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As the pandemic continues to take its toll, a national organization is calling on the federal government to include $30 million in its upcoming budget as an emergency measure to support local grief services across Canada.
“Basically we’re saying that a whole year has passed, there hasn’t been action, and the amount that we’re talking about is $30 million dollars,” Paul Adams, co-founder and spokesperson for the Canadian Grief Alliance, said in an interview from Ottawa.
“When you put that in the context of the Air Canada bailout with a $5 billion dollar loan and half a billion in equity…it’s a rounding error on a rounding error in terms of the federal budget, but it would make a huge difference in people’s lives.”
In a media release issued Wednesday, members of the Canadian Grief Alliance (CGA) demanded more funding to help Canadians as they cope with a “parallel pandemic of grief” caused by deaths (not just COVID-19 related) and other losses over the last year.
“What we know is that when grief is unsupported, when it’s complicated, it can often lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,” Adams said.
“And of course, that means absenteeism at work, difficulty in studies, and these kinds of things.”
The organization was created last year at the beginning of the pandemic as members realized the impact COVID-19 deaths would have on Canadians. But they also acknowledged early on that public health protocols would change the way we mourn and grieve all deaths, regardless of their cause.
Alliance members include a group of leading grief and bereavement specialists. More than 150 national and provincial organizations now support the CGA, including the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, and the Canadian Psychiatric Association.
‘Canadians have been robbed of goodbyes’
The organization’s website notes that:
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 friends and family or people they care about and forced to grieve in isolation without funeral rites. They and those working on the front lines of health care are at heightened risk for prolonged, complicated grief marked by depression, and the risk of suicide.
The group set out to encourage the federal government “to adopt a proposal to address national gaps in grief services that are leaving hurting Canadians unsupported in their grief,” describing the country’s existing grief services as “fragmented, under-funded and insufficient.”
In addition to calling for a consultation-driven national grief strategy, the organization’s grief experts offered ideas about what such a strategy might look like. Despite conversations with federal and provincial government representatives and support from individual MPs, MPPs and MLAs, Adams said the issue has yet to be addressed. He said that leaves underfunded grief services — primarily offered by charities and non-profit groups — “stretched beyond capacity.”
“Like a lot of other charities, they’ve not had the same kind of donations as normal,” Adams explained. “So the resources have actually shrunk at the same time as the need for this kind of support has grown by a huge amount.”
The organization notes health care workers and support staff, who have witnessed “suffering on a scale never seen before,” are having difficulty accessing grief support services across Canada.
The Canadian Grief Alliance also expressed concerns about Indigenous people and the resources urgently required to develop and deliver culturally appropriate grief services in communities already carrying “a pre-existing burden of grief from the ongoing impacts of colonialism.”
‘Falling through the cracks’
The organization is urging the federal government to bolster grief services to meet the growing demand, adding that existing and recently announced mental health initiatives don’t include grief services.
Adams said to make matters worse, the federal government’s mental health portal offers advice that, while suitable for those struggling with depression or anxiety, is considered detrimental to people dealing with grief.
“People with anxiety and depression and these other sorts of mental health issues (they’re often told what helps) is redirecting your thoughts through things like exercise and meaningful activity,” he explained.
“Grieving people do best when they are able to experience their feelings in a supportive context and work through them, and if you push away those feelings that actually is in the long term likely to be detrimental to your mental health.”
Although the organization supports increased investments in mental health services, it notes on its website that grief services are outside the scope of these programs and are therefore “falling through the cracks of the Government’s response to COVID-19.”
The CGA has a COVID-19 grief counter on its website to track the number of Canadians grieving a death (from all causes, not just COVID-19) during the pandemic.
Using 2019 Statistics Canada data, the number of Canadian COVID-19 deaths reported daily, and a multiplier of nine, the grief tracker shows the estimated number of Canadians impacted by a death.
From March 2020 to today, that number stands at almost 3.1 million.
“You know that several people are affected by every death, so you’re talking about millions of Canadians who are affected and in a short time period,” Adams said.
“The money that we save by not doing anything right now is going to be spent down the road on supporting people who are encountering more serious mental and physical health issues in their lives.”
Adams said improved access to grief services is also required for many other Canadians who, in the third wave of COVID-19, will have to say their good-byes via screens held by health care workers or those forced to grieve the loss of their loved ones in isolation.
“At the beginning of this whole thing a year ago, we were talking about a national strategy, and we still think that that would be a good idea,” Adams said. “But in the near term, we think there’s just an emergent need.”
‘Grief is not a mental disorder’
In Nova Scotia, organizations supporting the CGA include Nova Scotia Hospice Palliative Care Association, Doctors Nova Scotia, Caregivers Nova Scotia, Hospice Halifax, Colchester East Hants Hospice Society, and Good Grief Halifax.
Tara Field is a registered counselling therapist and operates Good Grief Halifax counselling centre. Over the last year she’s seen many grieving clients she describes as “desperate for support.” She said she’s onboard with the goals and the demands of the Canadian Grief Alliance because they make sense.
“Grief is not a mental disorder. It is a natural aspect of life and love, and it’s very misunderstood, it’s very pushed aside and denied,” Field said in an interview late Thursday.
“People need validation, they need normalization, they need to know that this is normal, they need to know that there’s a community to support them.”
Field said education and awareness about grief is key, and there needs to be a push to “support those who support others” to help them better understand grief. She said there’s far too much misinformation and misunderstanding about what it is, even among some health care professionals.
If the province was to benefit from additional funding for grief services, Field would like to see a large portion allocated to training frontline workers to help them better understand and better support people struggling with grief. She believes this could help prevent “a lot of the trauma” that can occur when well-meaning people take an approach that doesn’t work for someone grieving a loss.
“You’ve got all these public organizations that are brought in to support grieving people, but the model they use is like trying to treat diabetes with radiation,” Field said. “It doesn’t work, it doesn’t fit, and it just alienates them more. It just increases the pain, which is frustrating.”
Field said it’s important for everyone to recognize and better understand grief. She notes that many people will struggle this weekend as Nova Scotia approaches the first anniversary of the mass shooting.
“We have COVID on top of that, and with everything else that’s been going on, it’s grief on an individual level. It’s grief on a family level. It’s grief on a community level, on a provincial level, a federal level, on a world scale,” she said.
“And grief support is underfunded. It’s under acknowledged. That needs to change.”
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