The Walrus Blog

Tone-Deaf to Death

The immediate, dissatisfying reaction to Jack Layton's passing
Chalk 4 JackJackman ChiuChalk messages for Jack Layton written outside Toronto’s City Hall

A month ago on this blog, I wrote an open letter to Jack Layton in the wake of his announcement that he’d decided to step down from his duties as Leader of the Opposition to focus on his cancer treatment. It spoke of the hope, that very real belief that I shared with a lot of Canadians that Jack and his moustache would be back in Parliament at the end of the summer; but now that we know how his story unfolded, that hope smacks more of denial.

When I started chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001, I was nineteen years old — one of the few patients under fifty at my cancer centre. A social worker put me in email contact with Rachel, a twenty-two year old with a brain tumour who was undergoing treatment at the same time. Rachel described her cancer in a message to me, explaining that her doctors gave her a one-in-twenty chance of surviving five years. With my own nine-in-ten survival rate, I was floored. She followed her explanation with, “Oh well, we’ll see how things go.” She assured me that she would one day marry her boyfriend. I don’t know if it was denial or hope, or if those two things are the same, but I agreed that she would.

We stayed in touch for a few months and shared funny stories of hair loss and the awkward but usually endearing things said by people who don’t know what to say, but as we both carried on with our treatments our emails dropped off. Six months into my treatment I was told my cancer was gone. A month later I got an email from Rachel’s boyfriend letting me know she’d passed away.

I immediately thought of the wedding they were supposed to have as I stared at the computer screen, wishing that I hadn’t seen it coming. I still had a month and a half of treatment ahead of me but I knew my cancer was gone. Rachel’s diagnosis and prognosis were just as random as mine. Her dance with cancer stopped just as randomly as mine. Only mine ended with a pirouette, arms up, a grand ta-da, and the crowd cheered. Meanwhile she tripped, stumbled off the stage, and the crowd wept. The odds had always been in my favour, but just like hers they had also been dealt entirely by chance.

The language around cancer — of “battles” fought, won, lost, and succumbed to — fails to consider the sheer chance of it all. Sure there are cancers that we bring upon ourselves, but most are a result of the tiniest bits of bodies going rogue for reasons we’ve yet to understand. To speak of lost battles as though the warrior didn’t want victory badly enough projects our proclivity to control outcomes onto something that cannot be controlled. It’s futile, and it does a great disservice to people like Jack and Rachel who “fought” as hard as I did.

And as much as we want to control outcomes, we want to understand them immediately as well. Whenever death happens to someone close or well-known to us, we reel back and flounder to come to terms with it. When it happens to someone like Jack in this age of broadcast weapons itching to fire, we feel all-the-more rushed to understand or simply to say something, anything, about it. Christie Blatchford quickly churned out a much-criticized column in the National Post that rightfully questioned the spectacular nature of reactions to the passing of a public figure, yet stupidly took cheap shots at a man and his legacy within hours of his death.

In the September issue of The Walrus, editor John Macfarlane discusses the news industry’s culture of first dibs and proposes a slow-news movement to counter it. The risk of jumping the gun on breaking news is inaccuracy, but the kind of knee-jerk commentary that Blatchford whipped up adds the risk of insensitivity. And all for what? True to the columnist’s form: to provoke, to sell newspapers, but also to leave a mark, an “I wuz here” on an event that affects a country.

The outcry against Blatchford’s words was strewn about social media outlets alongside the general public’s similar (though a lot more tasteful) attempt to mark our own involvement with the developing story. As the country woke up from east to west, the news of Jack’s passing spread, and because no one really knew what to say or how to spell out that queasy feeling of heartsink, so did shared links to the same news stories and retweets of the same quote from Jack’s letter — as though there was an obligation to broadcast your empathy, to prove you care too, and all you needed to do was hit the “Share” button.

We don’t need to grieve alone or be untouched by the passing of strangers (albeit well-known ones), but we do need to take it easy with the tools we have at our fingertips, whether we’re Christie Blatchford or not. Few people don’t care, few people aren’t touched by Jack’s unfortunate passing — although that’s implied by virtue of the death of a man who may not have earned the votes of every Canadian, but certainly earned our collective respect. Rather than blurting out regurgitations of what’s already been said and noted for the sake of publicly declaring that you’ve been affected, slow down and let it make sense over time.

Next month marks the ten-year anniversary of my own cancer diagnosis and everything that followed that word that day, including considerable reflections on what death is and what it means, yet it still makes little sense to me. This, however, seems certain: whatever that meaning is, it’s diminished when attempts to understand it are made on a deadline.

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  • Jenniferleandre

    As a personal friend of the man, I appreciate all that you just said.

  • ryan

    Good morning read. Thanks.

  • Erick van Til

    Really appreciate your thoughts, Heather, particularly amid the varied responses that have emerged amid Mr. Layton’s death. I couldn’t agree more that Jack was a notable public figure to folks of all stripes and that as such his passing has somehow affected the Canadian public in a deeper way than is typical.

    While fully supportive of the idea of slow news and the thinking behind it (namely, restraint and consideration) I suspect that it will be hard for it to gain widespread traction given the unfortunate human appetite for spectacle and similar inane desire to say our bit and say it now. I think you couldn’t be more correct in saying that once something significant has happened to someone somewhere there is a mad scramble to report it first and, in addition, to offer an opinion of how it went down and why. The reporting of fact is perfectly fine…if a tropical storm or tornado is hurtling toward my city I’d like to know about it…but it is in the commentary that the slow-news thinking is the most needed. Interestingly enough, it is the very fact that Jack was a stranger, yes a famous stranger but still a stranger, to all of us that we felt like it would be OK to voice our opinions on his life and work (sideways glance to C. Blatchford) shortly after his passing.

    I suspect that if it were you or me or someone dear to us and not a stranger I’m sure that our sense of entitlement and compulsion to offer commentary would be appropriately inhibited.

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  • Erin MacLeod

    “Rather than blurting out regurgitations of what’s already been said and
    noted for the sake of publicly declaring that you’ve been affected, slow
    down and let it make sense over time.”

    I agree with this statement, but I also feel that, in some ways, the repeated links and usage of the same quotation created a strange sense of togetherness. It’s not necessarily done in order to publically state one’s feelings, but rather a desire to be part of something, to be a part of the community that Jack Layton so championed. Perhaps repetition, as opposed to the pejorative “regurgitation”, might be a better word to use. Seeing those repeated words and knowing that we all are part of a community, even though we are often separated by our computer screens and cell phones, provides a level of solace. Jack Layton urged us to take care of each other–this can happen in the immediacy and speed of the moment, but it also can happen slowly. I think that both make sense, and will make sense over time.

    Good piece. Thanks.

  • ruthseeley

    The Blatchford column was the most tasteless thing I’d seen since Chretien’s comment on the anniversary (I think it was the second or third anniversary) of 9/11 in which he said Americans had brought it on themselves. While both perspectives might well be true, common decency dictates that one refrain from expressing these points of view while wounds are still raw. Layton’s legacy can’t be evaluated the week of his death, nor can the fallout from several decades of American interventionist foreign policy accurately be judged while it’s still ongoing. And while we  may remind ourselves that journalism is merely the first draft of history, perhaps it’s time to consider how little resemblance first drafts bear to final product. Which is why journalism should adhere a lot more closely to fact than to opinion. Do we want or need the pages of our few remaining media outlets filled with opinion at the expense of coverage of what’s actually going on in the world around us? I certainly don’t. But then think back to the coverage of the May election. It was really hard to get any information about what was happening on the campaign trail because it happened to coincide with the latest Royal Wedding. I think that was the point at which I unplugged the TV and gave up on it as a source of any kind of news at all.

    • Fshields, deceased -cancer

       IMHO Blatchford’s  venom was a slap in the face to any who have lost a spouse, father, grandparent, or friend to cancer.
       Maybe she could give partisan politics a REST! To say that her column was impartial or detached is ludicrous. Any normal human being would never have done such an inappropriate thing, regardless of how they felt about the person or his/her last public statement.

       I wonder how many people will show up for her funeral, or pay tribute to her achievements?
       I know I won’t be there!
       Grow up you silly B****latchford!

      • Everything Is Not Political

        Indignation. Proud of yourself?

  • subscriber

    Very nicely said and it needed to be said as nicely as you did.  

  • Violin Deckman

    Sorry for your lost and basing on this article, he really sounds like a great and noble man.

    • lawoh

      remain a bit puzzled. 
      I know good ol’ boy Jack was personally a ‘nice’ man. I get
      But I also know he betrayed the principles
      of authentic socialism when he voted to bomb Muammar Muhammad
      al-Gaddafi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya which
      produced, negatives aside, for the majority of Libyan people a socialist state containing
      everything Layton told us he would give us if we made him a majority prime
      minister – free education (including higher education outside the country),
      free medicare, assisted housing, subsidized food and fuel costs, etc,
      etc … all at the expense of reduced profits for multinational oil companies.
      He suppressed radical elements within his own religion and he
      accepted his responsibility to assist other African nations to
      resist imperialism.  Al-Gaddafi was
      a socialist’s wet dream.

      Yet, Layton approved of Canada participating in
      the destruction of socialist Libya without bothering with any negotiating
      or even to wondering who was going to be left in charge when Gaddafi was gone
      and what would happen to the model of socialism Gaddafi

      I know Layton signed an agreement the Liberals and
      the Bloc Québécois to oust the minority Conservative government in a confidence
      vote if he was allowed to sit on the front benches and appoint some of
      his members to the cabinet, a move most saw as an exchange of
      principle for power and a move which caused a crisis in the country and helped to destroy the Liberal party.

      I know these things and because of them I do not consider Mr. Layton either ‘great’ or ‘noble’ nor can I see why so many others do.

      • John

        Are you seriously comparing the NDP to a police state which actively sponsored terrorism? One where the ruler had promised death to all of his opponents?

        He wasn’t a moderate in terms of religion, he actively built in an element of theocracy (a green flag, etc.) into his rule.

  • Ryan

    Thank you for these refreshingly sensible words, amidst the din of noisy commentary this week.  

  • Pingback: Something Has Happened… Now, Listen to Me!! | Rumblings

  • Pingback: Layton Funeral: Some Reflections « My Lymphoma Journey

  • Albin

    I confess to thinking JL something of an opportunist and showboat, albeit with good abstract intentions and certainly on the better side of politics.  One learns in life that the “authenticity” of enthusiastic public personalities is a moot, irrelevant and naive question, and raising the question in death is only a temporary simple-minded awkwardness best forgotten.  Blatchford has always seemed pathetically self-revelatory, often describing mainly herself when she thinks she’s writing about something or somebody else, and she makes an easy target.  But she is real working class, and that always counts for whatever it is worth.  

  • Violin Deckman

    Heartbreaking. Couldn’t help but cry about your friend’s passing but I’m so glad that her hope remained for love until the end regardless of her situation. And congrats for surviving cancer! You are indeed a fighter! :-)

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