Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Raheela Ayaz at home in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Raheela Ayaz is determined to get some work done, but whenever she opens her laptop, she finds herself sobbing.

Her mind refuses to settle on anything other than her late husband Mukhtar Ahmed, the body-building truck driver – and later, doting father – she fell in love with just 2½ years before he died of COVID-19 in late April. He was 37.

“Every day I am promising myself, ‘I’ll start a new day,’” Ms. Ayaz, 38, said, adding that each day, something she sees can readily remind her of Mr. Ahmed and she misses him all over again. “It will take time.”

While Ms. Ayaz and her 18-month-old son, Issa, mourn inside their Etobicoke condo, a new dawn is breaking outside.

Open this photo in gallery:

Raheela Ayaz holds a photograph of her and her late husband, Mukhtar Ahmed, at home in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Pandemic restrictions are easing in Ontario, allowing the province to join the rest of Canada in tiptoeing toward normal life. Across the country, vaccinations are skyrocketing, infections are plummeting and patios are packed with people soaking up the joy of being together.

It’s a disorienting moment for the bereaved – especially those, like Ms. Ayaz, who lost a loved one during the third wave, when vaccination was in sight but still out of reach for most young Canadians.

In Canada, 26,450 people are known to have died of COVID-19 as of July 13. If each had an average of nine close relatives – as one U.S. study tracking COVID-19 loss of kin estimated – then around 238,000 Canadians may be in mourning as the country reopens.

The toll is higher if you include those who died of something other than COVID-19 during the pandemic, when rituals such as funerals and in-person goodbyes were disrupted for everyone, regardless of the cause of death.

Grief counsellor Darcy Harris, a professor of thanatology (or bereavement studies), at Western University in London, Ont., likens this moment to the aftermath of a hurricane. A native of Florida, she remembers how relief would wash over her at the end of a major storm.

“Then you’d walk out the front door and see everything: Trees knocked over and just destruction everywhere,” she said. “The grieving process just starts when the hurricane is over, and I think that’s what we’re going to see here.”

In the United States, bereavement researchers have found the unusual circumstances of COVID-19 deaths – the abbreviated farewells over Zoom, the tiny funerals with masked mourners, the “what ifs” hanging over many of the deaths – were strongly linked to prolonged grief.

One study of 831 U.S. adults who lost a close relative to COVID-19, published last year in the journal Death Studies, found an “alarming” 66 per cent scored above an established cutoff for “dysfunctional” pandemic grief. More debilitating than typical mourning, dysfunctional grief renders people unable to perform everyday tasks and can lead to drug and alcohol abuse or thoughts of suicide.

In a related paper, psychology professors Sherman Lee of Christopher Newport University in Virginia and Robert Neimeyer of the University of Memphis warned of “a second ‘shadow’ pandemic following in the wake of the first, namely a global upsurge in anguishing grief arising from the enormous loss of life from the disease in many countries.”

In Canada, grief and bereavement specialists are asking for more help for mourners caught in that upsurge, including more funding for grief counselling, which is generally not covered by provincial health plans. Led by the Canadian Virtual Hospice, they have formed the Canadian Grief Alliance with the support of such groups as the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association.

Andrea Warnick, a Guelph-based grief counsellor who works with the alliance, said pandemic-related grief is common in her practice, even among families unscathed by the virus itself. People who lost loved ones to cancer, ALS, opioid overdoses and suicides during the pandemic were also denied proper goodbyes and funerals, she said.

“I’ve worked with parents who have had young children die and have said, ‘Not only did our young child die, but most of their lives were lived through COVID, and so our communities didn’t even get to know them,’” Ms. Warnick said. “That is deeply painful. These are things that absolutely shape and influence a person’s grief process.”

For Ms. Ayaz, there is an unfathomable amount of grief to process.

There is grief over the loss of her Etobicoke salon, a business she poured her heart into before she was forced to close it after losing money during its shutdown under Ontario’s strict public-health measures.

There is grief over the miscarriage she suffered a few days after sitting with Mr. Ahmed, who went by the English name Rod, as he died in the intensive-care unit of Toronto General Hospital on April 27.

There is grief over having to handle it all on her own, as her family lives in Pakistan.

“When the doctor told me, ‘We cannot save him,’” Ms. Ayaz recalled, weeping, “I said to the doctor, ‘I have nobody except him. I don’t have my family here – it’s only Rod. I’m pregnant. I have my baby. Please save him.’”

On top of that, Ms. Ayaz has to process the loss to her son of a father so in love with his only child that he had the boy’s name tattooed on his knuckles.

When Mr. Ahmed’s 75-year-old mother fell sick with COVID-19 in late March, Mr. Ahmed looked after her in her condo in Ajax, a suburb east of Toronto, during the day and came home at night to the one-bedroom basement apartment in Brampton that he shared with Ms. Ayaz and their son.

Mr. Ahmed, a trucker who delivered medications to pharmacies, returned nightly because he couldn’t stand to be away from Issa, Ms. Ayaz said through tears. She and Issa both caught COVID-19, as did her father-in-law and brother-in-law.

For other families, pandemic grief is deepened by the conviction that something more could have been done to save the people they loved.

That possibility haunts Brampton, Ont., resident Manmeen Kaur Oberoi. She lost her son, Harmandeep Singh Oberoi, a 36-year-old team leader at a Canadian Tire warehouse, to the virus on May 3. His brother, Ramandeep, said Mr. Oberoi was such a gentle soul that “we used to call him ‘Harmless.’”

After Mr. Oberoi tested positive for COVID-19, the emergency department at the local hospital, Brampton Civic, sent him home twice without admitting him, Ms. Oberoi said. (She and her husband had also tested positive in April. Ms. Oberoi says she believes she caught the virus while visiting her mother, who died of cancer on April 20, at Brampton Civic.)

On the second occasion, Mr. Oberoi sat for hours in the emergency department after being taken there in an ambulance.

His mother, recalling a phone call with a nurse that night, said she felt anxious as she was told there were many COVID patients who had arrived before her son. The nurse said she didn’t know how many others would die. Hearing that, Ms. Oberoi pleaded with the the nurse to help her son.

The hospital gave him oxygen, anti-anxiety medication, a puffer for his asthma and sent him home early on the morning of May 3. Later that day, he deteriorated so rapidly that paramedics had to be called again. His mother remembers frantically searching for her son’s health card during what would be his last moments at home.

Mr. Oberoi passed out in the ambulance and died at Brampton Civic.

“This is what is tormenting me now,” Ms. Oberoi said. Ms. Oberoi is channelling her grief into improving conditions at Brampton Civic, which has been historically underfunded and was among the hardest-hit in the country during the pandemic.

Emma Murphy, a spokeswoman for William Osler Health System, the network that oversees Brampton Civic, said in a statement that “in respect of patient privacy we cannot comment on any individual patient experience, though we take matters of this nature very seriously and have engaged with the [Oberoi] family. A comprehensive care review has occurred in accordance with our patient relations processes.”

With so much complicated grief beneath the surface of Canada’s comeback from COVID, a collective effort to memorialize those who have died during the pandemic could help, said Esyllt Jones, a University of Manitoba historian who has written extensively about the 1918-19 flu pandemic.

Overshadowed by the end of the First World War, the period of the Great Influenza is often dubbed “the forgotten pandemic,” she said.

“I really hope that in this moment we do a better job of trying to understand how the traumatic nature of the pandemic might follow people over time, rather than just trying to push past it.”

For now, Ms. Ayaz has little choice but to push past her own grief. She has bills to pay (debts gobbled up the $27,000 she raised through GoFundMe after her husband’s death), a little boy to raise and a college course in social media and digital marketing to finish.

“I’m trying to stand up on my feet, because now all the responsibilities are on me.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Raheela Ayaz with her 18-month-old son, Issa Mukhtar, at her home in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe