How to heal families should be part of the discussion on gun violence

Right now, the work of helping families through their grief – from coordinating and paying for funeral costs to counselling – is being left mostly to volunteer-based organizations

After a record 96 homicides in 2018, Toronto experienced a slight dip with 77 homicides in 2019.

But the year ended on a particularly deadly note, with 12 murders in December. It was the city’s deadliest month. And once again, it was gun-related violence that caused most of the human toll.

Shootings accounted for 44 of this year’s murders. That’s seven fewer than the 51 gun-related deaths in 2018. But for the families affected, it’s still too many.

The recent report of the Toronto Medical Officer of Health on how the city can better tackle gun violence, proposes a ban on the sale of ammunition and makes essential recommendations on the need for a public-health approach. It’s what frontline workers in the neighbourhoods most affected by gun violence have been advocating for years.

But the focus on enhancing public determinants of health, such as poverty and social programs to prevent crime, is just one side of gun violence. The other side is the immense pain endured by the families of the victims.

Emotional suffering also compromises public health. How to heal people should be included in our discussions about gun violence if the city’s goal is to make our public health approach genuinely inclusive. 

Right now, the work of helping families through their grief – from coordinating and paying for funeral costs to counselling and spiritual help – is left mostly to volunteer-based organizations like Out Of Bounds.

The resident-led initiative started in 2008 to help witnesses and survivors of violent death through a “mutual peer support model,” held its 11th annual Community Interfaith Remembrance at Monsignor Fraser College on December 7.

Led by Reverend Sky Starr, the event was mostly upbeat. People shared kind-hearted conversation, lined up for hot food and took part in a raffle to raise money for the organization’s efforts. Speeches were made, including by local NDP MPP Tom Rakocevic. Michael Tibollo, Doug Ford’s Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, whose history on the issue of gun violence is somewhat checkered, was also in attendance. Starr reminded those present about the importance of being there for one another when a loved one dies.

It was towards the latter half of the evening – when Starr invited attendees to light one of several candles, each labelled with a word such as “growth” and “love” – that a tremendous weight seemed to descend on the room.

There were agonizing moments – the painful cries of an inconsolable mother, the deep withdrawal of a motionless father.    

One mother, in particular, stood out for me. She could barely walk from her grief. She needed the assistance of Starr to help her get across the room. She periodically took rests along the way. She was determined to walk across what felt like a chasm. It hit me just how debilitating and how close to the surface grief can be for people experiencing unspeakable loss. It’s not the kind of suffering you can work to overcome or forget.

“Traumatic grief is a different type of grief,” says Starr, who is a trained therapist. “Mothers who experience it are deeply pained by the vision in their head of what might have been and what is there now.”

Starr says the healing process involves helping people “re-story a life for themselves that makes moving forward possible.”

How does the city’s plan intend to more compassionately support whole communities experiencing gun violence but are unable to heal because of lack of access to affordable mental health care? The city’s report calls on the province to amend the Health Insurance Act and the Health Protection and Promotion Act to increase access to “trauma-informed mental health supports to individuals exposed to violence.” The report also asks that those supports “be located in accessible community settings.”

Shortly before the event ended, Starr appealed directly to Tibollo for help. “I would really love you to take back to Premier Doug Ford that these mothers need support.”

But it’s difficult to be optimistic, given provincial cuts that have already taken place in the area of mental health, that help will be coming anytime soon – or if the premier will even receive the message that governments need to prioritize healing, as well as support programs that prevent gun violence in the first place.


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