08/27/2011 05:51 EDT | Updated 10/27/2011 05:12 EDT

Jack Layton Funeral: Canada's Collective Grief Suggests For Many, Losing Layton Meant Loss Of Hope

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.

They gathered along the Highway of Heroes, much as they'd done for slain Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan, to catch a glimpse of his hearse as it ferried the body back to the city that considered Layton a favourite son. The NDP leader's ardent opposition to the war, it seemed, mattered not a whit.

And on Saturday, their grief hardly checked, they lined downtown streets by the thousands, clad in NDP orange and swaddled in Canadian flags, as Layton's state funeral marked the end of one of the most remarkable political grieving periods in modern Canadian history.

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."

The 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, no matter how far from reach they might seem.

"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."

Tyler Ward, who was among the legions of people who ventured out Saturday to pay their respects, echoed those sentiments as he described meeting Layton personally a few years back.

"It was like we'd known each other for 30 years, and we'd only known each other for 30 seconds," Ward said.

"He had the unique ability to really connect with people at a personal level, and I think that's why you're seeing this outpouring of emotion."

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."

During the spring election campaign, which followed hip surgery and a battle with prostate cancer, the legend of Layton deepened as he took to the stage brandishing his cane like a weapon — a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit.

And as signs of an unprecedented showing at the ballot box — fuelled by support in, of all places, Quebec — began to show up in public opinion polls, the power of an already well-liked leader began to grow exponentially.

"We all wanted that narrative," said Baer.

"I even think people on the other side of the political spectrum wanted that narrative to play out in a way that would see a positive medical outcome. So it was a shock when it didn't."

Layton was an island of idealism in a sea of cynicism, said Scott.

"With Jack Layton, we may also be mourning the loss of an era, the passing of a generation where politics mattered, where there was a certain kind of optimism," she said.

"We can all admire somebody who dedicated his life to a better Canada, regardless of our political stripe. I think we have to respect him for that, and honour that incredible effort."