On Jack Layton and PDG (That’s Public Displays of Grief)

Canadians gather on Parliament hill to remember Jack Layton.

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.



  1. Very well said ! I have to agree with you. For me, though, I find that it also brings to the forefront, the losses I have had in my own life. It allows me to remember those I have loved and celebrate the time we shared together. Thanks!

  2. I cried off and on for days when Jack Layton died. It is not that I get sucked into celebrity worship or hype, I live in Toronto, I saw him speak his ideas in the evenings for almost 30 years, I laughed when he said something silly, I shook my head and laughed when he espoused what I considered a silly idea, but I knew that even though I didn’t agree, what he was saying was from his heart. I did not tangibly know the man, but I still got to know the man. He was one of my city councilors, and he was a very rare kind of person in politics – someone who cared and really tried to make this world a better place. So I developed an affection for him and mourned him when he passed. This makes complete psychological sense, why would I not mourn a person who has impacted my life in a positive way? I would suggest that people who do not are the ones with an issue. do they only see public figures as caricatures, unreal bits of light on their TV screen? These are real people, why would I not mourn a real and good person’s death? No man is an island.

    • Hi Mary,
      I get what you’re saying about forming a relationship of sorts even though you didn’t *personally* know Jack, and I’m sure not indifferent to how much he’s touched people! Like I said, I don’t judge it; who and how we mourn is ultimately a very individual experience. My curiosity is just more around why, in my own lifetime, there’s been such a surge of large scale and very public grieving; I just wonder what that’s all about. I think changes in media and social networking have lots to do with it too.

  3. I have been groping for my own thoughts on the subject of the Canadian outpouring for Jack Layton and thank you for your words on this subject. Today I dug out a book I published in 2006 to see what I had said specifically about the masses.The book is called Soul Gifts: The World’s Self-Help Book (tongue in cheek although I am not sure readers figured that out). Interestingly, the part I was looking for was in a part of the book where I addressed politics. I worked Liberal back rooms for many years both federally and provincially.

    For what it is worth, I quote,

    “The viability of any political party in a democratic society, or the strength of any union, depends upon understanding the perceptions of the membership and the public. To sell any business product or service, the buyer has to perceive necessity. ‘I need this now’.

    Perception can become reality. Everything can become backwards and inside out. And if we think about that for a moment … As individuals and en masse we bend and sway one way and the other. Our leaders, mass marketing campaigns, and the media set the tone. We need to ask ourselves if the messages we receive by way of the gossip grinder or through print and electronic media are valid. We are vulnerable to persuasion…. ”

    Barbara J. Gill
    New Brunswick, Canada

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