?

This might happen in other cultures, though every time I’ve heard such a story it involved an Asian or South Asian family. I understand the rationale. How many of us, in the wake of awful news, want to crawl back into the seconds just before we knew? Yes, the truth would have been a blow. Yes, my grandmothers were ostensibly near the end of their lives. Yes, their children wanted only to preserve their happiness, to protect them. But preservation and protection have a cost. In her untroubled state, my paternal grandmother gave no informed consent to the treatments that others chose for her. Although my maternal grandmother was our bedrock, my family denied her a last opportunity to share the burden of grief. With one act, it’s possible to both love and disrespect.

In Canada, preserving peace of mind doesn’t take precedence over people’s right to know. After all, if it’s culturally acceptable to lie to people for their own good, is it just as acceptable for governments to “protect” citizens from messy truths? Transparency offers its own protection and respect, one that trusts people to choose their own fates and shoulder their own burdens.

One day I’ll face an unforeseen twist, and would like to do so with courage. Hopefully, I won’t be the last to know.