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How this blue urn's mysterious journey is helping 2 families heal

After Shawn Westlund took his own life a little more than a year ago, his family scattered his ashes in the Pacific Ocean. They then filled his urn with cards and letters, setting it free in the water, too. Somehow it made its way to the Bow River in Alberta, and into the hands of Rob Russell, where it would change his life.

Vessel was set free in the Pacific Ocean — yet somehow crossed the Continental Divide

A cremation urn filled with positive goodbye messages has helped Rob Russell move toward physical and mental recovery after he suffering a severe concussion. 0:47

On the shore of the Bow River near Canmore, Alta., Rob Russell assembles his fishing pole.

Except for the odd helicopter passing overhead, it is quiet here; only the sounds of the birds break the silence. It's just what Russell needs to settle his mind and body. 

"It's just the perfect place for me to sit, be calm, and I don't have to focus on anything, I can just fish," Russell says.

Moments like this are essential for the 39-year-old, whose world was upended by a serious head injury last fall.  

He was riding his bicycle to his work in downtown Calgary, and "as I was coming in, approaching the building and heading down the ramp, one of those industrial garage doors came down on top of my head."  

Russell was left with a severe concussion — and all that comes with it. Paralyzing headaches, slurred speech, confusion and memory problems.   

Rob Russell stands on the banks of the Bow River, near Canmore, Alta., It's a favourite fishing spot. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Over the past few months, as some of the physical symptoms eased, these trips to fish in the mountains have become an essential part of Russell's therapy.

Little did he know one trip, on April 17, would change his journey.

Russell walks the shore looking for the precise spot where something odd caught his attention. He points to a spot on the shoreline that is covered in brush, 

"I noticed something shiny in the water," he recalls. "I could tell it was a vase or an urn."  

He wondered if perhaps it was from one of the homes that had fallen into the river during the 2013 flood that ravaged southern Alberta.

Curious, Russell went about retrieving it. That was easier said than done.  

The blue container was embedded in the silt on the shore and weighted down with water. "I got my fishing rod and I hooked it around," Russell says. "I just gently brought it up." 

It was, indeed, an urn.

But Russell had no idea about the mysterious journey it had taken or the how the story inside would change his life.

'I miss you Daddy'

Russell waited until he got home to open the urn. His four young boys were excited to be part of the unveiling.  

As the minds of young boys do, they wondered if it contained a treasure, perhaps a long-hidden stash of money.  

As Russell pried open the lid and pulled out plastic bags containing paper, he would soon discover that the urn contained something that was actually invaluable. 

First, one card, which read "I miss you, Daddy." Then another: "I love you, Daddy." There were five cards from five children and one letter from their mother — all of them saying goodbye to a dad gone too soon.

Rob Russell of Red Meadows, Alberta opens and reveals the contents an urn he found while fishing on the Bow River near Canmore. 1:08

In that very moment, Russell's concussion reminded him it was still present, still changing who he is.

"Part of me was tearing up, but part of me was very removed. That's the hard thing about the concussion," recalls Russell, speaking honestly about the mental health symptoms that have accompanied his head injury. 

"Not only do I feel like I want to be isolated, but I feel removed from the people around me."   

But the concussion has not affected his curiosity, so he emailed the Hotmail address he found etched on the bottom of the urn.

'Like God picked it up out of the ocean'

Not far away, in Rocky Mountain House, Alta., Vicky Westlund and her kids — three girls and two boys — were busy running from school to one activity or another.

Each child has their own passion that Westlund is determined to let them explore.  

But make no mistake: they are a family in deep grief. "We're just a year later and our hearts are very broken," Westlund says with a deep sigh.  

Last April, her husband Shawn, 44, killed himself. 

Shawn Westlund's final year was a spiral of deep depression that had lurked at the surface for many years.  

But the dedicated dad who lived to support his family as a welder disappeared. In the grips of mental illness, he left his family.

Shawn Westlund was 44 when he took his own life. Here, he's shown at an equestrian show, in happier times. (Provided/Vicky Westlund)

He died on his third suicide attempt, Westlund says. "It was almost like we knew eventually he would be successful at doing this, and we couldn't do anything to stop him."

All they could do was remember him well.

Vicky Westlund recalls the man with piercing blue eyes who brought her roses every month for years.

"He was passionate about everything he did. He really loved to scuba dive," Westlund reminisces. "Which is why we chose the Pacific Ocean to put his ashes in."

The family scattered Shawn Westlund's ashes in a small cove off the coast of British Columbia, near a popular diving spot. They filled the urn that held them with six roses and a personal note from each family member.  

Then they tossed it in the ocean that Shawn loved.

It was discovered twice down the B.C. coast and set on its way again.

And then Vicky Westlund got an email from Russell. 

It's acted like a totem for me.- Rob Russell 

"The first thing I said to him is that I'm so excited it's found again," Westlund recalls. "But in the Bow River? I put this in the Pacific Ocean. It's impossible. I don't know how it got there."

It is impossible for the urn to have travelled by water from the Pacific Ocean to the Bow River in Canmore, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. It would have had to cross the Continental Divide.  

Perhaps it came over the mountains in a hiker's backpack or the trunk of a car.  

Westlund believes divine intervention must have been at play. "It was almost like God picked it up out of the ocean and put it in the Bow River right at the time Rob was fishing. It needed to come Rob's way."

Return to the water

At the time of the discovery, Russell's mental health was deteriorating from the fallout from his concussion.  

Not only was he withdrawing from his loved ones, he was finding himself uncharacteristically quick to anger. "I could feel anger boiling up much easier and [having] a harder time not filtering what I wanted to say," he says.  

He kept the urn for longer than he expected, because he realized it was helping him in his recovery.

"It's acted like a totem for me and I just kept it around the house," Russell explains. "It's a tangible reminder for me to be OK, things are OK, they're going to turn out."

Vicky Westlund, right, and her five children took a family photo before they scatter Shawn Westlund's ashes off the B.C. coast. (Provided/Vicky Westlund)

After corresponding by email for weeks, the Westlund and Russell families met face to face for the first time Monday on the shore of the Bow River in Carseland, Alta., about 70 kilometres southeast of Calgary. 

They marvelled at the stroke of serendipity that brought them together — and the impact it has had on them all. "The kids," Vicky told Rob, "as I told them the story, the first things out of their mouths were 'Dad's favourite places were the ocean and the mountains.' It's like knowing he's at peace." 

Russell put his own note in the urn, to be read by the next person who happens upon it. "I wrote in my note, 'No one is ever alone in all of this. It's nice to know in mental health and whatever trials you face, complete strangers would be willing to come out and help you. Something as simple as saying goodbye to a loved one can have a ripple effect." 

With that, Russell wades into the Bow River with the blue urn in hand. The Westlund family stands on a different shore, saying goodbye to Shawn once again. 

The swift current grabbed the urn and carried it downstream.  

Off to wherever and whomever it goes next. 

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.