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National grief strategy needed to help Canadians cope with loss due to COVID-19, group says

An organization called the Canadian Grief Alliance says the loss COVID-19 is causing across the country is something we've never experienced before. It's calling for a national strategy to help Canadians gain access to the resources they need to cope with their grief.

COVID-19 has led to more than 11,000 deaths across the country

Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice activist, says the grief and trauma health-care workers are experiencing during the pandemic isn't being properly addressed. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Tears, laughter and sharing memories are some of the ways Naheed Dosani and his colleagues honour the memory of people they've cared for together.

The gatherings, called grief circles, used to be held in person but have since moved online during the coronavirus pandemic, and the number of participants has been increasing.

"We have more grief circles than ever before, probably because there's more grief than ever before," Dosani said.

In a recent interview with CBC News, the palliative care physician and health justice activist said he believes discussions about grief need to be brought to the forefront.

"While we're trained to be in these scenarios, many of us are seeing these scenarios at a higher frequency and more death than we ever could have imagined."

More than 11,000 Canadians have died from COVID-19.

An organization called the Canadian Grief Alliance has been pushing the federal government for a national strategy to help people cope with the increased loss society is facing — fearing it will have long-term mental health repercussions. Health Canada says the federal government is investing $240.5 million to support provinces and territories to develop, expand and launch virtual care tools, including supports for mental health.

 But the alliance says grief services specifically are falling through the cracks.

'The hidden health crisis'

Shelly Cory, executive director of Canadian Virtual Hospice and one of the founders of the Canadian Grief Alliance, says the pandemic's impact on Canada and the number of people who are grieving is "astounding."

"We're looking at grief as the hidden health crisis in this whole pandemic," she said. "One of the reasons we need a national grief strategy is to provide a coherent response to an urgent public health crisis." 

The alliance is calling for a national consultation to help them understand the impact the pandemic has had on grief services, so they can assess where the needs and gaps are.

"We've never dealt with grief from a pandemic. We need to understand where the pressure points are and where we need to provide resources to suffering Canadians," she said.

Shelly Cory, the executive director of Virtual Hospice and one of the founders of The Canadian Grief Alliance, says if people who are grieving are not being supported, there's an increase in the potential for long-term mental health issues. (Submitted/Shelly Cory)

Cory says there also needs to be public awareness and education to help increase Canadians' grief literacy. The alliance is also calling for the government to invest $100 million over three years to implement the national grief strategy.

Cory says grief services are reeling because their donations have declined significantly, while they're experiencing huge increases in volumes of people looking for their help and pivoting to online services.

Cory notes that grief during the pandemic doesn't just involve death.

"People who have lost their jobs, businesses that have failed, people who have lost their financial security, relationships that have broken down during the pandemic and the loss of life as we know it," she said.

"All these things are huge losses for people and they're grieving."

Pandemic magnifies barriers to healthy grief, therapist warns 

Andrea Warnick, a nurse and psychotherapist, believes Canadians are in dire need of a grief strategy.

"Grief is hard no matter what, no matter where you are in the world, what time in history," she said. "But trying to do grief in a healthy way during a pandemic just magnifies the barriers to a healthy grief process."

Warnick says many of the families she works with aren't able to be with their loved one if they're dying, or travel to see someone who is suffering. 

Andrea Warnick, a registered nurse and psychotherapist, says the pandemic has made the experience of grief even more isolating. (Trina Koster Photography)

"Not being able to gather and go to funerals and things like that — there's so may elements of these barriers that make it hard for people to grieve in healthy ways that plays out in so many ways in terms of mental health."

Warnick says that her clients are struggling with not being able to hug each other.

"Grief is isolating as it is, but it is incredibly isolating right now," she said. "I hope as Canadians we recognize that not providing grief support really creates a mental health crisis, not just in immediate times, but down the road as well."

Health Canada responds

In a statement, Health Canada said it has received the proposal from the Canadian Grief Alliance, and officials have been engaging with the organization to discuss its proposal.

"We recognize the important work of the national grief alliance as Canadians work through the grief of losing a loved one," the statement reads, noting that the agency recognizes the importance of mental health services at this time.

Health Canada says it funded Wellness Together Canada, a portal that provides Canadians with access to free, credible information and supports to help reinforce mental wellness and address mental health and substance use issues.

Meanwhile, Dosani says he tries his best not to bring his grief home to his family, but it's difficult. He suggests that if people know a health-care worker, they should reach out.

"I think what's not getting discussed a lot is the emotional pain, the soul pain, that I think front-line health workers are experiencing." 

About the Author

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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