The art of mourning: New book looks at losing Bowie, Prince and, most of all, mom

Hamilton-born author Julia Cooper picks apart how humans handle loss and eulogize the dead in her new book, "The Last Word."

Julia Cooper will launch 'The Last Word' at Mills Hardware tonight

Julia Cooper is the author of a brand new book that examines the modern eulogy, called "The Last Word." (Coach House Books)

Humans aren't very good at saying goodbye.

But after a loved one dies, we're pressed into the art of the eulogy — trying to find the right words to squeeze a whole life into a ten minute speech, all the while plagued by our own grief, coupled with (for many) a fear of public speaking.

"It's an exceptionally tall order," said Hamilton-born author Julia Cooper, who wrote a brand new book called The Last Word, which picks apart the "modern eulogy" and examines how people grieve.

"The eulogy is this really vexed art form that really interests me."

The book is a tribute to Cooper's mother, Patricia Wallace, who was born and raised in Dundas.

She died of cancer at age 57, when Cooper was just 19.

"In the gauziness of my own grief, the time never seemed right to talk about my mom's last words of advice for her kids (she told us, simply, 'Love one another'), the excruciating pain she felt in her final few days, or the way she mouthed my brother's name as she slipped in and out of consciousness. Those weren't stories anyone seemed particularly interested in hearing," Cooper writes in the book.

That painful loss left a lasting scar, and sent her looking for solace in the pages of books.

"I've been looking for the last 12 years for literature that would help me grasp for help, and I've found them mostly lacking," Cooper told CBC News. "I just needed a place to talk about grief."

The language of loss

She tried the academic world, and just finished a PhD at the University of Toronto that focused on modern grief. "The academic work didn't help, unsurprisingly," she said. "I think it was just too theoretical."

But writing for a book — that did. Cooper found solace in exploring the "language of loss," and trying to open up a subject that most people struggle to talk about.

Cooper's book launch is tonight at Mills Hardware in downtown Hamilton. (Coach House Books)

In the book, Cooper also talks about the way social media and the death of celebrity has irrevocably changed the way people express grief. Last year became a kind of morbid "banner year" for celebrity deaths, as we said goodbye to David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, and a host of others.

It's the way that people handled those deaths that most interests Cooper.

"Online grieving is finite, but personal grief is infinite," she writes. "There is no door to close and leave your grief behind when that grief is yours and yours alone. When it's your brother, your mom, your kid, you can't simply tweet, or share, or link away the pain. You can't just close your browser and move on with your day."

'Dipping your toe into the pond of grief'

Cooper calls the practice of running to your phone to talk about a celebrity death "performative grieving" — and it's not at all like real life, she says. In a lot of ways, she says, it's like "dipping your toe into the pond of grief."

"There's a comfortable distance to mourning Bowie online," she said.

"But in real life, I don't think the work of grieving is ever really done."

Cooper's book launch for The Last Word is happening tonight at Mills Hardware at 95 King Street East. Doors open at 7 p.m., with readings from the book starting at about 7:30 p.m.



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.