As the homeless community grapples with an overdose crisis that is shaking the province, one advocate says it’s hard for the most vulnerable members of the community to properly grieve the loss of loved ones.
In recent weeks, Harvey Clause said two members of the homeless community were lost to overdoses within a day of each other. One of those was a man who left behind a wife – a married couple who had struggled to find housing.
“There have been a few of those, actually, the past year. It’s sad. I couldn’t picture losing a wife or somebody that close to you, especially when you’ve been together for awhile, and then you lose your partner. It’s a lonely experience,” Clause said.
The B.C. Coroners Service reports more than 1,510 people died of suspected overdoses last year, including 40 in Abbotsford. Although most overdoses occur in private residences, the homeless community is hit especially hard by the crisis, and Clause says it can be a challenge for those living on the streets to cope with the loss of a loved one.
Ted Leavitt, a registered clinical therapist with Connectivity Counselling in Abbotsford, says society more broadly is bad at grieving, in particular noting the general lack of time we give ourselves to process loss.
A few days of bereavement leave may be enough to grieve a more distant relative, but that same amount of time off, Leavitt says, should not suffice for the loss of a child, for instance.
“That’s such a western ideal in many ways – go to work; don’t think about it – when in reality, what we need to do is think about it. We need to process it. We need to make sense of it, work our way through the stages and ways of grieving,” said Leavitt, who previously worked in addictions treatment, often with people coming from homelessness.
But Clause, who in the past made his money by finding recycling or other items in garbage bins to sell, noted that there’s no bereavement leave for the homeless.
“Our work begins everyday when we start to get up on our feet and walk around the city,” Clause said.
Not taking the time to process the trauma is often what causes long-term issues, said Leavitt, who likened grieving on the streets to “battlefield grieving.”
“You don’t have time to grieve. You just have to survive, yourself,” Leavitt said. “What is important for someone to be able to experience trauma without it developing into post-traumatic stress disorder or creating dysfunction for them, is to have someone in their life who’s a stable person who can help them … to make sense of it.”
Without that process, Leavitt says people develop what is referred to as a “freeze response.” That response can bear the semblance of coping well with a traumatic experience, but in fact is often simply the brain suppressing the trauma.
“They can go through horrific things and appear to be unfazed by them,” Leavitt said.
“All that stuff just gets shoved down further and further and further. There’s a disconnection where they have this behaviour that’s designed to dampen the pain and they don’t necessarily know where the pain is coming from.”
Clause added that there’s often a risk of someone who has lost a loved one to use drugs alone, something harm reduction advocates have long strove to educate against, due to the potential for an overdose with no one around to revive or call for help.
But on the other hand, Clause notes that there’s no privacy for someone who lives in a tent or sleeps in a shelter and who wants to spend a bit of time on their own to grieve a loved one.
“It’s not like when my mom passed away, I had a place to go. I had my apartment to go back to,” Clause said, referring to a time before he was homeless, adding that having a home also often makes it easier to connect with family.
“Some of us have no family. The only people we have is ourselves, and we have nowhere to go.”