Ontario’s pandemic of grief

Thousands of Ontarians are grieving the deaths of loved ones both here and abroad. How do you cope with loss from six feet — or thousands of miles — apart?
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Mar 17, 2021
Emmy Pantin stands in the Pacific Ocean on the day she spread her mother’s ashes there. (Akira Nishihata)



Last June, Emmy Pantin flew to Seattle to care for her mother, who was dying of endometrial cancer. When Pantin arrived in Washington State, the weather was hot — the first thing she wanted to do was take a swim in Lake Washington, but all the state’s parks were closed due to COVID-19. “The feeling of grief and sadness is so heavy,” she says. “But that feeling of weightlessness in water really helps you carry your grief, so that’s what I wanted.”

Pantin’s sister, who was also caring for their mother, describes their situation as having been a “lockdown within a lockdown.” They couldn’t leave their mom alone. Emily Cartwright died on July 20.

a woman in a bed surrounded by family
Emmy Pantin (back, left) with her siblings and her mother, Emily Cartwright (middle), in Seattle in July. (Courtesy of Emmy Pantin)

Nearly eight months later, the Toronto-based community artist is reflecting on what it means to grieve amid a pandemic that has taken more than 2.5 million lives around the globe. “Grief is already isolating, and then you’re supposed to isolate on top of that because of COVID,” Pantin says. “It took me about five months to get the grief to a place where I could manage it.”

More than 2.8 million Canadians are estimated to be grieving a death during COVID-19. That number is based on a recent study from Pennsylvania State University that found that each death directly affects nine people. Grief is a natural part of life, but experts warn that grieving during the isolation of the pandemic — without many familiar rituals and support systems — may come with unforeseen, and lasting, consequences.

In May, the Canadian Grief Alliance, a national coalition of grief and bereavement professionals, called on the Canadian government to address the country’s growing demand for grief services. The group, consisting of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, palliative-care doctors, academics, and more than 150 organizations, created a proposal for “a national response to pandemic-related grief“ focused on increasing resources and awareness. In December, two members of the alliance wrote an opinion piece in which they stated that “there is no vaccine for grief” — a motto some practitioners have now adopted to bring attention to what they see as a mounting crisis of unsupported grief.

“Grief isn’t a mental-health condition; it is a natural response to a significant loss in your life,” says grief therapist and CGA member Andrea Warnick. “But, without the right support, grief can become complicated and can increase the risk of mental-health conditions. I am concerned right now because of the barriers to a healthy grief process — that we’re going to see more of that.”

Experts indicate that touch, for instance, is a part of the healthy grieving process for many people and yet another coping mechanism many grievers have been deprived of. “All of the ways in which we comfort each other by our non-verbal behaviour and our physical presence — it’s not the same over a screen,” says Carrie Arnold, assistant professor of thanatology (the scientific study of death and loss) at King’s University College, Western University.

“I wish I could have squeezed my father’s hand during the funeral,” says Christopher Yip, who watched over Zoom, from his home in Toronto, as a small group of his family gathered in Edmonton to celebrate the life of his grandfather. “I think that would have meant a lot. Even though it’s not words, it’s just the presence. COVID has really pulled families apart.”

screenshot of mourners standing in front of a casket
Christopher Yip live-streamed his grandfather’s Edmonton funeral from his home in Toronto. (Courtesy of Christopher Yip)

At 11:05 a.m. on November 23, Yip received a message from his mother in Edmonton telling him that his 96-year-old grandfather, Kam Kui Yip, had passed away. There was a COVID-19 outbreak in the long-term-care facility where Kam Kui was living, and he was one of the first residents to contract the virus. “It kept spreading in the elderly care centre, and several members of our church also lost their grandparents,” he says. “And so the community suffered all at once.” Given Kam Kui’s age and the level of assistance he had required in recent years, his death wasn’t completely unexpected, Yip says — it was his cause of death that came as a shock: “It put the whole pandemic in a different light. It pulled the rug right out from under us.”

(left) old family photo; (right) a man and a woman
Christopher Yip and his cousins, aunt, and mother with his grandparents Kam Kui and Tak Fong Yip (left). Kam Kui Yip with his wife, Tak Fong Yip, who diedin 2016 (right). (Courtesy of Christopher Yip)

And the estimated number of grieving Canadians doesn’t include those mourning the loss of loved ones outside the country.

On February 10, Anna Paluch stayed awake until 2 a.m. to watch a livestream of her grandfather’s funeral in Warsaw. “We ended up not being able to livestream it, and so we just got pictures as it was happening. I lit a candle and put up a photo of him later on when I woke up,” says Paluch, a PhD student in Ottawa. If not for COVID-19, she says, her family “would have been on the first plane to attend the funeral.”

She and her family in Ottawa were able to have a small, private candlelit Mass to commemorate his life. “To me, lighting a candle is almost like sending a telegram,” she says. “I feel like it’s a one-way call saying, ‘Hi, I’m lighting this candle, and I’m sending my love to you.’”

Paluch does plan to visit the gravesite. In Poland, she says, a gravesite comes to represent the new and continued relationship one has with the deceased: “When I do eventually see the gravesite, I’ll be able to mourn properly and move on, but then he’ll live again, in a different manifestation … I would say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go visit Grandpa Ryszard.’”

(left) an older man and a girl dancing; (right) the same man and the woman, now older
The first photo ever taken of Anna Paluch and her grandfather, Ryszard S. (left), and the last photo they took together when she visited Poland in 2019 (right). (Courtesy of Anna Paluch)

Susan Cadell, a professor of social work at the University of Waterloo, says that “from a theoretical-practice point of view, we talk about grief now more in terms of continuing bonds. It’s about finding a new way to be in relationship with the person who’s died.”

Warnick stresses that finding ways to commemorate those who have died is a healthy response to grief and that, although grieving processes have been dramatically affected and fragmented during the pandemic, people should not put their grief “on the backburner.”

When grief goes unaddressed, experts say, it can lead to delayed, complicated, or cumulative grief. “Sometimes people are able to go months or years without recognizing or acknowledging the impact of grief. But it tends to show up, even if we’re not aware of it,” says Arnold of delayed grief. “If at this point in time, we do not have the capacity or ability to allow ourselves to grieve, it may be something that manifests later on with future losses,” she says, referring to the phenomenon of cumulative grief.

Complicated grief, she explains, is a type that get worse rather than better. “In a typical grief trajectory, we would expect a lot of intense emotion and then moments to adapt,” she says. “But let’s say a year goes by, and it’s not easing — we never get over grief, but we get through it — so the grief doesn’t ease but instead becomes much more complicated.” This type of grief is often associated with disrupted sleep and eating habits, she notes, and health, relationships, and work may suffer.

Experts aren’t yet certain what the long-term repercussions of the grief pandemic will be — but Naheed Dosani, a palliative-care doctor and health-justice activist, says that addressing it can’t wait: “One has to wonder what people will experience in [terms of] impacts on their mental health, their physical health, overall productivity, relationships and trust. This is a real, tangible issue, and we need to tangibly deal with it.”

Andrea Warnick speaks with Steve Paikin on The Agenda in this segment from April 21, 2020.In its proposal to manage the crisis, the Canadian Grief Alliance focuses on four main pillars or phases. The first is to create a national strategy to expand grief services, the second to expand existing services and resources, the third to boost awareness of and education for accessing services and resources, and the fourth to scale up capacity for research to guide a response to COVID-related grief.

“To date, there have been discussions with Health Canada but no commitment,” says Shelly Cory, the executive director of Canadian Virtual Hospice and a CGA founder. 

A spokesperson for Health Canada tells TVO.org via email that “palliative care, including grief and bereavement support, is a priority for the federal government” and referenced such resources as the Canadian Virtual Hospice and the Wellness Together Canada portal and funding support for mental-health initiatives and research. “Health Canada officials,” they write, “have responded to the Canadian Grief Alliance and have been engaging with them to discuss how to integrate elements of the proposal into the implementation of the Action Plan on Palliative Care.”

Moving forward, Cadell says, it’s important for people to focus less on the restrictions and more on the ways they are still able to show up for others who are grieving. She hopes we’ll learn how to talk about grief and the people who have died. “One of the biggest myths that I’d like to bust around grief is that if you’re grieving and I bring up that loss or tell a story about the person who died, I’m going to make you sad,” she says. “But the reality is you’re probably sad already and what I am doing if I talk about a memory … is I’m telling you that it’s okay to talk with me about that person.”

This goes hand in hand with what Warnick says is one of the most common fears of people who are dying — that they will be forgotten. She believes one of the reasons this fear is so common is that we don’t do a great job of talking about people who have died. “Throughout history, when we had strong traditions of continuing to talk and tell stories about people who have died, my guess is that people didn’t fear as much this whole piece around being forgotten.”

two masked woman holding candles and a photograph
Anna Paluch and her mother, Krystyna Paluch, stand outside their church in Ottawa, where they held a small Mass to commemorate the life of Krystyna’s father, Ryszard. (Shelby Lisk)

In late July, Pantin and her siblings sprinkled their mother’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean. She then boarded a plane back home to Toronto. “[My partner] lost her mom in 2012,” says Pantin. “She really knew the sorrow that it causes, and she said, ‘There is no way I’m going to let you [isolate alone].’” So after Pantin’s partner, Jennifer, and their two sons picked her up from the airport, they drove straight to a cottage that a neighbour had offered them for their 14-day quarantine.

Despite the pandemic, Pantin says, neighbours and friends still reached out to help: they

set up a “meal train” that saw each neighbour sign up for a day to bring the family a meal. “It’s very hard to meet your basic needs [while grieving] — to eat, to cook,” she says. “It’s surprising how much energy that actually takes, so people feeding us was really helpful.”

Dosani hopes that change will come from our personal and collective grief. “One has to wonder if we recognize grief and its importance in our lives, maybe we might be able to better appreciate what is important in our lives [in general],” he says. “I think grief has the potential, if harnessed and addressed in an appropriate way, to be a healing force for good — and the COVID-19 pandemic could catapult us in that direction.”

Resources for grieving Canadians:

This is one of a series of stories brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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