Skip to content

From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Whatever the Cost May Be

Preparing for the fight of our life

How We Said Goodbye

Remembering the writer Anne Kingston

Katherine Ashenburg

So, you’ve lost the person you loved, but you’ve also lost the way to send them on. You lost the farewell.
 — Angela Sumegi

When twenty-one-year-old Revere Osler died at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, all his parents could do was bring flowers to his bedroom. His father, the great Canadian clinician Sir William Osler, wanted to go at once to Europe, but there was no point. His only child had been buried immediately. In England, where Osler was a professor of medicine at Oxford, morale was so low in 1917 that memorial services for soldiers were considered unpatriotic. Also bad for morale was the wearing of black, as was the strict, protective schedule of seclusion for the mourner.

To make a distinction that has fallen out of use, the Oslers grieved profoundly, but they could not mourn. Dictionaries define “grieving” as the private feelings of sorrow that a death arouses. “Mourning” describes the outward expression of those feelings in practices and rituals, often done communally.

Like the Oslers, the bereaved in the early days of COVID-19 were forbidden to mourn. We could sorrow privately, of course, but funerals and graveside services were either banned or drastically limited. The Jewish shiva, the Irish wake, and the Muslim custom of prayers around the corpse in a mosque all became impossible or at best significantly deformed. So were the ritual washing of the dead prescribed in many cultures, the Hindu funeral pyres along the Ganges, and countless other mourning customs.

Anne Kingston died unexpectedly on February 12, 2020. A prizewinning writer at Maclean’s and the author of two books, she was sixty-two. Anne’s friends and colleagues were shocked: her death had followed her cancer diagnosis with such swiftness that most of us did not even know she was ill. We were told that a memorial was planned for March. None of us doubted that one would be possible.

Soon after Anne’s death, I spent a few weeks in Mexico. Outbreaks of a mysterious coronavirus dominated the news more and more, but, at least on the surface, life went on as before in the colonial towns I visited. After the initial surprise and sadness, I found it hard to believe that Anne was really gone. We had not been in each other’s closest circles, but whenever we managed to meet for dinner, we fell immediately into an easy intimacy where everything was on the table: love, work, friendship, family, the problems of the world.

She presided in photographs: laughing, self-conscious, mischievous.

Jamie Bennett

In those first weeks, I couldn’t understand that we would never again meet at a restaurant, where Anne would comment with discerning relish on the food before returning to the discussion at hand — which we never finished because it inevitably branched off into something equally fascinating. Nor could I comprehend that I had read the last of her penetrating, original views in Maclean’s, on everything from Bill Cosby to women who regretted having children, from IKEA to Michael Ignatieff. Increasingly focused on gender issues, Anne approached topics in her own inimitable way. Covering the trial of Jian Ghomeshi, for example, she dared to analyze his lawyer Marie Henein’s appearance (her toe cleavage and “almost architectural hair . . . reminiscent of the black crest of a red-whiskered bulbul” were declarations of power and control).

One soft evening in Puebla, I had an errand that involved crossing the main square, overlooked by the towering formality of the cathedral and lined with restaurants and shops. In the centre of the square, a band was playing for a troupe of dancers. To the traditional blend of violins, guitars of various sizes, trumpets, and a harp, the dancers stomped their heels on the wooden stage, dipped, bowed, pirouetted, and braided their way through their fellow performers. The men wore the short-jacketed costume of the charro, or horseman; the women, full white skirts with bands of yellow, their hair festooned with yellow flowers.

Watching them, I was suddenly overcome with tears for Anne, the first I had shed for her. I don’t think we ever had a single conversation about Mexico; it was not one of our subjects. But something about the skill and the innocent joy of the performers evoked her. Shy in some ways, she was always ready to be delighted — by a wine, an outrageous pair of tights, a well-built sentence or argument. Although she was uncompromising and not afraid to be blunt, she was also, like the performers, generous. (When my first novel was published — but only after Anne had read it and approved — she insisted on taking me out to dinner to celebrate.) These are after-the-fact rationalizations for my tears. All I was conscious of in the square that night was the piercing thought that Anne would never be able to enjoy this lovely sight — or any other.

That was the start of my grieving. My mourning was another story. Needless to say, there was no memorial for Anne in March 2020.

Why did I feel something important had been left undone when we could not gather to lament and celebrate Anne? Surely my solitary grief was the more significant part of my bereavement, or so I thought. But it must mean something that almost every society has a communal ritual of farewell. The Hopi in Arizona bury their dead with no gathering or ceremony, but they are highly unusual in that respect. Often, the further a Protestant denomination is from Catholicism, the more minimal its funerals. Queen Victoria was disconcerted by the bare-bones Presbyterian leave-taking she witnessed for the father of her beloved gillie, John Brown. A small group stood in the hallway of the dead man’s house, said a few prayers, and repaired with his coffin to the graveyard. The queen found it sadly inadequate, but at least Mr. Brown was accompanied to his final destination.

There were no grief therapists or experts in mourning in the years that followed the First World War, so no one was counting the cost of the stifled rituals, the forbidden gatherings, the lack of acknowledgement given to the Oslers and other bereaved people. These days, research tells us that cultures with a rich menu of mourning customs and gatherings have significantly lower incidences of unresolved bereavement than societies where loss is a solitary affair. Standing in the presence of other mourners, even in a crowd of mostly strangers, is oddly crucial; a friend calls it “the terrible necessity of other people.”

In at least the first year and a half of the pandemic, the death announcements in our newspapers often promised future memorials. I remember one in the Globe and Mail that said that a gathering would happen “when hugs are allowed.” I don’t know how many of those promises were fulfilled, but as the fear of congregating continued to ebb and flow through 2020, 2021, and 2022, I no longer expected that there would be a memorial for Anne. Her death had been overwhelmed by COVID, it seemed, and any feelings her family and friends had of being in limbo might well be permanent.

But in September 2022 I received an invitation from Tycho Manson, a friend of Anne’s who had been in charge of her first, cancelled memorial. Two years and eight months after her death, a celebration of her life would take place at Hart House, on the campus of the University of Toronto. The organizers — Manson, Anne’s brothers, David Kingston and Rob Kingston, and Peter Boyd, an ex-partner who remained a close friend — said they never doubted there would eventually be a gathering. The suddenness of her death had meant that almost no one was able to say goodbye, so all the more reason for a memorial. “We knew we had to have an event where we could mourn Anne as well as grieve her,” Mason told me later over the phone. Although he knows it’s apocryphal, the legend of Mozart being dumped into the paupers’ communal grave was what spurred Boyd on: he was determined that the pandemic would not squelch the celebration Anne deserved.

On October 12, I made my way to Hart House’s Music Room, a wood-panelled rectangle lit by the late afternoon sun. The anthropologist Victor Turner once described ritual as the action that integrates a disturbed social group after a crisis. Were Anne’s friends and family a disturbed social group, after all this time, and were we about to enact a ritual? To answer the second question first, our ancestors expected a ritual to be solemn, choreographed, and often sacred, so our gathering would not have made their cut. But for at least fifty years, secular mourners have gathered the dead person’s community, provided food and drink, speeches and spontaneous anecdotes, often a slide show and music. It’s our informal overhaul of Yeats’s “custom and ceremony,” and it seems to suit the times.

My sense of the people in the Music Room as a coherent group, and hardly a disturbed one, came into focus only gradually. At first, we stood, parked our wineglasses on high round tables while we accepted sliders and spring rolls, and did a certain amount of asking, “How did you know Anne?” There were colleagues from the Financial Times and Maclean’s, as well as friends from unsuspected corners of her life. The speeches celebrated the little sister whose strong-mindedness and sense of justice surfaced early, the cool cousin who taught a younger one how to dress and find the best music, the aunt who instructed a niece in cooking and eating. There were wry memories of the writer who surrendered her article to an editor only at the very last minute and a shaggy-dog story from a long-ago boyfriend about a camping trip that went sideways. Over the heads of the speakers, at the front of the room, Anne presided in photographs: laughing, self-conscious, mischievous.

The combination of words and pictures brought her back to me, and I imagine to many others. After the speeches, we carried on in small clusters with more memories. By the time people began to leave, I felt I was part of a group that had suffered a bereavement and had given some comfort, most often unspoken, to one another.

In The Greek Way of Death, the classicist Robert Garland wrote that separation requires “vigorous and determined efforts on both sides: as the body must leave the group, so the group must leave the body.” Anne’s body had not been with us for a long time, but in what sense could we say farewell to Anne the person? The key is in Garland’s words: “vigorous and determined efforts.” First, we had to bring back the woman we enjoyed, admired, loved. We celebrated her, but that brought sorrow because we had a fresh sense of what we had lost. And that was as it should be. We brought Anne back to life so that, finally, we could mourn her departure.

Katherine Ashenburg is a novelist in Toronto and the author of The Mourner’s Dance: What We Do When People Die.

Related Letters and Responses

@carrletta via Twitter