Love, Life Stories

How Bob Ross helped me mourn the death of my grandfather

Humans die, but the compassion we have for others lives on.

Mourning doesn’t only involve missing those who have passed on – it also involves a lot of introspection and thinking about the meaning of life. At least, it did for me.

When I lost my grandfather earlier this year, I was prepared for his death. I knew he was going to die – but I never could wrap my head around the fact that all the love that flowed through him was gone. It wasn’t just tragic. It was confusing.

I was his only grandchild, and I lived with him and my grandmother while my mom worked. My earliest memories are of him teaching me about the world, reading to me, or taking me on adventures.

My grandfather was born in South Africa in 1934. He wasn’t like many people his age. Despite his age, and despite the fact that he was indoctrinated into accepting apartheid, he was surprisingly receptive to learning about concepts like white privilege, oppression, and feminism. When I called him out on having harmful views, he listened to me, apologized and made an effort to adjust his thinking.

Engaging with older people on political matters can be tough. It can be incredibly frustrating when your own relatives hold bigoted opinions. It was in these conversations that I realized how different I was: few of my friends had grandfathers – or indeed, parents – who’d engage with their ideas instead of condescending to them.

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Men are often socialized to be stoic, cold, and violent. In feminism, we often talk about ‘toxic masculinity’ – that is, harmful norms about masculinity that hurt men and everyone around them. In many families, toxic masculinity means that men feel compelled to condescend to the children and women around them.

Luckily for me, my grandfather didn’t buy into those ideas. Instead, he was gentle, nurturing, kind, and sensitive. He encouraged me to think for myself, and respected my ideas and beliefs. One seldom sees examples of men being unashamed of their genuinely nurturing and compassionate nature.

I struggled to process that such a remarkable, loving person was only a temporary inhabitant of the world. Did his life now mean nothing?

In the few days after my grandfather died, everything felt sunless: there was no warmth or light anywhere. My brain was buzzing with questions about the meaning of life. All I wanted to do is lie in bed, eat, and watch YouTube videos.

I watched a lot of Bob Ross videos during that period of mourning. Bob Ross is a painter who famously hosted a show called ‘The Joy of Painting’ in the 80s and 90s. In the show, he’d teach viewers to paint landscapes. Since his voice is so soothing, the show is relaxing – like an ASMR video.

Bob Ross wasn’t just a good art teacher: in his show, he has the sort of aura that makes me think children loved him. He seemed calm, content, and warm. He encouraged everyone to paint, believing we all have inherent artistic talent. He rescued small animals and nursed them to health, often showing them off on his show. He was well-known for his sweet catchphrases, where he spoke about painting ‘happy little trees’ to house small wildlife, often saying that ‘We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.’

Something that struck me about Bob Ross was how similar he was to my grandfather. Having never met Bob Ross, I can’t speak about his personality, but it was hard to watch his videos without remembering my grandfather’s kind and warm nature. Coincidentally, both my grandfather and Bob Ross were examples of what men could be if they shook off toxic masculinity and embraced their innate compassion.

Bob Ross passed away many years ago, but he keeps on giving to the world through his videos. They teach people not simply to paint but to practice kindness – kindness to nature, kindness to those around them, and kindness with themselves. It goes to show that the things that survive for generations are not just toxic ideas and inhumane systems of repression: kindness has a legacy too.

People pass on, and somehow, the personality that inhabits their body disappears into thin air.

Except it doesn’t. Whether we plan on it or not, we teach people through our words and actions – and that impact remains after we die. My grandfather has passed on, but that doesn’t mean his life counted for nothing. It was surely not meaningless, because he brought meaning to those around him.

Famous or not, we leave a legacy by affecting each person we meet. We have to decide whether that legacy is one of kindness or not. Mourning has not taught me the meaning of life, but it has reminded me of the importance of choosing compassion in an unkind world.