As COVID-19 restrictions lift, grief literacy can help us support those around us

·5 min read
<span class="caption">Concerns have been raised over grief being severely, negatively impacted by the pandemic.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:(Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection)">(Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection)</a>, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY-ND">CC BY-ND</a></span>
Concerns have been raised over grief being severely, negatively impacted by the pandemic. (Zackary Drucker/The Gender Spectrum Collection), CC BY-ND

COVID-19 has brought about many losses and many deaths.

The number of deaths worldwide has reached almost four million, and 26,000 of those deaths are in Canada. The Canadian Grief Alliance’s grief counter estimates that there are more than three million Canadians grieving. Canadians are also experiencing countless other losses that are not deaths or death-related.

Concerns have been raised over grief being severely negatively impacted by the pandemic and the resulting restrictions. Some even say there may be a tsunami of grief.

Understanding this, we have undertaken a number of studies about Canadians’ grief. Some of the results of one study are discussed here. In addition, we offer some suggestions about how to better understand grief and to support those who are grieving.

Tsunami of grief?

We completed a study of more than 900 francophones (mostly in Québec) who experienced the death of someone during the pandemic. The project, Covideuil (deuil means grief in French) surveyed people between March and May 2021.

Most of the participants (77 per cent) were not able to be with the dying person, while many grievers (65 per cent) were not able to have people gather after the death of their loved one. Seventy-six per cent were not able to hold the funeral rituals they would have desired.

Some of those surveyed were able to create new or personalize older rituals — the study’s analysis is ongoing and we hope to share some of these creative approaches in the future.

Woman sitting on the floor crying with her hand on her face
The Canadian Grief Alliance’s grief counter estimates that there are more than three million Canadians grieving. (Claudia Wolff/Unsplash)

Our study revealed that the occurrence of complicated grief or prolonged grief, which refers to being stuck in a loss for long periods of time, is not as high as some predictions feared. But it is higher than in non-pandemic times.

The public health model of bereavement support suggests five to 10 per cent of grievers are at risk of developing complicated grief. Our study has demonstrated that about 15 per cent of participants may develop complicated grief.

Since there is no known study of Canadian grievers, we have to rely on international data. The 15 per cent of participants in our study is higher than pre-pandemic estimates. However, it is important to underline that those numbers mean that 85 per cent are not at risk of complicated grief.

Despite the increased numbers, can grief during the pandemic really be considered a tsunami?

Grief literacy

Understanding and normalizing grief can benefit everyone, from frontline health-care workers to children and educators as well as those who have experienced a death during the pandemic. The grief literacy movement aims to increase everyone’s ability to recognize grief and become more proficient in supporting ourselves and others.

We define grief literacy as the ability to understand loss and act upon that understanding. It is multi-dimensional in that it includes “knowledge to facilitate understanding and reflection, skills to enable action and values to inspire compassion and care.”

The knowledge, skills and values are specific to the social contexts that directly influence how we grieve. This definition includes attending to socio-cultural diversities, inequities and privileges that shape grief experiences.

As pandemic restrictions are being lifted, each one of us may feel grief in new ways. Perhaps we are able to spend time with someone whose partner died, or we return to a workplace with missing co-workers — either deceased or laid off. Grief literacy can help us anticipate and attend to these possibilities.

Coping with grief

What can we do to better respond to grief here in Canada?

First, we need to begin with ourselves by recognizing and acknowledging our own grief. There is so much shame and stigma surrounding grief — that feeling of Am I doing it right? — especially given the impossible social norm that tells us we need to be productive and happy.

We have become estranged from an essential component of the human condition: honouring our embodied responses to loss. Countering these pressures, we need to integrate the knowledge that grief is a normal, natural response to loss and there is nothing to be ashamed of.

We must learn how to tend to our personal sorrow with gentleness and understand the nature of grief, especially by turning inward. We can tap into our compassion and humility as we turn back outward to support others.

An important piece is knowing that it is natural to feel nervous and uncomfortable in this work.

A group of people support a grieving man
We have become estranged from an essential component of the human condition: honouring our embodied responses to loss. (Shutterstock)

We have collectively adopted a problematic social script that actually hurts grievers. From the perspective of those who are grieving, support usually dissipates quickly and they feel abandoned or experience silence from people around them.

With family, friends, co-workers and neighbours, share a memory of the person who has died. Do not be afraid to talk about the person for fear of reminding the grieving person of their loss. They are very aware of it as they live the daily reality. It is fine to simply say that you do not know what to say and that you are there for them.

With restrictions easing and the ability to gather increasing, we need to better understand and respond to the impact of the pandemic and explore our collective and individual grief. We need to stop neglecting it at the expense of our well-being and ability to connect with others.

A shift is required for developing grief literacy in Canada and internationally. It must include addressing context-specific barriers and opportunities for change, generating more inclusive spaces for diverse responses to loss and accepting grief as something normal that we all experience throughout life.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Susan Cadell, University of Waterloo; Jacques Cherblanc, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC); Karima Joy, University of Toronto, and Mary Ellen Macdonald, McGill University.

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Susan Cadell receives funding from SSHRC and CIHR.

Jacques Cherblanc receives funding from RISUQ ( for the Covideuil project.

Karima Joy receives funding as a PhD Candidate from the University of Toronto (2021-2022) and previously a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral Scholarship (2016-2020). She is affiliated with the University of Toronto's Grief Education Program launching Fall 2021.

Mary Ellen Macdonald receives funding from CIHR, FRQS, and SSHRC. She is affiliated with McGill University.

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