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Coping with grief, tragedy, loss, and more during a pandemic

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When Margaret Mauger co-founded a not-for-profit counselling service last January in Shubenacadie, she carved out a day a week to provide free therapy sessions for people suffering from trauma.

Now, almost a year later, she’s up to three days, as a year of inconceivable loss – from the tragic Portapique mass shooting to the COVID-19 pandemic – takes a toll on the mental health of Nova Scotians.

“It’s just been unimaginable,” said Mauger, a certified trauma counselling therapist with more than a decade of experience. “Nobody ever would have thought we would wake up one day and all of the sudden the way we conduct ourselves and live in the world is upside down.”

Her clients range from people affected directly by the April shooting to others suffering financial hardship and fallout from the pandemic over the past ten months, and some with sex abuse and other trauma triggered by isolation.

For many Nova Scotians, 2020 has felt like a pandemic of grief, with one tragic loss after another:

  • About a month after the province went into lockdown to try and contain the spread of the coronavirus in mid-March, the Portapique shooting claimed the lives of 22 victims and an unborn child.
  • Two weeks later, on April 29, a Cyclone helicopter crash in Greece resulted in the deaths of six members of the armed forces, including Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough from Halifax, Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke from Truro, and Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald from New Glasgow.
  • On May 6, three-year-old Dylan Ehler went missing from his grandmother’s house in Truro. His boots were found in a brook that leads to Salmon River, which eventually leads to the Bay of Fundy. He is presumed drowned and his body has never been found.
  • On May 17, a fatal Snowbirds crash claimed the life of Capt. Jennifer Casey of Halifax.
  • On Dec. 16, six crew members aboard a scallop dragger went missing in the Bay of Fundy on their way back to port in Digby. One body has been recovered and the remaining five fishermen are believed drowned.

“You’d be very hard pressed not to be touched by an aspect of grief this year,” said Serena Lewis, grief and bereavement lead for the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

“A pandemic of fatigue and weariness is setting in for many. People are getting saturated with a lot of sadness.”

With so many public tragedies, some people are minimizing their grief by thinking their loss isn’t as great as someone else’s, she says.

“It’s one of the things I noticed this year. We don’t mean to, but it’s an internal comparison,” she said. “My heart aches for people who have quietly had losses that have been underacknowledged because rituals – funerals, dropping off casseroles, and sitting and having tea – have been changed because of COVID.”

It’s important not to bury grief, she says.

“When it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

While the coronavirus will have a vaccination, grief never goes away, Lewis says.

“There’s no getting over it or getting around it, you have to get through it.”

Feelings of grief aren’t confined to tragic losses of life. People are also grieving as their spouses go into long-term care facilities, over financial hardship, and the seemingly simple loss of being able to move freely about, such as going to a gym or restaurant, getting a haircut, and gathering with friends and family.

“People automatically think that grief is about losing someone,” said Stacey Harrison, executive director of the Colchester East Hants Hospice Society. “But if you’re not able to see your family or having financial difficulties, maybe what you’re feeling is not depression, but grief.”

With little opportunity for support groups to meet amid the coronavirus pandemic, the hospice is finding new ways to try and meet the community’s needs.

That includes simple things like making a grief booklet downloadable on the grassroot organization’s website and the creation of a grief Christmas tree ornament by one of its social workers.

A big part of the effort is normalizing what grief looks like.

“You can grieve a lot of things, but it’s not always top of mind. It’s a part of life and everybody handles it differently,” said Harrison. “You can talk to a person and they say, ‘I lost somebody six months ago and I’m still crying.’ The journey is different for everybody.”

Rev. Valerie Kingsbury, of First United Church in Truro, says restrictions on being able to together in person has had a huge impact on the ability to grieve.

“However, we’ve shown that we can be resilient, we can still support one other and surround one another in love, whether it’s meeting online, emailing, picking up the phone, or dropping off food or cards to our neighbours,” she said. “We have found innovative ways of still being together. That’s something we can celebrate because we easily could have done the opposite.”

The Christmas holidays – already a tough time for some – will be particularly difficult this year for many.

“As a society, we’ve put a huge emphasis on gathering with family and friends during the Christmas season,” said Kingsbury. “With those social norms gone, it’s another source of grief.”

She’s concerned there aren’t enough resources to help people cope.

“I see people who don’t normally struggle with mental health issues like depression or anxiety are right now with the rollercoaster that we have been on,” she said. “Counseling is wonderful, but counseling costs money. Unfortunately, many of the people who are dealing with mental health issues are also dealing with financial struggles.”

Mauger echoed that concern as she awaits word of possible funding for her not-for-profit counselling service, After Trauma Empowerment Network (ATEN).

She’s cut her private practice back to one day a week and been relying on savings and her husband’s income to help her provide free service to five or six clients a day.

“It’s a service that’s needed and I can do it right now,” said Mauger, who spent hundreds of hours stitching a “Nova Scotia Strong” quilt to commemorate the mass shooting that was raffled off to raise funding for her not-for-profit. “I’m not sure how much longer I can sustain it. I have an inner sense it will work out.”