It was early in the pandemic when Shelly Cory started to worry about how much grief Canadians were experiencing, and where they could turn to for support. As the executive director of the Canadian Virtual Hospice, she watched as the site’s resource for those suffering, mygrief.ca, saw traffic jump by nearly 70 per cent within the first two months of the pandemic.
In response, Cory teamed up with other grief experts across the country to form the Canadian Grief Alliance(CGA). Since its inception in May 2020, the CGA has been advocating for a national grief strategy, one that would see dedicated funding towards grief services and a commitment to increasing grief education amongst Canadians. There’s no denying the pandemic has caused an uptick in grief — and without a proper strategy in place, Cory fears Canadians won’t be able to grieve in a healthy way.
“If we don’t address grief, not only is it impacting individuals themselves, but it’s impacting their families and relationships, it’s impacting their jobs and they’re probably using more health services,” she says.
The CGA has presented their framework to several members of Parliament and recently called on federal political parties to make grief part of their platforms in the upcoming election. Cory says there has been some commitment from government. The 2021 federal budget outlines nearly $30 million towards palliative care which includes providing public education on grief, and the Conservatives have pledged to extend bereavement leave for parents who lose a child.
But Cory says a lot of grief continues to go unrecognized mourning the loss of a parent or best friend, for example, can also be devastating.
The reality is COVID-19 has magnified cracks that existed in our healthcare system well before the pandemic. Social worker Maxxine Rattner says grief supports are offered haphazardly and are often not publicly funded. It can also be unclear how to access them. For example, some organizations specifically support people who have lost a loved one to cancer, but this type of immediate support doesn’t always exist for other less common diseases.
Rattner adds that a lack of understanding means many people aren’t sure how to address the grief they’re experiencing, or how to help others who are going through a tough time.
“One thing we’ve noticed about grief as we’ve done this advocacy work over the past year is because grief is natural, it’s part of the human experience, a lot of times people may feel they shouldn’t need support, or they’re told things will get better sooner than they actually will,” says Rattner. “This comes back to grief literacy and helping people understand what’s to be expected with grief and when would be a good time to reach out for more support.”
When it comes to grief and loss, there are many groups who continue to be disproportionately impacted and underserved including immigrants, refugees, Indigenous people and those living in rural and remote areas. For this reason, Cory says the government must first do a needs assessment to determine the challenges specific groups are facing and how best to address them.
“We’d love to say we need to hire another 300 social workers who have grief training to help Canadians, but we really need to look at what is needed at the grassroots level and in communities and respond to those needs directly.”
CGA member Holly Prince says both the pandemic and the recent uncovering of thousands of graves at residential schools has compounded the already complex and unresolved grief Indigenous people face on an ongoing basis because of colonization.
“Indigenous people are disproportionally underserved by the health system and when it comes to grief services, we have little to no access to culturally safe Indigenous led grief services and support,” says Prince, an Anishinaabekwe and member of Opwaaganisiniing in Northwestern Ontario. “When you don’t have a lot of formalized health services in communities, you really rely on those natural helping networks and kinship within the community and COVID has prevented that from happening.”
Prince says an added challenge in Indigenous communities is that many health care providers are giving end of life care to their own family members.
“I work with home care support workers who have 30 to 40 clients on their case load and of those 30 to 40 clients they’re either all family members or they’re community members who they’ve grown up with all their lives,” says Prince. “It’s a really unique challenge that we’re witnessing in many Indigenous communities.”
Prince says a national grief strategy must support Indigenous-designed and led grief services to ensure they’re relevant and appropriate for each community. Prince, Cory and Rattner are hopeful that with an election on the horizon, the federal government will make grief a priority and adopt the strategy proposed by the CGA.
“We definitely see this as a long-term, ongoing need because grief is unfortunately guaranteed in people’s lives,” says Rattner.
“Canada has a dementia strategy and a mental health strategy, but grief gets lost in the mix even though it hangs out in all illnesses including opioid use and suicide. There are so many areas of government work where we feel like grief has a place and we think that a national strategy would be a long-term solution.”