Interestingly, the category of non-believer is currently ranked as the fourth world-wide "religion" behind Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Whether or not this is accurate - as claimed by U.S. sociologist Phil Zuckerman - it certainly points to a notable state of affairs, namely, that many inhabitants of the Western world are without benefit of an abiding set of beliefs that explain the meaning of their lives and of their deaths.
This opting out of "big picture" thinking leaves many people facing a void when a loved one dies; the accompanying grief can be devastating. It then becomes clear at such times that non-believers don't have many myths or ceremonies that help them understand death and mourning.
Yes, we can follow Hunter S. Thompson's example and have our ashes loaded into a 55-mm howitzer shell and blasted skyward.
Yes, we can be carted to the desert by our friends, as U.S. writer Edward Abbey was, and be buried there in secret beneath a tombstone that reads, "No Comment."
Yes, we can adopt Victorian ways and wear black for a year or forever. And yes, we can gather for an unfulfilling memorial service in which a "Funeral Facilitator" celebrates the life of a loved one she's never met.
After the cards, the tea, the neat scotch in the kitchen, the casseroles and the hugs, we are often left floundering, inhabited by a bludgeoning grief we hadn't expected. Put death behind us, we might be told at such times; get smartly on with life as if life were a train ride and we're unpleasantly acting like a train wreck. But how to carry on when grief keeps us in such a blackly bewildering place?
Being consumed by grief is the reason The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (co-edited by George Bowering and Jean Baird, his wife) came into being. As Bowering writes in his elegant introduction, after the sudden death of Baird's 23-year-old daughter, Bronwyn, she began searching for books that would provide solace, and found few. Few, that is, that travelled beyond self-help regimens or offered quality writing, with depth, range, insight and poetry.
Bowering and Baird commissioned 19 original essays by Canadian writers that would "tell the personal tale" and "narrate the survivor's story" in the face of grief and mourning. The result is an anthology that contains stories of pathos, rage, joy, humour and wisdom; in short, that possesses the high quality of writing the editors were seeking.
Presented alphabetically, each writer complements the others. In Tasting My Father, Brian Brett grieves not only for his father, whose zest for life is celebrated, but also for the loss of the West Coast wilderness where his father took him as a boy.
Catherine Bush, also writing of grief for her father in The Embrace, says, "Puny humans, we were nothing in the storm's path." What grows out of grief, she tells us, is sustaining stories, though "loss is always tied up with longing."
Longing is also the dominant thread in George Elliott Clarke's The Baggage Handler, his candid account about growing up with an absent father: "It's not death I grieve, but subtraction - of a certain community of memory ..."
A fourth story about the loss of a father is Brian Fawcett's wide-ranging My Father's Blue Skies, a coming-to-terms not only with the death of a "lucky" man who lived vitally to 101, but also with the "depressed and defeated" postwar era into which Fawcett was born.
But who would have guessed that an anthology dedicated to the subject of grief could contain so much delight? Read William Whitehead's contribution, Good Grief, for the sheer fun of it, for the unabashed flow of tears and joy it contains in remembrance of Timothy Findley, his partner for more than 40 years.
Read Austin Clarke's There Is No Good in a Black Night for the richly warm portrait of his mother: "There is no better guardian than the ghost of your forefathers." And Endre Farkas's Waiting to Grieve, the finely tuned story of his departed aunt because, as he says, "Art makes it real."
Read Marni Jackson's wonderfully black comedy Just Cremation, wherein her aged mother says after cremating her 91-year-old husband, "Well, that's that!"
Paul Quarrington, for whom many are grieving this week, in The Bluesman, with the story of his mother's death when he was a teenager, brings truth to Eric Idle's statement that people abandoned by their mothers become comedians.
The precious uniqueness of others' lives is revealed in all of the essays on offer, and particularly in Jill Frayne's beautifully intense account ( Her Great Art ) of the dying of her mother, June Callwood, and of her own grief: "Crisis blots out everything but its own details."
Several essays deal movingly with the death of friends: Anne Stone in What Will Not Bury, on the death of Matrix founder Rob Allen; Stephen Reid ( The Art of Dying in Prison ) on his former companion in crime, Paddy Mitchell: "Pat and I were present in the kind of moments known only to the blessed or to the damned"; Frank Davey ( This Gentleman ) on bpNichol, one of whose poems, from which the book's title is taken, opens the anthology.
Renee Rodin ( Googling the Bardo ) gives a harrowing account of her attempts to find justice for the murder of her son's fiancée in Thailand; Joan Givner recounts the pain and redemption that followed the death of her daughter, Emily Jane Givner, in Preparing My Daughter's Fiction for Posthumous Publication ; Hiromi Goto ( Without Words ) reveals the despair she endured after family deaths, and her heroic re-emergence into life; Erin Moure ( A Year Later, I am in Lilac Now ) speaks to the "terrible and beautiful bond" that remained even a year after her mother's death; Linda McNutt details not only the death of her father, but the death of her unborn daughter; and Stephen Collis writes of his beloved sister, Gail Victoria Tulloch, and about the "felt presence of her heart and mind" that was frequently with him as he grieved.
It will be understood, of course, that it is impossible to do justice to the contributors' fine work in such a brief review, except to say, 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.
M.A.C. Farrant's most recent books are Down the Road to Eternity and The Secret Lives of Litterbugs.