Don't put COVID-19 grief 'on the back burner,' says therapist calling for national strategy on mourning
Mental health funding welcome, but 'grief is slipping through the cracks': Andrea Warnick
A grief therapist says people who have lost loved ones in the pandemic shouldn't put their grief "on the back burner," even if physical distancing means holding bigger memorial services isn't possible.
"We benefit from being able to come together at the hardest times in life, and tell stories," said Andrea Warnick, a registered therapist who specializes in grief.
"We really encourage people not to wait until the pandemic's over to do that, to still try to find ways, even at home … until we can actually gather in person," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
More than 11,600 people have died from COVID-19 in Canada, with measures to curb the pandemic meaning that many died alone in hospitals or long-term care facilities. Their grieving families have been unable to hold traditional remembrance services, and promises to gather at a later date have become a hallmark of obituaries.
Nina Vaughan lost her father and aunt to COVID-19 earlier this year, both of whom were living in a long-term care home in Calgary.
While Nina's aunt, Doreen Gauvreau, died alone in a locked-down facility in April, Nina was able to be with her father, Lorne Vaughan, in the days before he died in May.
"I hope it gave him some comfort that he wasn't alone, because by that time, he had been alone for three months in a room."
"For me, it was a double-edged sword. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to be with somebody at the end of their life, and help them through that," she said.
"But it was also, you know, a traumatic experience to watch your parent die like that."
Her mother, Dorothy Vaughan, is a resident in a different Calgary care home.
With that home also in lockdown, Nina had to tell Dorothy of the deaths of her twin sister and husband over video and phone calls.
"That's horrible news to give anybody, but then not to be able to comfort them physically, which is such an important part of that process, was really difficult for her and for me," she said.
It wasn't until July that her immediate family had an opportunity to gather — but without friends or extended family.
"My brother, my sister, my mother and I got together and scattered my father's ashes. That was the extent of any service given the circumstances," she told Galloway.
"By getting together, there's an opportunity to storytell and celebrate somebody's life, so it does give some modicum of closure," she said.
"But it doesn't feel like it was really a good way to honour his life."
Calls for national grief strategy
Warnick said it's important to let someone grieving know that you're thinking of them, but people are often hesitant to talk about the deceased, "because we're worried we'll make people sad."
And now what people want most "is for the person who died to be remembered," she said, adding it's still possible to share those memories on the phone or video calls.
Warnick is one of the co-founders of the Canadian Grief Alliance, an organization calling on the federal government to establish a national grief strategy, to help people cope with increased loss in the pandemic's difficult circumstances. The organization is made up of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and researchers.
In a proposal released in May, the CGA called for an investment of $100 million over the next three years for the strategy, including specialized supports for front-line health-care workers and first responders suffering grief-related trauma.
In a statement to CBC News, Health Canada said its officials have been engaging with the CGA to discuss its proposal and recognized 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. In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced more than $240 million in funding to support provinces and territories to develop, expand and launch virtual care tools, including mental health supports.
But Warnick warned that grief is a natural response to loss, and only risks becoming a mental health issue if the right supports are not available.
While the money to support mental health is welcome, she worries "that grief is slipping through the cracks."
"The strategy is really aimed at being proactive and supporting people before they actually have mental health conditions," she said.
She said Canada "has a patchwork of grief services and many people have zero access because of geography or finances."
A national strategy would fill those gaps, through initiatives such as phone lines that connect people with grief counsellors.
A public awareness campaign would also encourage people to both seek support if they need it, and reach out to those who are grieving.
"I often say that we're a grief-illiterate society. We really struggle to know what to say or what not to say when we're showing up to support someone," Warnick said.
She said the education element "would be applicable to everybody, whether it's that they're grieving their job, grieving the university graduation that they were looking forward to for a year and didn't actually get."
"[Or] people who are also grieving death, other losses, and separations from family members."
Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Alex Zabjek, Julie Crysler and Lindsay Rempel.