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The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning

by George Bowering and Jean Baird, eds.

The Heart Does Break was born of paralyzing grief: Jean Baird, struggling with the sudden death of her daughter, Bronwyn, consulted counsellors and psychologists to help her deal with her loss, but found her greatest solace in literature. Baird and her husband, poet George Bowering, asked a broad spectrum of Canadian writers to share their experiences of grief and mourning.

The 19 essays they collected range in tone from angry but loving (Hiromi Goto writing about her immigrant grandparents), to resigned (Stephen Reid accepting that prison inmates often do not have the privilege of attending funerals), to mischievous and naughty (William Whitehead honouring Timothy Findley by remembering moments that made them laugh – and by living to laugh some more).

Most of the essays deal with grief indirectly, telling instead the life stories of deceased loved ones, usually with a strong dose of survivor’s guilt thrown in. Goto explains: “Often people conflate regret with mourning.” Frank Davey, writing about bpNichol, laments, “Part of grief is … the call that could have been made, the things that could have been said more clearly.” As the essays progress, focusing more on broken relationships and less on grief itself, it is easy to wonder if this is truly what the experience of mourning means: coming to terms with the often complicated and sometimes unpleasant relationships we had with someone who has died. Goto’s essay, coming midway through the book, marks a turning point in the collection; the essays that follow are more about grief as a process, an emotion, and an abstraction.

Each essay is compelling; the writing throughout the collection is honest and highly skilled. Writing about mothers and children, fathers and friends, lovers and artists, all the contributors struggle mightily to understand their grief. In aggregate, the essays offer insight into a painful subject, a sense of community, and an understanding that although no two people grieve in exactly the same way, no one is alone in the experience.


Reviewer: Christina Decarie

Publisher: Random House Canada


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 368 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-30735-702-1

Released: Dec.

Issue Date: 2010-3

Categories: Criticism & Essays