TORONTO — Optimism may indeed be better than despair, but if the last week is any indication, Canadians have been finding it exceedingly hard to come by.
Jack Layton's death Monday at the age of 61 was a shock, even to those who saw his final news conference last month, where his illness was apparent in his sunken face, his raspy voice, the bony shoulders poking through his suit jacket. The ensuing tide of grief has been no less of a surprise.
Canadians flocked to pay their respects, whether by lining up at the House of Commons to file past his flag-draped coffin, or by scrawling tributes on the cement outside Toronto City Hall, an institution that gave rise to his earliest political successes.
Few saw it coming — not even Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader and one-time Canadian ambassador who delivered Saturday's eulogy.
Canada, Lewis seemed to suggest, had been taking Jack Layton for granted.
"Jack was so alive, so much fun, so engaged in daily life with so much gusto, so unpretentious, that it was hard while he lived to focus on how incredibly important that was to us — he was to us — until he was gone, cruelly gone, at the pinnacle of his political career."
This week's outpouring of emotion was clear evidence not only of Layton's own personal and political power, he added, but also of the beliefs he embodied — ideals to which all Canadians ought to aspire.
"Somehow, Jack connected with Canadians in a way that vanquished the cynicism that corrodes our political culture," Lewis said.
"Jack simply radiated an authenticity, an honesty and a commitment to his ideals that we now realize we've been thirsting for. He was so civil, so open, so accessible, that he made politics seem as natural and good as breathing."
While the public grief has come as a surprise to most, Layton himself might well have expected it.
Two days before his death, on the eve of what were doubtless some of Layton's darkest hours, he penned an open letter that seemed the perfect antidote for a grieving nation, its coda sure to join the ranks of historic Canadian rhetoric.
"My friends," he wrote, "love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."
Troy Oakley, a 39-year-old college registrar and lifelong Conservative supporter from Mississauga, west of Toronto, was so moved by the letter that he had the words tattooed on his arm.
"People get attached to the type of person that Jack was," said Chris Hess, 42, as he waited Saturday for Layton's coffin to emerge from city hall.
"You're going to love someone like that, of course. He's flesh and blood. Still is."
Douglas Baer, a professor at the University of Victoria and author of the 2002 book Political Sociology, said Canadians are grieving not only the man, but also the fact he can no longer make good on his promise to change things for the better.
"I think the outpouring of grief and good wishes... comes from a sort of underlying dismay for a political system that has already, in some senses, failed to deliver," Baer said.
"I really do think a lot of the grief arose from a real concern that already the political system isn't properly representing the views and wishes of the majority of the voters. Jack, for some people, provided a glimmer of hope."
Some have even gone so far to compare his death to that of Diana, Princess of Wales, whose sudden death in a car accident in 1997 sent shock waves around the world that reverberated for months.
Within the confines of Canada, Layton elicited a similar set of emotions, said Jill Scott, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in the social dynamics of mourning.
"She stood for a warm-hearted generosity, and a kind of naive faith in the goodness of humanity," Scott said.
"In hindsight, we can say Jack Layton stands for a fairer, more equal Canada, for the ideals of standing up for the little guy, the oppressed, the marginalized, the homeless. Those are the things that we'll remember."
— The Canadian Press