Healing narratives, storytelling for handling grief

Mar 28, 2024 | Arts, Culture, Life

Bereaved Families of Ontario-Toronto (BFO Toronto) and Toronto People With AIDS (PWA) curated a space where the Black, African, and Caribbean diaspora could express their grief through storytelling on Tuesday.

Patrick de Belen and Kareem Bennett, both spoken word poets and Toronto residents, facilitated “Healing Narratives: Storytelling for Grief” at Toronto PWA on Queen Street East.

Bennett and de Belen prompted attendees to think about and discuss their grief through written and verbal exercises.

“Storytelling can be used as a form of remembering, memorializing, navigating, and searching,” de Belen said. “It’s a vulnerable art form that brings people together in a way that people get to see the parts of you that aren’t usually talked about.”

Growing up in North York when mental health services were limited, de Belen said he was told to express how he felt by putting pen to paper.

After years of writing and performing spoken word poetry, he said he was struck by tragedy after the death of his younger brother in 2021.

Through this loss, de Belen said he made it his mission to aid others dealing with grief by becoming the BFO’s Resident Storyteller and grief support worker.

Co-facilitator Kareem Bennett said he had a similar story of growing up in Toronto’s west end, and how the art of storytelling kept him out of harm’s way.

Growing up in the Jane Street and Finch Avenue community, Bennett said gun violence was prevalent in his childhood, which prompted him to find things to keep him occupied indoors.

Since discovering his love for the arts in high school, Bennett said he became a spoken-word artist, helping him voice thoughts often difficult to explain.

“Growing up, poetry was something that helped me find a voice,” Bennett said. “It helped me develop the vulnerability to articulate my emotions.”

Sarah Garcia-Heller, executive director at BFO, discussed the importance of spaces like BFO and these workshops for the community.

“Events like these are necessary because it’s what we do,” Gracia-Heller said. “It’s a beautiful example of peer support, how we can come together in community, how we can share in our grief, and how we can normalize it and know that it’s okay to talk about.”

Throughout the event, attendees completed a series of exercises where they used their words, senses, and experiences to explain what grief is to them.

Participants voiced grievances about loss, housing and job insecurity, and missing their home countries.

“As Black people, we do process grief in different ways,” Bennett said. “Some can be a bit detrimental to both ourselves and our culture.”

“Grief is an ongoing thing, it doesn’t ever go away, it sits with you,” Garcia-Heller said. “Having the opportunity to connect with others and know that you can share grief is beautiful. It’s very healing.”

Garcia-Heller said the importance of free community spaces like this is necessary for many who do not have the means to therapy, especially newcomers to Canada.

“A large part of why BFO started is to be a safe space to talk about grief and to normalize it,” Garcia-Heller said. “It’s important to become emotionally literate.”

Nicole Thompson, who works with the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention, was brought to tears as she read a letter she wrote to her grandmother.

“Today, I found out I was grieving someone who I thought I had already grieved,” Thompson said. “This opened my eyes to see that I need to get help so that I could fully grieve the loss.”

Grief is not a linear experience, said Garica-Heller, with many not realizing that while they may have moved past the initial event, the feelings often get buried.

Through storytelling, grief becomes something not to be ignored but embraced and discussed, said de Belen.

“We’re here to let people know that it’s normal,” Garcia-Heller said. “You shouldn’t feel weird or alienated for grieving.”