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When David MacInnis’s father was admitted to a Halifax hospital in the summer of 2007, the family braced for the worst. The prostate cancer that had been successfully treated nearly a decade earlier had returned and spread; exploratory surgery showed he now had advanced bladder cancer that would soon cause his kidneys to fail.

As Mr. MacInnis’s wife, mother and brother sat in the waiting room, he anxiously paced the hallway, locking eyes with the surgeon who eventually emerged from the operating room.

“The surgeon saw me, came over and said, ‘Here’s the situation: He’s probably got about five days left, and all we’re going to be able to do is control the pain,’” he recalled in an interview from Calgary.

“So I started asking a series of questions, and he cut me off, saying, ‘I don’t have time.’ I said, ‘Well, are you at least going to come so that you can tell my mother what you found?’ ‘No, that’s your job now. I’ve told you, and you’re the man of the family,’ was his quote. And he turned on his heel and walked through the doors, never to be seen again.”

Sixteen years later, it still upsets the now-retired oil executive to recall that moment – the callousness that triggered a wave of shock and disbelief, followed by anger and profound sadness. It’s also why he believes Canada needs to do better at responding to grief and bereavement.

Earlier this month, Ottawa announced $1-million for the Canadian Grief Alliance (CGA), in partnership with the Canadian Virtual Hospice and the Canadian Alliance for Children’s Grief, to develop resources and a national awareness campaign to support grieving families and friends.

The CGA is a network of grief specialists and national and regional health organizations formed in the spring of 2020, initially to raise awareness of the impact of pandemic deaths. Since its inception, it has called for a national grief strategy, investments in grief research and a public awareness campaign to increase Canadians’ understanding of grief and healthy coping strategies.

It will use the federal money to conduct public consultations with Canadians who have experienced loss – Mr. MacInnis is a member of the consultation committee – and deliver an action plan to the government in 2025.

CGA co-chair Paul Adams said he is hopeful the action plan requested by the government will inform national and provincial guidance on grief strategies.

“When I started on these consultations, I was really thinking that, from my own point of view, by the end of it I would have an understanding of the system of grief services in this country,” he said in an interview from Ottawa.

“What I realized is that there is no system. There are a bunch of people doing great things – there are organizations, individuals in some places, hospices, in some cases government agencies – but it’s not in any sense comprehensive.”

Mr. Adams experienced the challenges of finding supports firsthand during his wife’s battle with breast cancer. Their teenage children struggled both before and after her death, and he found himself sublimating his own feelings of grief and isolation into looking after them.

In his opinion, a national grief strategy would include public education and a range of formal services, from “church basement type groups” to bereavement-specific counselling.

Mr. MacInnis said it wasn’t until a couple of years after his father’s death, when his mother-in-law’s health was failing, that he finally found support for his grief – inadvertently.

“Quite frankly, I was having some [other] issues and seeking counselling and talked to my counsellor about what had been going on, broadly, in my life,” he said. “It was only her prompting that got me to think, ‘Hang on, there’s more to the grieving that’s going on for me than I thought.’ It uncovered a lot and really helped. But it was coincidental.”

Mr. MacInnis said he would welcome grief-specific training in health care settings and informational resources for patients and their families.

“Honestly, even if someone had handed me a pamphlet or a one-pager on what to expect in the palliative process or, you know, as a caregiver to someone in end stage of life, even something like that would have been helpful,” he said.

Andrea Warnick, a Guelph, Ont.-based registered nurse and registered psychotherapist who specializes in grief and bereavement, said unaddressed grief can manifest in unexpected ways, affecting relationships, feeding mental health conditions and causing outbursts of anger. Ms. Warnick said grief is a natural human process, but many people still feel an existential discomfort with the idea of death that causes them to retreat.

Asked how institutions could improve grief literacy, she cited lunch-hour or after-school grief groups in schools, as well as workplaces offering bereavement days and bringing in professionals for education sessions. Health care training could include specific modules on how to provide support to families – something she says was nonexistent when she was in nursing school in the 1990s and hasn’t changed much since.

She says public education could also better equip individuals to support grieving friends and colleagues.

“One of the big things that I find really important is to give people the opportunity to talk about the people who died, to still use the name of the person who died,” she said. “Show up for the long haul, listen and be willing to listen. The job is not to fix the pain of the person who’s grieving, but rather bear witness to it.”

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