Friendship born out of grief: Calgarians touched by murder find solace in gym

Grieving mother and fitness professional say exercise helped pull them out of depression and anger.

Grieving mother and fitness professional say exercise helped pull them out of depression and anger

Lisa Madill and Geoff Starling began meeting at the gym in 2015, after both had lost a loved one to homicide. (Falice Chin/CBC)

When Lisa Madill found out her 25-year-old daughter had been murdered, she felt incapacitated with grief. The pain was made worse by the fact that Shannon had been missing for seven months since late 2014, and it was her husband who did it.

Madill, 58, described the experience as being constantly hit in the head by a two-by-four.

"So you get the first impact of the shock of her being missing, then you get the shock of them not being able to find her," she said.

"The shock of them saying expect not to find her, and then you get called into the police station and they say, 'We have her, we found her. She's dead, murdered.' And not only that, but the fact that it was her husband that had done it — someone we had taken into our home and that we'd been supporting these seven months."

'If I don't wake up tomorrow, that's OK'

The shock of that news sent Madill into a deep depression.

"I had a hard time getting out of bed, I couldn't eat, I wasn't sleeping," she said.

Shannon Madill was reported missing in late 2014. Her husband eventually admitted to killing her and is now serving a life sentence. (Calgary Police Service)

Shannon Madill was a budding actress with a quirky sense of humour. She was the kind of daughter who — on her mother's birthday one year — performed a surprise stand-up comedy routine for her at the Calgary Fringe Festival.

"She loved to be the centre of attention," Lisa Madill said.

At her lowest point, Madill said she almost lost the will to live.

"If I don't wake up tomorrow, that's OK," she recalled some of the earlier dark thoughts. "I wouldn't want to kill myself, but definitely that wouldn't be such a bad thing."

It was around this time in 2015 when she met Geoff Starling, a fitness trainer from Australia at a support group for victims of homicide.

'Come to the gym and punch things!'

Starling, 37, had already met Madill's other daughter, Erin, at a YMCA.

"So a couple of different threads got us to start talking," he said.

Geoff Starling, 37, knew what it was like to lose a family member to murder. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Being a big gym-goer and promoter of healthy living, Starling would often bring up the the benefits of exercise.

"Punching things feels really good," he would say at the support meetings. "Come to the gym and punch things!"

At first, Madill didn't think much of it. But one day, she decided to take him up on his offer.

"I just got to the point where I need to take some control back in my life," said Madill. "I think I just said, 'Geoff, I need to talk to you!'"

It helped that Starling was able to relate to Madill's pain. He'd experienced his own family tragedy.

Younger brother killed

His younger brother, Laurie Starling — a celebrated metal fabricator and a rising star in the custom-built car world, was killed by a notorious motorcycle gang in New South Wales in 2014.

Laurie was 29 years old at the time, and had just won a major prize in Australia for his work. His creations were so beautiful, so sought after, a group of criminals shot him over a dispute over a bike.

Laurie Starling, 29, was a metal fabricator known for building beautiful vehicles. Starling was not involved in organized crime but was killed by members of an Australian bike gang when they fought over one of his creations in 2014. (Falice Chin/CBC)

"This isn't the world, motorcycle gangs and Sons of Anarchy. This is fiction," Geoff Starling described the feeling of trying to come to terms with the senseless violence.

"It wasn't a tree, he didn't drown, he didn't fall from a cliff, it wasn't cancer," said Starling.

"Somebody went to him and murdered him."

Starling said he tried not to let the feeling of helplessness consume him. He said exercise was what helped him get through some of the darkest hours.

'Leave it all here in the gym'

"There's been times when I was very very angry, I get to channel that into my lifts, and all that energy into the iron," said Starling.

"Leave it all here in the gym. Go into the washroom and have a cry. Take a breath and get back out."

Few could relate his feelings of alienation, said Starling. So when Madill approached him about working out together, he was overjoyed.

It didn’t take long for Lisa Madill to discover a love for lifting weights. ( Falice Chin/CBC)

Madill was in her late 50s when she agreed to meet Starling at the gym. The first time she picked up the barbell, it was just the bar alone — no weights. But she kept returning for more and the training helped fuel their friendship.

"I don't have to describe what I'm going through," said Madill. "I can just say a couple of keywords and he knows."

As she began to grow stronger, Madill said the workouts gave her concrete goals to work on — a reason to wake up and face the world.

"I can decide every morning if I'm going lie in bed or if I'm going to the gym and pick up the bar," she said.

It was exactly the kind of attitude Starling wanted to see.

"No matter what kind of a day you're having the bar always weighs 45 pounds," he said. "If you wake up and put your pants on and go in front of the bar and lift — you win."

Lisa Madill and Geoff Starling credit exercise for giving them concrete goals to work on. (Falice Chin/CBC)

These days, Starling is piling on the plates.

Madill can now lift close to 200 pounds — an accomplishment that gives her a sense of strength and control.

"I know it's not true that I can protect my family," she said. "My kids are all grown up and they can protect themselves. There's just that confidence that if something happened, that I am able to help out."

The training sessions have been so successful, Starling and Madill are now inviting other families who've been touched by homicide to join them.

When asked how Shannon would've felt about her mother's physical and emotional transformation, Lisa Madill beamed with pride and declared:

"She would've been extremely proud!"

Listen to Madill and Starling's interview with the Calgary Eyeopener:

The Eyeopener's Falice Chin brings us the story of Lisa Madill and her fitness trainer Geoff Starling and how their friendship helped them both cope with grief. 6:00

About the Author

Falice Chin

CBC Calgary

Falice is an award-winning producer who's been working for CBC since 2006. Her career has taken her across Canada and the Middle East. Falice grew up in China and has lived in ten cities around the world. falice.chin@cbc.ca