Layton family draws strength from Canadians amid grief

Olivia Chow, dirt in her fingernails after planting flowers around Jack Layton's gravestone last week, is drawing strength from Canadians as the anniversary of her husband's death approaches.

Wednesday will mark one year since the former NDP leader died of cancer at age 61. The cards, emails and kind wishes from supporters in the weeks after his death gave, and continue to give, Chow and her family "a lot of strength and comfort," she said in a recent interview.

The website has also provided a forum for Canadians to write messages and Layton's son Mike said in the joint interview with Chow that he's enjoyed reading them. People often come up to him in person too and share their memories of his father, who died shortly after the NDP became Parliament's Official Opposition party in the May 2011 election.

"I get strength from the stories they tell," he said. "That makes me quite proud."

Pride, he said, was also mixed in with the grief in the days after Aug. 22, 2011, when there was an outpouring of support across Canada. From messages written in chalk on the pavement outside Toronto City Hall to piles of flowers on Parliament Hill and lineups of mourners who paid their respects, Canadians expressed their appreciation for Layton and their sadness over his death.

Mike Layton, a Toronto city councillor like his father was at one time, said the support from Canadians was "very overwhelming but it was very welcome."

"I guess I had never realized how much he had touched so many people across Canada," he said. "For me, it came as quite a surprise that people were so emotional with the family about it … I didn't realize just how many people would show that much love."

Chow said she had a preview of the support that was to come when she and Layton began receiving cards and emails during his sickness. She would spend at least half an hour every day reading the messages to her husband. Many of them were from people whose families had gone through similar experiences.

"I think it speaks to cancer, the power of cancer. It touched a lot of people," she said.

Chow said after Layton died she did a lot of research on the grieving process. She found that the longstanding theory about different stages of grief, such as anger and acceptance, didn't apply to her.

"It's much more spontaneous and unpredictable than that," she said. "I found that it comes in waves and sometimes it hits you publicly, other times privately, sometimes when there's a special moment, other times when something completely arbitrary happens.

"It is totally unpredictable."

Layton's son said he often misses his dad when he has accomplished something professionally. He used to call him to tell him about his successes at work.

"I can't give him a call. Instead I give Olivia a call and we have the same conversations I would have had with my dad," he said.

Mike will also be missing his father when he marks the biggest personal milestone of his life on Saturday – his marriage.

"He'll be missed and I know that we'll be thinking of him," he said. The wedding is taking place on Toronto Island, not far from where Chow and Layton exchanged vows in 1988. Mike and his sister Sarah are children from Layton's first marriage.

"He'll be there in one form or another and he'll be in our thoughts for sure," the younger Layton said.

In addition to planning a wedding, the Layton family also welcomed another new member this year that gave them joy in the months after Layton's death – Sarah gave birth to a baby girl named Solace in January.

Solace and her older sister Beatrice are a constant source of happiness for the family, said Chow.

The MP for Trinity-Spadina admitted it was "a bit tough" to return to the House of Commons without her husband there last fall. Layton's death meant there was a void in the House of Commons, said Chow, but it's motivated her caucus.

"Jack's voice is not there so we need to speak even louder and find more voices so we can continue his vision. We just have to work even harder," she said.

She was working so hard on her private member's bill on a national transit strategy last fall that she didn't notice herself getting sick and before she knew it, Chow had pneumonia.

In between exercising, working, and spending time with friends and family, Chow has also dedicated time over the past few months to her artistic side. Chow studied fine arts and sculpting and painting are her specialties.

She made a bust of Layton, had it bronzed and it now rests atop his gravestone in the historic Necropolis cemetery in Toronto. The family will spend time there Wednesday morning, have lunch together and in the evening attend a celebration of Layton's life at Nathan Phillips Square.

Once again, their loss will be in the public eye, as it has been at various times over the last year. They mingled with supporters on Parliament Hill and at Toronto City Hall when people lined up to pay their respects before Layton's flag-draped coffin. Mike and Sarah delivered a eulogy at the funeral, a public event that was televised and broadcast on screens outside Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto, while Chow delivered a speech during a special tribute at the NDP leadership convention in March, and they have all granted many interviews over the past months.

Chow said she has "absolutely no regrets" about how much of her private loss has been on public display. That's the way it should be, because her husband was so open, she said.

"Jack was a public person, it makes no sense to grieve in private and not share Jack with the people he put his life into to serve," she said.

Chow said she won't predict whether Wednesday's memorial event will become an annual tradition.