I have been following public reaction to Jack Layton’s death with interest. I did catch most of the funeral on CBC and really did find it a moving celebration of the life for someone who worked tirelessly to make a difference, and was by most accounts, a “good guy.” But, unlike many, I’ve felt not desire to emote publicly about someone who I did not personally know. I don’t judge it; it just “ain’t me.” The sociologist in me, however, has an enduring fascination with highly public and showy (sometimes maudlin) displays of mourning– and what these say about who we are.
I don’t want to make it sound like I am dismissive about the sincerity of the emotion expressed around… well just “death.” There’s Layton, presently, but I am recalling other events in recent years: the January funeral of Toronto police officer Ryan Reynolds, Alberta’s “fallen four” RCMP officers, the passing of Michael Jackson and, last month, of Amy Winehouse. It is evident that these events trigger something of significance in many, many people.
I’m just not sure that the “something of significance” is what we think it is. Someone dies, people cry, there’s a funeral, there are flowers… it walks talks and quacks like grief. But who, or what is that we are grieving? Certainly few can claim to mourn the loss of Jack Layton in the visceral, gripping way that his immediate family and closest friends are experiencing. We can’t mourn Jack Layton the person; we didn’t know the dude, even if we might think we would have liked to. We can mourn the “idea” of Jack Layton if we didn’t know him, perhaps; we can mourn something that we think he represents about ourselves – who we are or who would like to be.
See, I could be reading too much into these things, but I think these very public displays of mourning are less about grieving the loss of a public figure, a celebrity, or God forbid, little Timmy on his bike, than they are about grieving our collective loss of certainty and connection in a world where such things are too fleeting. I think we are a society aching for relationships, and I think that sad events, made public, are catalysts for the expression of that ache, that absence.
I guess one could argue that these displays of grief create a sense of community when it is needed most, and I think they provide people with comfort and a sense of belonging. I just wonder why it takes a media-frenzied jolt to prompt us to seek out these connections, why we can conjure emotional relationships with strangers while struggling to forge and maintain emotional relationships in our day to day lives.
When it’s all over, the flowers will die, the inspiring chalk messages on the Hill will be washed away by the rain, and everyone will go home. Death will again rendered an “event” with an abrupt beginning and ending instead of something woven into the fabric of our lives, along with the celebrations, tragedies and rites of passage that orient us to our worlds and communities. We’ll take what we can get – we’ll create “events” out of the deaths of strangers because we are seeking meaning and authenticity that seem increasingly difficult to find, organically, in the daily course of our lives.