A provincial approach to grief and bereavement services

surrounding illicit drug toxicity deaths 

VANCOUVER, BC — March 10, 2022 | The BC Coroners Service – Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in BC 2021 Report launched on February 9, 2022, highlights the desperate need for special attention not only on drug overdose but supports services around illicit drugs as a whole. The toxicity in British Columbia caused an average of 6.1 deaths per day, greater than the number of deaths of all other unnatural causes combined. 2021 saw 2,224 suspected deaths from illicit drug toxicity, a 26% increase from 2020. Given that each death directly impacts nine people on average (1,2), approximately 20,016 British Columbians suffered from grief and bereavement due to illicit drug use.

In response to the recent BC Coroners Service Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in BC 2021 Report, the province’s Chief Coroner is calling for an end to old prevention measures that have failed, highlighting the need for a significant shift in how we treat people who use drugs and their loved ones who support them. Additionally, the BC Hospice Palliative Care Association (BCHPCA) is calling for a provincial and community approach around grief and bereavement services supporting those needing direct care and families of loved ones who have died from illicit drug use.

“While the Government of BC has announced pandemic and opioid-related investments in regards to mental health, grief remains outside the mandate of the Canadian Mental Health Commission and mental health associations. To date, there has been no acknowledgement of unresolved or complicated grief as an additional mental health crisis by the Government of BC, no planning to address the severe shortage in grief services, nor recognition of the long range impact that failing to act will have on our communities and the economy”, says Pablita Thomas, BCHPCA Executive Director.

It is well known that traumatic events, including losses and grief, increase the risk of substance use and addiction in an attempt to reduce tension and the complexities of grief. Compounding the matter, individuals who abuse substances are less able to cope with traumatic events, consequently complicating grief.

We not only see grief as potential causation of illicit drug use but also as an outcome experienced after the death of a loved one resulting from drug toxicity. Friends and family of those using substances often experience many losses throughout the course of their loved one’s addiction: the loss of the person they knew before their addiction took hold, the anxiety and anticipation of their possible death by overdose, the heartbreak of not being able to help their loved one heal, and the unacknowledged grief by others due to the stigma of drug use. 

The BCHPCA supports the position of the BC Chief Coroner, in calling for measures that support those suffering from drug use, but would also like to ensure measures around grief, bereavement and family supports are all-encompassing in a service delivery model that based on education, training and awareness on the complicated and complex grief associated with traumatic loss around deaths incurred by drug overdose.

The grief surrounding illicit drug use is multi-dimensional and in a time filled with crisis and loss, there is an overwhelming need for grief and bereavement support. Continuing on from the Grief, Bereavement & Mental Health Summit held in the fall of 2021, the BC Hospice Palliative Care Association will be continuing conversations and education on grief by hosting a four day virtual educational series on the Complexities of Grief in our Communities. Focusing on Traumatic Loss and Prolonged Grief Disorder, the sessions will explore how grief and bereavement services can support community members who are impacted by a death due to overdose. 

  • Support for loved ones who have experienced traumatic loss from death due to overdose and the stigma associated with this type of death.
  • Preventative measures dealing with one of the root causes of drug addiction and grief due to losses (including losses other then death) that can transform into a stress-related disorder, Prolonged Grief Disorder.
  • Practical tips on how to support people experiencing complicated grief and self-care practices to  allow practitioners to continue to provide this type of intensive work.
  • Education about PEACH (Palliative Education and Care for the Homeless) program and how they help to support people experiencing structural vulnerability in their community with harm reduction, trauma informed care, and an anti-racism approach.

Both the public and professionals are invited to join the BCHPCA Spring Lunch & Learn Webinar Series: Complexities of Grief in our Communities. Sessions will be held virtually March 14th to 17th, from 12 pm to 1 pm Pacific Standard Time.  

The distinguished speakers will catalyze conversations on supporting vulnerable populations through traumatic loss and prolonged grief disorder with a hospice palliative care perspective. Hospice Palliative Care organizations in BC are uniquely positioned to support the complexities of grief in our communities, but continuing education and government funding play a crucial role in increasing their capacity to deliver these valuable services; services that will help support the illicit drug crisis in British Columbia.

1. BC Center for Disease Control. British Columbia (BC) COVID-19 Situation Report

Week 25: June 20 – June 26, 2021. 2021, July [cited 2022 March 7]. Available from:

View Report

2. Canadian Grief Alliance. Addressing the deficit in grief services: A response to

pandemic-related grief. Written Submission to the Pre-budget Consultations for

the 2021-22 Federal Budget. 2020, Aug 1 cited 2022 March 7]. Available from:

View Report