The quiet pandemic victims: Those grieving death

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Family members and funeral workers carry the coffin of a 51-year-old COVID-19 victim at a cemetery in Cape Town, South Africa, May 13, 2020. The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic is making the grieving process more difficult for those losing loved ones to the disease. CNS photo/Sumaya Hisham, Reuters

TORONTO (CNS) — The quiet victims during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic have been those grieving the death of a loved one.

A different aspect of grieving has been introduced to a lot of people due to public health restrictions keeping people from properly sharing their grief when a loved one dies, as social distancing measures mean large-scale celebrations like funerals are forbidden, and the accompanying visitations and other processes surrounding death are just not possible.

For many, there is no closure. These are integral parts of the grieving process and largely hidden as the world focuses on getting through the current crisis.

“The ritualized grief experience … for the most part has been taken away,” said Deacon Curtis Boone.

As a grief counselor, Deacon Boone sees this on a daily basis. He sees the heartbreak, where even visiting the gravesite of a loved one is forbidden as cemeteries are locked. He shares the pain he has encountered when dealing with the bereaved.

On several occasions, Deacon Boone has said to people how he would love to give them a hug now, but can’t because of social distancing. Often, people just break down and weep in front of him.

“I can see the families that I deal with that their grief is definitely augmented,” said Deacon Boone, director of Side by Side Grief Ministry, which he runs with his wife, Joanne, out of St. Padre Pio Parish in Kleinburg, Ontario, northwest of Toronto. “It’s been diverted, it’s been stopped, it’s been twisted within them.”

It’s an issue Deacon Boone is sure will cause trouble down the road, when restrictions have been lifted.

“We’re going to deal with a lot of fallout,” said Boone. “A lot of trauma is being added to these families because they can’t be with their loved ones in their final days.”

The Canadian Grief Alliance — a national coalition of leaders in grief and bereavement — said this pandemic has brought an unprecedented complexity in grief as people are robbed of their goodbyes with dying loved ones and forced to grieve in isolation. It’s compounded by the fragmented, underfunded and insufficient grief services being restricted even more.

It is why the alliance has urged federal, provincial and territorial governments to bolster grief services with a 100 million Canadian dollar ($71.6 million) investment in grief supports over the next three years and another CA$10 million for research.

“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,” said Paul Adams, spokesman 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.”

The alliance’s priorities are an expansion of existing free grief services and resources and tailored resources for indigenous people, children and youth, seniors and others with specific needs; access to specialized grief supports for health workers and first responders; a public awareness campaign to increase understanding of grief and healthy coping strategies; investment in a national grief strategy; and more research capacity to respond to evolving grief and bereavement needs.

“In our society, we don’t like to talk about death, and the casseroles stop coming in the door after two weeks or so, and people very quickly get back to what they’re doing — except the person who is grieving,” said Eunice Gorman, one of the signatories to “A National Response to Pandemic-Related Grief,” released May 12, and a member of the Canadian Grief Alliance.

Gorman is an associate professor in the department of interdisciplinary programs at King’s University College, the Catholic affiliate at Western University in London, Ontario. Her interest is thanatology, the scientific study of death and loss.

She sees an organization like the Canadian Virtual Hospice as a start, but said Canada needs to follow the lead of countries like Australia, where there is a clear national grief and bereavement strategy.

Deacon Boone said he is happy to see this initiative launched, particularly in raising awareness of the issue.

“Support for grief has always been lacking,” he said. “It is largely invisible until it happens to you and is personalized.”

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