The Heart Does Break by Bowering and Baird - Excerpt
The Heart Does Break
Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning

edited by George Bowering and Jean Baird


From May I Bring You Some Tea? by George Bowering

THE WORD “GRIEF” has an old family. Its Sanskrit ancestor was gurús, and it showed up in Medieval Latin as gravis and Gothic as kaurus. From the beginning it has meant heavy. Curiously, Medieval Latin has the form gravidus, signifying heavy with child. What a grave attitude the Europeans had of our mortality back then!

But in the heaviness that joins the grave to the womb, there is a reason to write an elegy--that poem that begins by relentlessly immersing us in sorrow, but then, after a long wait, tells us about birth, or rebirth. In Shelley’s poem the departed John Keats takes his place among the stars, “the abode where the Eternal are.” Next time you go to a wake, see the way the adults act around the newest baby or most pregnant mother in the family. They gravitate, perhaps. Check Linda McNutt’s story here.

Grief is the weight we feel, the gravity that orders us when loved ones die, even as we know that they must, even as we still hold an unspoken hope that the next one never will have to accede to the general rule. Grief is what finds us, mortals that we be. Mourning is what we learn to do. William Carlos Williams told us that we are called on to perform a funeral, and so we do, mourning not something given to us as grief is, but a challenge. It is the true subject of all the stories in our anthology.

The word “mourning” derives from the Old English murnan, which is from the Sanskrit term for both memory and anxiety, an interesting doubleness. Perhaps that says something about the sense we have of our own mortality while we are engaged in commemorating someone’s life, or in solemnly attending a memorial. Maybe that is why we now talk about “celebrating” the subject’s life rather than memorializing it. A century or so ago, Europeans and North Americans experienced a lot more family deaths during their lifetimes than they do now. Now the ubiquity of death is filtered through television screens, statistics and abstractions between us and middle-eastern wars and African famines.

To be anxious. To grieve. To perform our love and respect. That is mourning. Sometimes, as you will see, writing itself can be an act of mourning. Despite the given procedures, mourning is not easy. The heart does break. At my father’s graveside ceremony I was shocked to observe myself rushing from my Protestant family formation to kiss his coffin. So we find ourselves reenacting stories told by our forebears. When my first wife Angela died before the eyes of her daughter and me, I tried to close her eyes that had gone empty, and they would not, as they always will do in movies and novels, close. But one does at times of our most focused insanity desire to perform the olden story, properly to mourn.



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