Few outlets for grief as COVID-19 death toll surpasses 10,000 in Canada

By | October 27, 2020

TORONTO — On March 8, a man in his 80s died in a B.C. care home, the very first Canadian victim of a new virus sweeping across the globe.

Seven months later, we have passed a tragic milestone: more than 10,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Canada.

Hidden behind this number is not only the thousands of individual stories of loss, but also the countless loved ones left behind to struggle with their grief in a time when families cannot gather to properly mourn.

COVID-19 has torn through Canada’s landscape, causing upheaval in the health care system, in schools, in families and workplaces.

The victims range from the young to the old, from care home residents to doctors working tirelessly in hospitals. Many died of the virus before its severity was fully grasped by the population.

A GLIMPSE OF THE TOLL

Just one of the 10,000 victims is Sean Cunnington, a 51-year-old musician, father and husband who was killed by COVID-19 in March.

His wife, Teri Cunnington, described him as “the most caring, most genuine, loving person.”

“You know, he was my everything,” she told CTV News.

She was among the first to warn of the tragic effects of the disease after she lost her husband, urging people to take the virus seriously and follow health precautions.

“Anybody can catch this disease,” she said. “Anybody can.”

Older adults tend to have more severe cases, but young people can still be killed by the novel coronavirus.

In Quebec, a community was stunned when 19-year-old Don Beni Kabangu Nsapu was taken by the virus in August.

The teenager had come to Canada in 2015 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was “an angel,” according to his high school soccer coach, Stephane Kalonga.

“You cannot ask for a better son, or a better little brother, or better guy than Don Beni,” Kalonga said.

Some had battled other conditions or health issues for years before COVID-19 came along.

When 57-year-old Deb Diemer started feeling unwell a few weeks after a successful kidney transplant, her family thought it was nothing.

“We just thought it was a simple cold she had,” her husband, Mike Diemer, told CTV News.

Deb had been through a lot and always come out on top before, having received a double-lung transplant in 2002 — 16 years after being diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension.

Her husband said that even when they knew it was COVID-19, “we thought we had this beat.”

Nine days after she tested positive, she died in her Calgary home.

“She was a woman in her 50s with pre-existing conditions,” Mike Diemer said. “I’m not going to let her be reduced to that, a statistic.”

Another group of people put at a higher risk of contracting the virus is the very people trying to stop it.

After decades of work in the medical field, Dr. Abubakar Notiar died of COVID-19 at 80 years old.

“This virus is deadly, and it took a giant from our lives,” his son, Dr. Reza Notiar, told CTV News.

He emphasized that his father, who worked for 50 years in Kenya providing healthcare to those who couldn’t afford it, was someone who always put others first.

“He, over half a century, took care of tens of thousands of people for free.”

There have been countless deaths among those working on the front lines of this pandemic, sometimes without proper equipment or protection themselves.

Like 61-year-old Leonard Rodriques, a personal support worker who died in May, and had to buy his own personal protective equipment (PPE) from the dollar store.

The day he died, his wife found him motionless in their bedroom.

“I saw him flat on his back with the phone in his hand and the glasses were all twisted on his face,” Dorothy Rodriques said.

The family performed CPR on him until paramedics arrived, but nothing could be done.

“My son is screaming, ‘Dad, don’t leave us,’” Dorothy recalled.

His daughter, Terena, told CTV News that “there are so many PSWs like him who are not being protected.

“My Dad’s dead. Gone.”

These are just a few of the people who have been struck down by the virus.

THE GRIEF OF THOSE LEFT BEHIND

But despite the thousands of Canadians dying due to this virus, this massive grief has been largely invisible — COVID-19 has cancelled funerals, driven families indoors and made it harder to share the pain or celebrate the lives of those who passed away.

Grief counsellors and psychologist say we need outlets and support.

“This is absolutely unprecedented,” Shelly Cory, executive director of the Canadian Virtual Hospice, told CTV News.

The Canadian Virtual Hospice provides resources such as MyGrief.ca and KidsGrief.ca to help families, kids and people deal with grief and subjects around palliative care and advanced illness.

According to Cory, since the pandemic started, inquiries and requests for help through their MyGrief.ca platform have increased by 270 per cent compared to last year.

“It worries me for the people who aren’t getting the support and it worries me for society, because when grief isn’t well supported, then it can slide into depression and thoughts of suicide,” Cory said.

A July study looking at the ripple effect of grief due to COVID-19 showed that for every person who died of COVID-19, an average of around nine people are left to shoulder the loss.

“So when we do the math, that’s a significant number of Canadians who are being impacted,” Cory said. “When we do the math further for all the people who are grieving during this period, whose grief is impacted, that number goes up to close to 1.3 million Canadians who in the last six, seven months have [experienced this grief].”

This number doesn’t even include the thousands of other deaths from other causes this year, and the families and friends whose grieving process for those deaths was disrupted by the inability to gather and mourn together because of public health restrictions.

“We’re not able to undertake all those rituals that we usually undertake when someone’s dying,” Cory said. “So we’re not able to gather at the bedside, to support both the person who’s dying and each other, so that human connection is being severed, and that human connection is so critical.”

Some victims of COVID-19 have said their final goodbyes to their loved ones over a video call before being intubated. Others have died alone in hospital, weeks after they last saw the face of a family member or friend.

Mubarak Popat, a 77-year-old who contracted COVID-19 in the U.K. in early March, died in the very same hospital that his daughter and son-in-law both worked at in Toronto. Despite working as doctors in the hospital he was a patient in, they were unable to be with him in his final moments.

“It was unimaginably hard and unimaginably traumatizing,” his daughter, Noreen, told CTV News. “It is going to take a long time to work through the feelings having gone through that.”

Cory said that when people are unable to have that human connection at the end of a loved one’s life, it can prolong and complicate the grief due to the lack of closure.

“That increases the risk of depression of anxiety and thoughts about suicide,” she said. “So it’s incredibly important for us to be able to respond to that.”

Across the country, and the globe, there are individual efforts to mark this invisible grief, such as the COVID-19 Memorial Blanket Project.

The monumental project will stitch together 12-inch squares emblazoned with the names of all of those lost, if the families give their consent.

“We are creating one individual square for every single person that we’ve lost in Canada,” Heather Breadner, one of the knitters behind the project, told CTV News.

They are aiming to be able to show the art installation in January of 2021, on the anniversary of the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Canada, but will have to quilt quickly. Already, the blanket is set to be more than 9,000 square feet and weigh approximately 680 kilograms, according to their website.

“Family members in various provinces can visit it, they can touch that square […] and know that somebody was thinking of them, and knit that square to represent their family member or their loved one that was lost,” Breadner said.

Grief is distinct from depression and stress, although both can result from grief, which means that resources aimed at supporting mental health can sometimes leave out those who are stricken with grief and struggling to handle it.

With grieving rituals so disrupted by COVID-19, the Canadian Virtual Hospice created the Canadian Grief Alliance (CGA), a group of national leaders in grief who are working to bolster grief services. They have almost one thousand organizations, both regional and national, and individuals signed up.

CGA submitted a proposal to Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 12, outlining an action plan to help support grieving Canadians that included investing in national grief programs and launching public awareness campaigns — but say they have not received a concrete response.

“The measure of a country is how it responds in its darkest days, and I’m really concerned by the fact that there isn’t a national response by the government to the lack of grief services, and for people who are grieving,” Cory said.

“These are the darkest days.”  

With files from Ryan Flanagan

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