How the pandemic makes mourning Nova Scotia shooting victims that much more difficult

The rules limiting social gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic mean Nova Scotians won't be able to unite in a public setting to mourn those killed in last weekend's mass shooting. However, some folks are planning an alternative way to try to bring people together.

Virtual vigil planned for Friday evening to honour those killed in weekend shooting rampage

Correctional Service Canada employees Sean McLeod and Alanna Jenkins are shown in a family handout photo. The couple was among the victims of the mass killing in Nova Scotia this past weekend. (Taylor McLeod via The Canadian Press)

Tiff Ward wishes she could come together with members of her community — to cry with and to hug those who are also grieving the 18 people killed in a gunman's rampage in Nova Scotia over the weekend.

But the coronavirus pandemic, and the continued need for physical distancing, has made that impossible.

"We normally as a community would be able to come together," said Ward, who worked with one of the victims, Heather O'Brien, at the Victorian Order of Nurses.

"We'd have a vigil. We'd be together at the hall or school. And then we would be able to support each other and try to make sense of what's happened here.

"We can't do that."

Instead, she and others have helped create the Facebook page Colchester- Supporting our Communities, site of a virtual vigil set for Friday at 6 p.m. ET in honour of those slain over the weekend in the small community of Portapique, located in Colchester County.

People can visit the Facebook page, where community leaders, politicians and entertainers will take part in the online memorial.

"The idea is just through our shared story, our shared sense of community, not just the small local area, but the province as a whole, that there be some comfort in that experience," said Ward.

Compounding the tragedy

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to strict limitations on social gatherings. And those limitations have extended to some of the most socially vulnerable — grieving friends and family wanting to pay their respects at funerals, or, in the case of Nova Scotia, at a public memorial.

The rules implemented to stop the spread of the virus would likely also prevent any public regimental funeral procession for slain RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who was killed in the line of duty.

Children sign a Canadian flag at an impromptu memorial in front of the RCMP detachment in Enfield, N.S. (Tim Krochak/Getty Images)

"The funeral is an opportunity for brothers and sisters across the country, and really across North America, to come together and show their support and solidarity and grief for the member that's passed," said Steve Marissink, a former major crimes investigator with the RCMP.

But that will likely be put on hold, at least for now, during the pandemic.

Beginning late Saturday night in Portapique, a community about 40 kilometres west of Truro, a gunman went on a 12-hour rampage through small rural communities. He died in a standoff with police about 90 kilometres away in Enfield, north of Halifax.

Now, the inability to come together to grieve this tragedy in public is just compounding the pain, said Christine Blair, the mayor of Colchester County.

"If there's any possible way that you can put more grief on a situation, not being able to have the support of the community ... is going to be very difficult for the families," Blair said.

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Rural Nova Scotia mayor describes 'heartbreak' in wake of shootings

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A Nova Scotia shooting spree that claimed the lives of at least 16 people was spread across several communities in the northern part of the province. 'No words can describe the surreal situation, the pain, the heartbreak,' said Christine Blair, the mayor of Colchester County, N.

Patrick Curry, the acting president of the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia, said the province's rules limit the number people who can gather in any social setting to five, and that includes at funeral homes.

"Funerals, visitation, they've all essentially been shut down in a traditional sense so that you can't have a public funeral, you can't have a public visitation," he said.

There have been some adjustments made at some funeral homes, such as offering a recorded service, or streaming it online, he said. As for a public viewing, there can be staggered viewing periods for family. 

"You can do what you can to give them some closure," he said. "You can't deny that it's been very, very challenging."

The horrific events of last weekend have left so much anguish in the province, he said. 

"I just feel that the inability of the community to be able to participate in a grieving process is going to be really hard."

Const. Heidi Stevenson is seen in a photo posted to the Nova Scotia RCMP's Twitter account. Police confirmed on Sunday that Stevenson was killed in the line of duty. (Nova Scotia RCMP/Twitter)

Some funeral services can be delayed to take place after cremation, he said.

"Certainly, in a situation like this, there's this delaying aspect that's going to add to the anguish being felt. Even In a normal situation, this would be absolutely horrific," he said. "But just this added part where nobody can do anything."

Social media 'not quite the same'

Steve Adams, the lead pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Great Village, N.S., about ten kilometres east of Portapique, said he's used to dealing with tragedy and people in crisis.

"But the whole situation with COVID-19 and the limitations that the restrictions place on us for meeting and for providing a sense of presence and comfort in people's lives — I think we're all struggling to figure out what that looks like, and so that makes it a lot harder.

"I am thankful for social media, even the technology ... but it's not quite the same."

WATCH | Pastor talks about how the pandemic rules make mourning that much more difficult:

Life in this world includes a lot of hard things, pastor says

3 years ago
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Nova Scotia pastor Steve Adams says restrictions due to COVID-19 make dealing with the mass shooting tragedy even more difficult.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said it's important during the pandemic to look at the safest way to express sadness, condolences and support.

She acknowledged the "tremendous amount of stress" caused by not being physically close to one another during the mourning period, but encouraged people to look for solutions to share their feelings in a more "virtual way." 

"It is going to be tough. There's no doubt about," she said. "But I think people will find a way and I think people in Nova Scotia will, in their own way, be able to mourn together.

"But I do recognize this is particularly stressful."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.