The Importance of Frivolity

My grandfather recently died. He was old — 91 — and had Parkinson’s disease. His physical well-being had declined over the years and it had been hard to watch, especially because he was still very mentally sharp.

My grandfather was a retired professor and one of the smartest people I’d ever known. He, like the rest of my wonderful family, was one of the driving forces impressing the importance of education to me, which has had such a big impact on my life. He will be missed by a whole bunch of people who loved him.

Dealing with death is hard. I have been lucky enough not to have to very much — my grandfather is the first person I have known that has died since I became an atheist. As an atheist, I want to celebrate the life he lived, and the impact he had on his family and loved ones. I understand with his deteriorating health that he’s better off not being here than suffering. I know it will probably take some stress off of my grandmother, my dad, and my aunts and uncles and cousins and mishpachah — the Yiddish word for family.

I will have to deal with the religious ceremony and my religious family. I know, for them, it is comforting to think that my grandfather is still out there watching over us. And that is okay. Their interpretation of my grandfather’s death isn’t hurting anyone. They are finding a way to cope with the loss of someone who was important in all of our lives, and that is really hard to do.

I understand why people turn to religion in times like these. It is a lot easier to accept that things are better if he is actually in a better place and not just gone. Just being gone is really hard, and doesn’t seem like it could ever be better than not being here. But as an atheist I can see how my grandfather’s humor lives on, how his passion for knowledge survives, and how his sarcastic tongue will never be forgotten because those of us whose lives he impacted carry those things with us every day. In this way we celebrate and remember him, and there is nothing supernatural about it; it is just wonderful.

On the day my grandfather died, I really wanted a distraction. I didn’t want to think about how I would never get to kiss his stubbly cheek, never hear him butcher fairy tales again, never tell him how much I love him and appreciate everything he has done for me. Thinking about those things is hard and painful and I was alone in my apartment and crying my eyes out didn’t sound fun.

So I turned on my TV and watched the University of Miami’s basketball team beat the University of North Carolina. I listened as the commentators talked about how this might be the best team in the county. I texted with my dad and my brother about how amazing this team has been.

We needed a distraction that day. Something frivolous to make us forget about the important things in life.

Late last year, the day of the Newtown shootings, work was finished and everywhere I looked there was pain and suffering and anger and sadness. And I couldn’t take it anymore: so I called a friend, and we went to a sports bar and watched some basketball.

We needed something a distraction that day.

Some people read a favorite book or watch a movie. Some people read the gossip magazines to find out which celebrity is sleeping with which other celebrity and who is mad about it. Some people craft or game.

I watch sports.

For an hour or an afternoon I surround myself with excitement, joy, and heartbreak, and none of it is important or really matters. I immerse myself in an alternate reality where the worst thing that can happen is the team I like loses. And one game can always be recovered from: it is, in all ways, completely frivolous.

I hope all of you can find your frivolity. Because when life gets difficult it can really make things better, if only for a little while.

About jkmiami89

Jessica Kirsner is the Development Associate with the Secular Student Alliance. She graduated in the Spring of 2012 from the University of Miami with a BA in biology.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Nice. Thanks.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Nice post. I find death of relatives more peaceful as an atheist.

    I no longer have the unanswerable questions of “why” did they get a given disease, “why” did they die, and why now, etc.

    I find that I can be a better support for others since I myself can focus on expressing the things that I loved and admired about the deceased in this life.

  • Fargofan

    That was very personal and touching. Thank you for sharing it. Someone I love has cancer, and I especially dread dealing with his death as an unbeliever. So it’s good to read about what has helped you.

  • Dad

    Beautiful post, Jessica. Your family, who believe in science, rational thought and questioning, love the simple religious ritual we followed. The plain pine box, the finality or throwing the dirt on it. I doubt many of us think much more about what happens after that other than that he is alive after death because we remember him, because his granddaughter writes lovingly and beautifully about him. And yes, go Canes! We will text about that tomorrow as they go 12-0 and forget the pain and remember the man.

  • anniewhoo

    Thank you for such a heartfelt post Jessica.

  • Ian Reide

    Beautiful post, on a difficult topic. Death of a loved one is painful, a pain that stays with us. Frivolity is a way of managing that pain. I envy you your good family.

  • chicago dyke

    youtube, jess. youtube is endless, addictive almost, distraction when you need it. when you need to cry your eyes out, or laugh like a mofo, or be caught up in a fascinating debate or science topic, or watch stupid people doing stupid things, or whatever floats your boat. and it’s free. and very, very distracting, i’ve found.

    i recently lost my father, who was *everything* to me, and i almost just lost my best friend, this week (good news, FAers: he’s gonna live! it’s not cancer). at both moments, i turned to two things: atheism/gay and political blogs, and silly or moving or powerful or loud or weird videos at youtube. they even have full length movies.

    take it from me: it’ll be a long time before you stop crying at the realization your beloved g’pa is gone forever. other people in your family will bore you to tears with religion-inspired commentary, and of course that won’t help you. but you can use Science! specifically, the intertubes and places like youtube, to help you get thru those sad moments. thank the FSM for that, right?

    so sorry for your loss.

  • coyotenose

    I’m sorry about your father. Thank goodness your friend is all right, CD!

  • coyotenose

    It’s very important to have normal, stupid things to do when a tragedy occurs.

  • Drew M.

    Wonderful post, and my condolences on your loss.

    Music is my frivolity. Especially when it has such excellent advice:

    The old man said to me, “Don’t take life so seriously.”
    Play your flute and dance and sing your song.

  • Poose

    The last time I had to deal with death it happened half a world away. It softened the blow knowing that my grandfather had finally passed and I was powerless to even attend the funeral (20 hrs by air) so I got to grieve in my own way…went into the desert for a walkabout.

    My grandfather was a bit of a bastard-not the sweet man you related to. But he was my blood, and every time I go on a walkabout now I see his face, albeit fleetingly.

    Being an atheist now actually helps me to grieve. I know what’s likely coming next (the death of my parents) and I hope to honor them without offending their memory (one of my sisters is VERY deeply religious and hates me for my disbelief). I choose to remember people for their lives and accomplishments (or misdeeds), not because of some fairy-tale ending that I get to meet them again in an afterlife.

    Besides-in grandpa’s case I’d kick his…well, you get the point…

    Excellent post.

  • Poose

    I agree with Chicago Dyke-youtube exemplifies everything the intertubes is-endless hours of distraction! I sometimes wander in there when feeling outa sorts and often forget what day it is!


  • ecolt

    My condolences.

    I think it’s very important that we let families grieve in the way that feels best for them. When my grandfather died, his funeral was very painful in part because it felt so false. I honestly believe that my grandfather might have been an atheist, but he grew up in a time and place where that word probably wasn’t even in his vocabulary. Either way, he avoided religious ritual and I don’t think I ever heard him talk about god. But my grandmother was the one to talk to the minister, who had never met my grandpa, and she fed him this whole story about my grandfather’s love of god. It might have pleased her, but for the rest of my family it felt so false that it was an insult to my grandfather and the life he had lived.

    But I agree that sometimes you need an escape. I was sixteen when he died, and he was the most important member of my family to me after my own mother. The night of his funeral my mom more or less forced me to go to my school’s homecoming dance. The whole family was staying at our house and watched me get all dressed up and waited up for me until I got home. The day had been so hard on me that they knew I needed to go out with my friends and have some fun. They were right – for a few hours I danced and laughed and forgot about my pain. Sometimes that’s what you need to do.