Historical trauma that dates as far back as slavery is a factor leading to black-on-black crime, according to a Canadian senator, and community workers are rethinking how they deal with grief among African-Nova Scotians.

By the end of February, close to 70 social workers, teachers, youth workers and community leaders will have completed specialized grief training, an effort prompted by the shooting deaths of seven black men in the Halifax region last year.

The classes look at grief through a cultural lens. Workers talked through examples, the grieving process and how grief may be different for people of African descent.

Need for healing is great

The need for healing in the African-Canadian community is great, according to Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who as a social work professor at Dalhousie University researched issues of racism, violence and health.

She said various factors have led to fatal black-on-black crime, including "post-traumatic slavery disorder," which she described as a trauma passed down from generation to generation. There's been little attention paid to it, she said.

There's been "the loss of dignity, the loss of language, loss of hope," she said.

"That leads to this disregard for others, this disregard for human life and you see this pattern, this sense of, 'I've been offended, I've been hurt, and so the only way I know how to deal with it is to hurt back,'" Bernard said.

"At one time people would hurt back with words or fists, now they're hurting back with guns."

Trauma, she said, does lead to grief and to the development of behaviours and coping mechanisms that are sometimes healthy, and sometimes not. The unhealthy ones "become quite destructive."

Grief training for the helpers

Daverico Downey funeral

Carry Beals-Downey, the mother of Daverico Downey, leans over his casket during his funeral service last May. Daverico Downey was found dead in North Preston on April 23. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The new training for community workers was led by the Association of Black Social Workers. The goal is to equip these workers with tools to provide grief counselling and resources to families affected by violence, trauma and racism-related stress.

"From there we will be going into communities to just do more awareness around grief and the need to address issues of grief in a culturally sensitive way," said Bernard, a facilitator with the program.

The association had been talking about this training for the last couple of years but the need for it became more urgent with last year's murders.

Church pastors ask for help

Last spring, a number of pastors from the African United Baptist Association, some of whom officiated the victims' funerals, asked black social workers to help them deal with their own grief stemming the shootings.

"What we're trying to do in terms of how we work with the African community is to help the helpers," Bernard said.

Amanda Reddick works as a community developer for youth for Halifax Regional Municipality. In past work, she counseled abusive men. She said she left the recent training with tips she can use to help herself and others through their pain.

"So many of, particularly our youth, are dying and even our seniors are passing away and there's loss in that," Reddick said.

"So coming together as a result of feeling, 'Oh my gosh, there's so much pain,' how do we find a way to get into the same room together to deal with this, to even acknowledge and address the weight of the kind of pain that we're sharing collectively?"

Gun violence a public health emergency

Last November, the African United Baptist Association, which represents 19 black Nova Scotia churches, called for gun violence in Halifax to be treated as a public health emergency.

The association asked for a team of culturally competent mental health clinicians to support the community and families affected by the violence.

Lana MacLean is chair of the group's social action committee. MacLean, a clinical social worker who specializes in mental health and addiction, said sometimes the way people grieve is culturally specific to their particular community.

"There are certain rituals and practices that are only known in that community," she said. "And if you're not a clinician who has an awareness of those particular ways of grief or of death and dying experiences and rituals, well then you can actually incur harm to the community by making our own global assumptions."