A pandemic of grief

By Shelly Cory and Danielle Saj

Never in our lifetimes has Canada experienced the volume and complexity of grief as has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadians have been robbed of goodbyes with dying relatives and forced to grieve in isolation without funeral rites. People working in healthcare report little acknowledgement of or support for their work-related grief and trauma as they manage the complexities of putting themselves and their families at risk, while supporting the health and emotional needs of seriously ill and dying patients and families separated by public health restrictions to contain the virus.

The pandemic has contributed to a complex experience of grief as a result of deaths and other significant losses, including jobs, financial security, business failures and “life as we know it.”


“The process of dying is being distorted, and what we can expect then, is the process of grieving is going to be distorted,” says Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, Psychiatrist and distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba. As a result, an increasing number of Canadians will require support.

However, existing grief services are fragmented, under-funded and insufficient to meet the volume of need. Organizations providing grief services are reporting significant increases in requests for grief supports while donations to fund these services are plummeting due to the economic pressures Canadians are facing.

Those looking to access services must overcome barriers such as long waitlists, geographic limitations, and financial insecurity. The challenge of accessing grief services is more pronounced for Indigenous Peoples, those living in rural and remote areas, immigrants and refugees, children and youth, Francophones, the precariously housed and those in the corrections system. Left unaddressed, prolonged, complicated grief heightens the risk of depression and the risk of suicide.

“This is the hidden tragedy in the current crisis, but one that will also have long term implications for many individual Canadians as well as our health care systems and the economy,” says Paul Adams, spokesperson for the Alliance. “Many people are now facing the deaths of loved ones, isolated from networks of family and friends that normally help people get through such heart-wrenching moments in their lives. Unless we step up and help people now, we will be dealing with the human toll for many years to come.”

For these reasons, the newly formed Canadian Grief Alliance – a coalition of national leaders in grief and bereavement convened by the Canadian Virtual Hospice – is urging the Government of Canada to bolster the country’s grief services to meet the growing demand. Existing and recently announced mental health initiatives do not include grief services. The Alliance is asking the Federal Government to invest $100 million in sustaining and expanding grief services over the next three years and $10 million in research to guide responses to pandemic-related grief.

The Canadian Grief Alliance’s priorities include:

  • Developing a consultation-driven National Grief Strategy to focus investment to maximize access to grief services.
  • Sustaining and expanding existing grief services and resources with tailored resources for Indigenous Peoples, children and youth, seniors and other populations with specific needs.
  • Access to specialized grief supports for front-line healthcare workers and first responders suffering grief-related work trauma.
  • A public awareness campaign to increase understanding of grief, healthy coping strategies and existing resources like MyGrief.ca and KidsGrief.ca.
  • Rapidly scaling up research capacity to better equip health providers, communities and the country to better respond to the evolving, long-term grief and bereavement needs posed and amplified by the pandemic.

The proposal was submitted to federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and to the Prime Minister on May 12 and discussions with Health Canada have commenced.

The Alliance has been encouraging Canadians to send a strong signal to the government that supporting grieving Canadians should be a priority. To date 750 organizations and individuals have signed on to support the proposal. The goal is to reach 1,000 sign ups. To read the proposal or sign up to support the initiative go to www.virtualhospice.ca and follow the prompts.

 

“We are stronger together. It is critical that we have supports in place for Canadians who are hurting in these unprecedented times and that we are supporting people working in health care with the grief they may be experiencing. It’s the right thing to do.

 

Shelly Cory is Executive Director of the Canadians Virtual Hospice.