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The Heart Does Break

Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning

by Jean Baird & George Bowering

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personal memoirs
list price: $29.95
also available: Paperback
published: 2009
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A book in which some of our best writers address their own losses — and help us endure our own…

A heartbreaking, comforting and beautiful collection of true stories about grief and mourning from some of Canada’s best known writers.

When Jean Baird’s daughter, Bronwyn, died suddenly, Jean’s deep instinct was to turn to books to help her in her time of sudden loss. Although she found that the thoughts of counselors, psychologists, Buddhists, and self-help gurus were perhaps some help, the works that truly reached to the heart of the matter were by literary writers, largely from the UK and the US. Scanning the Canadian landscape, Jean and her husband George Bowering found elegies and tributes, but little from our writers about the person who is left behind to mourn or what it takes to endure grieving. The Heart Does Break — an anthology of twenty original pieces — sets out to fill that gap.

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By George Bowering
Winter is come and gone,
but grief returns with the evolving year.
—P.B. Shelley, Adonais
Every year, as September gives way to October, my wife, Jean Baird, feels a bleakness that comes with deep loss. She wanders a little, tears in her eyes that make it impossible to handle sewing needle or keyboard. She sometimes gives way to sobbing when she needs to be alone, and she has to have someone with her as autumn makes its way.
On the morning of October 3, 2006, we were wakened by the bedroom telephone in our home in Vancouver. The dread that one often feels at such a moment multiplied as I saw the emptiness in my loved one's face. I knew what it was about. Jean was shaking, sitting up in bed, the telephone in her shaking hand. She said, "It is just not getting through to my brain," and I knew for sure. I held her, feeling necessary and useless. We humans are forced to hear the worst things possible.
Jean's daughter, Bronwyn, twenty-three years old, was dead in a car crash in southern Ontario. Her aunt Jane, Jean's best friend, had to identify her niece from a photograph the police had shown her, and then telephone Jean.
That day we were all insane. While I hurried to the travel agent to buy plane tickets, Bronwyn's brother, Sebastian, went to school and Jean spent more time on the telephone. Then, while I went to the high school to bring Sebastian home, Jean cleaned up the kitchen and read her email. We were all crazy.
Jean was just too ordinary. I waited for her to scream or fall on the floor. Sebastian at least put his fist through a wall. "I don't know what I should do," Jean kept saying. I thought about Middle Eastern women who are photographed wailing and clutching at air when a family member gets killed. Over the next few days Jean said such calm things as how fortunate it had been that it was not a two-car accident. A few times she disagreed with the sentiment that the loss of a child is the worst possible bereavement. She had encountered people in lifetime comas following brain injuries, other people reduced to immobility. But how could she imagine that anything was worse than this? I thought that she must be in that famous denial, but I worried; I loved her so. I'd thought that crazy meant berserk. But now I know that the serene Mary in Michelangelo's famous Pietà is completely mad.
But over the following year Jean had to have the sanest head and strongest heart in the world to survive the idiotic things that people said to her in the way of commiseration. You have another child? Oh, good. Then it isn't so bad. You must be very happy to know that Bronwyn is with Jesus in Heaven. Time will heal your pain. You should start living your normal life again. I know exactly how you feel. When a new soul comes into the world, it has already chosen a day for leaving it; you have to accept her decision.
Some of these wise thoughts and others just as sapient came from family members.
I sometimes feel that I should describe the terrible treatment of this woman by people who should have been trying to help her. But I want to respect her privacy, and give her a refuge in a time when solace is not possible. I also remember that she was treated well by her long-time friends in Port Colborne, Ontario, and by the young people who were Bronwyn's good friends. These young folks allowed her to give to them, a true exchange, because their loving mournfulness sustained her for that first week in a world that threatened to be empty. It was Thanksgiving week, and meaningfully so as friends her own age gave her food and a place to sleep and a car for her husband to drive about the Niagara region. You may imagine how precious those things were that week.
When the strange ordinariness was over and Jean did manage to break down, her best friends just let her. Just let her. They did not cajole or demand, as the thoughtless will, that she "pull herself together." Sebastian needed time with his and his sister's old Port Colborne friends, and we did not have to know what he was doing day and night, only to hear his voice on his cellphone from time to time.
And sure enough, as a year passed, and then a second year, the bereft mother did not "get over it." Sometimes the horror came unexpectedly, and Jean needed some time to suffer, and maybe a hand to hold. When the earth finished an orbit, and October 3 was approaching, Jean felt the sorrow and lonesomeness and compassion for her daughter almost overcoming her. The time of year does that to you. It is not a year later; it is that day again. Grief returns with the evolving year, indeed.

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Contributor notes

Jean Baird has been an English professor, magazine publisher, consultant for non-profit organizations, and creative director of Canada Book Week for the Writers’ Trust of Canada. George Bowering is a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, historian and editor. In 2002 he was appointed Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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Editorial Review

“Read this book — for enlightenment and entertainment, for good writing about a tough subject. If George Bowering’s and Jean Baird’s anthology were a feature film, it would receive innumerable thumbs-up and all the stars.”
— The Globe and Mail
“Readers will be struck by the level of emotional honesty. . . . Readers who have mourned the loss of someone dear will find solace and validation within the pages of this anthology.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“It might well prove of comfort to the bereft, if only for the variety of experiences these authors have endured.”
— National Post
“A fine and powerful collection that is, in places, impossible to read without crying.”
The Gazette
“All the stories are well written and all are worth reading.”
Ottawa Citizen

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About the Authors

Jean Baird

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George Bowering

George Bowering is Canada's first poet laureate and an officer of the Order of Canada. He is the author of more than eighty books, the most recent of which include The Hockey Scribbler, Writing the Okanagan, and 10 Women. A native of British Columbia, he lives in Vancouver.

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