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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)
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)

Why a farewell letter can comfort and inspire Add to ...

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.

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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