Instead of tiptoeing around the lingering loss that follows the death of a loved one, a new writers’ series is confronting the grieving process without flinching.
The Sunshine Coast Hospice Society, with financial support from the Town of Gibsons, launched the six-week Living With Grief series as a pilot project on Jan. 17.
The initiative follows the society’s 2022 Exploring Grief Through Creativity sessions, in which facilitators helped participants translate deep emotion into cathartic paintings, pottery and woven works.
“Everybody grieves differently and everybody processes their grief differently,” said Tess Huntly, executive director of the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society. “For some people, a support group — talking with each other about their grief — is a really effective way of expressing it. For others, a more creative process works better.”
The Hospice Society engaged Roberts Creek-based author and performer David Roche to lead the writing workshops. In 2021, Roche was inducted to the Order of Canada for his longtime promotion of acceptance, inclusion and diversity and “pioneering contributions” to the field of disability art. Roche has become an internationally-acclaimed advocate for those, like him, with facial differences.
The writing series was originally capped at six registrants. Due to popular demand, its capacity was stretched to nine. All available slots were immediately claimed.
“When I think about how this came to be, it’s really nestled in community,” said Roche. “If you know the Sunshine Coast, you know the level of creativity that’s here, and the level of community.”
Roche has led previous workshops for the Hospice Society, and his wife Marlena has been a volunteer with the organization for 11 years.
“I am an encourager,” Roche said. “In the group, everyone has lost someone in the fairly recent past. So they’re automatically in the deep end of the pool, in an environment where everybody has experienced some level of grief. There’s no instruction. I’m not a teacher. [But] I’m good at allowing people to feel comfortable.”
During the first session in the series, Roche invited participants to write about loss as viscerally as possible, expressing sensual memories. He asked them to picture the hand of a loved one, describing what it looked like and how it felt to be touched by them. He urged writers to describe characteristic scents, foods and music of the person whom they lost.
“And what that does is allow the writer to immediately go deeper into the narrative,” Roche said, “and not be an omniscient narrator but to be in the story.” Group feedback about the written pieces, “using love and support,” follows short bursts of composition.
One participant wrote about a loved one’s favourite musical genre: 1960s rock and roll. Roche began crooning a 1962 ballad by Roy Orbison: Crying over you / Yes, now you’re gone / And from this moment on / I’ll be crying.
Unprompted, the other writers started to sing along. “It was a joyful, wonderful, connecting time,” Roche said. “I trust my instincts.”
Huntly emphasized that therapeutic benefits of creativity flow from the Hospice Society’s service providers and volunteers alike. Recognizing the Sunshine Coast’s artistic strength is prompting the organization to look outward to explore new collaborations.
For Roche, the union of candour, compassion and language carries supernal power.
“I feel,” he said, “particularly in a storytelling environment that is verbal, not written, when someone tells about someone who has passed, and really steps into their grief, I feel like that person is called into the room and they are present in the room. How do I know that? Only at the level of what is going on at the level of my heart and soul. But when I say this, people agree.”
Descriptions of the Sunshine Coast Hospice Society’s wide-ranging programs and opportunities can be found online at coasthospice.com.