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Why a farewell letter can comfort and inspire

Mourners hold a candlelight vigil in a park for NDP Leader Jack Layton who died Monday after a bout with cancer Monday, August 22, 2011 in Montreal.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Jack Layton wasn't the first person to send a public deathbed letter to friends, colleagues and supporters and he won't be the last.

The impulse to leave a message that expresses your final thoughts and gives comfort to mourners is a very human one, but making those sentiments public catapults final messages into another dimension. It allows all of us – admirers, rivals and foes – to creep closer to the deathbed, share in the grief of immediate friends and family, and explore the nebulous boundary between life and death.

Some condemn the farewell letter as a narcissistic attempt at immortality or the final act of a control freak, but it offers benefits both to the dying and the bereaved. And thanks to the pervasiveness of social media, it forces the subject of death into the public discourse.

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Memories fade or become altered with time, but a letter is a literary document that retains its original text and ensures that your words– rather than somebody else's interpretation of them–are passed on. As with the prospect of hanging, as Samuel Johnson famously said, a terminal diagnosis concentrates the mind. Writing a farewell letter, even in conjunction with others, forces you to think deeply and hard about the message you want to send and how you to express it.

For mourners, the letter can become a talisman. You can carry it in your pocket, consult it when grief wallops you, and reread it like a gospel to help you make decisions in keeping with the deceased's wishes. "That's certainly what it means to me," said Brian Topp, president of the New Democratic Party and one of the people who sat in Mr. Layton's living room a week ago, helping the recently elected leader of the Official Opposition polish his final public statement. "When I reread that letter, it lifts me up."

It's easy to understand why Mr. Topp feels that way. He knew and worked with Mr. Layton on a minute-by-minute basis, which gives the letter added nuance and resonance. Besides, the letter helps him to carry on without having to assume the role of Plato to Mr. Layton's Socrates by turning his boss's conversations into dialogues to be handed down to the party faithful. Harder to understand is why complete strangers have responded to the letter with such heart and enthusiasm. That is something Mr. Layton couldn't have predicted.

The same thing happened on a smaller scale when civic entrepreneur and visionary David Pecaut e-mailed a letter to supporters in Toronto five days before he died of colon cancer in December, 2009. "As a consequence of my health issues, I have not had the chance to see many of you and express my appreciation for the all the work we have done together. Nor have I had the chance to share some of my thoughts on Toronto's future," he wrote in a widely circulated letter.

"David got very Zen like," his widow, Helen Burstyn, said, "and he really started to appreciate what the people around him had done and he realized he hadn't thanked them enough." He also wanted to inspire supporters who cared about Toronto and to send them a message that they didn't need him to be there to initiate citizen-driven projects, that "they could do it on their own."

By the time Mr. Pecaut decided to write that letter, he was bedridden, so he dictated his thoughts to Ms. Burstyn (then the chair of the Trillium Foundation and now the provincial Liberal candidate in Beaches–East York). She said they went through two dozen drafts before he was satisfied that the letter had the right tone, cadence and content. Ms. Burstyn e-mailed it to an extensive list of colleagues and supporters from her husband's enormous Rolodex.

What neither of them anticipated was the momentum the letter developed. It was exhaustively quoted and even printed in its entirety in some newspapers. Ms. Burstyn is still uneasy that a letter written to individuals morphed into a "love letter" to Toronto, as one newspaper dubbed Mr. Pecaut's e-mail. That's the other side of a public letter: You can control its content, but not how it will be handled.

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Mr. Layton's "Dear Friends" letter was similar in form, but its reach was viral. Partly that's because of Mr. Layton's public persona as "le bon Jack," the smiling, cane-waving trooper who connected like sticky tape even with people who would never consider voting NDP; partly the response was driven by public sympathy for the Shakespearean tragedy of watching the precipitous plunge in his health at the pinnacle of his historic success in the federal election a little more than three months ago; and partly it was the timing and manner of the letter's electronic release mere hours after the breaking news bulletin announcing Mr. Layton's death.

Within seconds, chunks of the letter, especially the final paragraph urging all Canadians to "be loving, hopeful and optimistic," were being tweeted, shared via Facebook and digitally cut and pasted into Internet posters. Suddenly people were using social media for political conversations about Mr. Layton, for sure, but also about the NDP.

Mr. Layton had been thinking about the letter for several weeks, according to Mr. Topp. Then, "in typical Jack style," he assembled the team, which included chief of staff Anne McGrath and his wife, Olivia Chow. He wanted to talk about his options and to "craft the final form" of the letter, if "things didn't go well" with his treatment. "In that context, he was interested in saying some final words to so many people who had wished him well … because he had only been able to reach out to some of them."

In some ways, Mr. Layton was tidying his metaphorical desk, telling the caucus and the party how to go about finding his successor and encouraging other cancer patients not to lose hope because his "journey" hadn't ended the way he had hoped. For many, Mr. Layton's decision not to reveal details of his "second" cancer and his treatment had seemed discordant, even false, in a man who prided himself on his openness. Mr. Topp rationalized that decision, saying Mr. Layton had always worried that other cancer patients might make their health decisions based on the treatment he was having rather than on discussions with their own doctors.

His final paragraphs, including the mantra that love is better than anger, hope is better than fear, were an attempt to summarize what he and his political work are all about. "When we were done he signed it and handed it to Olivia, and said, 'This is for everybody if I don't make it.' He was very ill, but he was pretty sharp," said Mr. Topp. "Jack wanted to do this and I think it was his parting gift … something to hold on to if he wasn't going to be with us. I am very grateful for it and I think lots of New Democrats and Canadians are too."

Ordinary lives

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Even people who aren't in the public gaze turn to letter writing when they fear they won't be around to see their children graduate, marry, have babies – all those milestones on mortality road. A decade ago, Judith John, vice-president of communications at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, was diagnosed with a tumour on her pituitary gland. It was warping her optic nerve and twisting like a vine around her carotid artery. Convinced she was going to die, she began sorting through her professional and personal life – completing projects, cleaning out drawers, updating her will and writing letters to her teenaged daughters – while she waited for the delicate surgery.

"I wanted my girls to have something to remember me by. You say things in conversation, but that isn't lasting," she said. "I wanted them to know how much I cared, how much I believed in them. I'm sure it was maudlin, but I had to do it. It was instinctive."

She wrote letters to mark the occasions in their lives that she would miss. It compelled her to be more coherent, less ephemeral than we all are in everyday encounters, and it gave her the comfort of knowing she was leaving her daughters something of hers that they could carry throughout their lives. "It helped me immeasurably," she said.

When Ms. John survived the operation, she destroyed the letters, after first talking it through with her daughters. "They were superstitious about the letters," she said, explaining that they didn't want them lying around in a box as a symbolic reminder of their mother's mortality. Talking about the unread letters became a different kind of bonding experience, out of which her daughters decided, "We don't want to see them; we want to talk to you. We want you here."

Last year the tumour began rampaging again, but Ms. John didn't have time to write letters before doctors performed emergency surgery. "I am tempted to write to my kids again," she said about her ongoing health issues, "but they are older now [29 and 27] and they've "had enough conversations" about life and death in the last decade to make her hesitate to take the cap off her pen. "They were young then and I had so much more to go through with them."

Ms. John's letters were very private, but she thinks that Mr. Layton's and Mr. Pecaut's public letters were equally sincere. Besides, as Ms. Burstyn says, contemplating your legacy as you are dying is "a justifiably selfish act."

Sending a public letter doesn't preclude private notes and actions. Mr. Topp refuses to comment on Mr. Layton's personal farewells to his wife and children, but Ms. Burstyn, as the second anniversary of her husband's death approaches, is ready to share some of those moments. Mr. Pecaut wrote private letters, in his own hand, to his nearest and dearest long before he began composing his public letter. And he wrote them on his own, without editorial advice.

"Part of being in public service is that you do have a message that you want to convey," Ms. John said, adding that the public emotion over Mr. Layton's death and his letter are a trigger for "talking about what he stood for and what he meant to them personally." That conversation, largely conducted on social media may help a younger generation staunch our squeamishness about death.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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