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Grieving Alone, Together: A Community’s Journey of Healing in Isolation

After Canada’s deadliest mass shooting, Nova Scotians are left to confront their grief at home—and online

Portapique, a tiny rural community in Colchester County, Nova Scotia (NS), is the last place anyone would expect Canada’s deadliest mass shooting to take place – let alone during a global pandemic. But on 18 April, a gunman disguised as a police officer began a 12-hour killing spree, taking the lives of 22 people. 

Nova Scotia, Canada’s second-smallest province by area, has a population of just under one million people. Portapique is home to only 100 year-round residents. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, this tight-knit community was left wondering how to express their grief in isolation.

Social media support

The day after the shooting, Colchester County local Tiff Ward, along with other community members, launched the Facebook group, “Colchester – Supporting our Communities.” In Canada, prohibitions on large gatherings and social distancing measures have made it nearly impossible to hold funerals or vigils. The community Facebook page became a place where Nova Scotians could express their grief online. 

On 24 April, the page’s virtual vigil – entitled “Nova Scotia Remembers” – was streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and on TV stations across the province.

“[The shooting] was the worst possible thing that could have happened,” says Ward, “but it was really great to see the rest of our country come together and share in our grief, and to help us support the families that are at the centre of this tragedy. Because that was the whole idea, to communicate to the families that we were there, even though they couldn’t see us.”

The virtual vigil featured performances from prominent Nova Scotian musicians, including renowned fiddler Natalie MacMaster. On a split-screen, MacMaster played alongside a video of 17-year-old shooting victim Emily Tuck playing the fiddle, recorded just weeks before she died.

Kelly MacArthur, who hails from Cape Breton, NS, explains that in times of crisis, Nova Scotians often turn to music and dance. “I think it’s all we know how to do,” she says. MacArthur teaches Highland dancing, a Scottish tradition that is popular in Nova Scotia. Though social distancing measures made it difficult to join together in person, MacArthur and her dance team created a tribute video to the victims’ families. that they shared through the Colchester Facebook page.

“To have the biggest tragedy happen in your tiny province during a time where you’re locked in your house – it almost feels like it didn’t really happen. It’s a very surreal feeling, and it’s definitely touched everybody.”

Kelly MacArthur

Barely a week after the mass shooting, the province suffered another loss on 29 April when 23-year old Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough, a marine system engineering officer from Nova Scotia, was killed in a NATO helicopter crash off the coast of Greece. 

Then, on 17 May, a Canadian Forces Snowbird plane crashed in Kamloops, British Columbia, killing another Nova Scotian, Captain Jenn Casey. The Snowbirds, an air show demonstration team, were on a cross-country flyover tour to raise spirits amid COVID-19. 

Emotional recovery after loss

Dealing with so much loss during a global crisis presents challenges to the grieving process, according to Serena Lewis, bereavement, grief, and wellness coordinator for the Nova Scotia Health Authority.  

“People are becoming saturated with grief,” explains Lewis, who lives near Portapique and knew several of the shooting victims. 

Though the NS Health Authority currently provides counselling services via phone or video-calling, Lewis believes the province needs greater long-term grief support. “Because our communities are going to be grieving for a long time,” she says.

Lewis has joined the Canadian Grief Alliance, a coalition of experts asking all levels of government to create better grief services across the country, including better support for workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis and for those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic.

“I often think that grief really thrusts us into change,” says Lewis. She believes dealing with loss on such a large scale will require people across Nova Scotia, and the world more generally, to change the way we communicate about grief. “We’re not good at talking about death,” says Lewis. “And I think we really have to tend to that.”

“When it’s mentionable, it’s manageable,” she says. “But we can’t move anywhere when we stay in silence.”

More than a month after the shooting in Portapique, Tiff Ward and the “Colchester – Supporting our Communities” group are preparing to move forward. The group is launching a non-profit called the Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy Society, aiming to support education for the victims’ children, champion for long-term grief and mental health support, and create a permanent memorial. Ward hopes the group’s efforts will help the community feel whole again.  

“I like to say, five years from now, I want the Wikipedia page to have what happened here at the very last paragraph, rather than the first one,” says Ward. “[The shooting] should be the last thing we know about Portapique. It has to be mentioned, it has to be noted, but it should never be a defining moment in our history.”

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