Nova Scotia

A cemetery full of new friends helps mother cope with son's murder

Catherine McInnis spends hours at a time at the Nova Scotia cemetery where her son Tylor is buried. She never expected to find so much support among the headstones.

Catherine McInnis has found a community of support among mourners at a Nova Scotia cemetery

Catherine McInnis sets up Halloween decorations at the gravesite of her son Tylor McInnis. (David Burke/CBC)

It's a cold soggy day at the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Cemetery, and at a grave near the back Catherine McInnis is setting up Halloween decorations around the headstone of her murdered son, Tylor. 

She hangs a string of paper spiders and drives a stake with a paper ghost into the ground. Every time there's a special occasion, whether it be Christmas, Easter, or her son's birthday, McInnis makes a special point to adorn his gravesite.

"It's something I just have to do, celebrate his life," she said. "Just because he's gone doesn't mean he's forgotten. So we celebrate all of the holidays."

At least once a week she makes the 20-minute drive from her Halifax home to the cemetery in the suburban community of Upper Hammonds Plains. She's become a fixture here, spending up to four hours at the site when she visits.

And here, surrounded by the dead, she has found a new community in the other mourners that come to the cemetery and are helping her deal with her overwhelming grief.

"A lot of them, I don't know even know their names. I've had other people just come up and say hi to me. They know me as the lady that comes up to the graveyard all the time," she said. "This community has opened its arms and welcomed us."

Tylor McInnis, 26, of Halifax, was found shot to death in August 2016. (Submitted by Taya Gillis-David)

Tylor McInnis, 26, was robbed and shot to death in 2016 after he tried to trade drugs for a gun, according to evidence later presented in court. His body was found in a car in North Preston, N.S.

He left behind four children, a wife and many grieving friends.

Catherine McInnis finds the cemetery where her son is buried comforting and peaceful. Often she'll sit for hours next to her son's grave and talk to him. Sometimes she'll quietly drink tea, and other times she just comes to cry.

But the new friends she's made are helping ease some of her heartache. They get together and chat at the gravesites, share stories and sometimes pray together. One woman even gave McInnis a small angel figurine to put on Tylor's grave. 

Tylor's friends and family often leave items at his grave, including two sets of work gloves left by his former drywall boss, a bottle of vodka and a small plaque. (David Burke/CBC)

Those new friends include Manuel David, a deacon at Emmanuel Baptist Church just a few blocks away. He spotted McInnis one day at the cemetery and asked if he could pray with her.

"I heard she had lost her son, right, so I figured I just want to give people comfort, I just want to give her some comfort, let her know that we're there for her, that's what it's all about," said David.

McInnis said David will never know how much that simple prayer meant.

"That was beautiful. I needed that at that moment, he was sent. I was having a really rough day and he came and said a beautiful prayer and was very touching," said McInnis.

This angel figurine was given to McInnis by one of the other women who frequently visit the cemetery. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

It hasn't helped that McInnis is still waiting to find out how long her son's killer will stay behind bars before he's eligible for parole. Shawntez Neco Downey was convicted of second-degree murder and is expected back in court Nov. 21.

It's been a long drawn-out process, and it has been hard for McInnis to cope.

"I don't know what to do, I've never lost a child before," said the mother of three.

"So if you have children and you think what it could be, how devastating and heartbreaking that is, that's my life every day. So I don't dwell on the negativity. I think of the love he had, the love I had for him, you know, he was an overall good guy. So that's what keeps me going — the fond memories."

Roy Ellis is a bereavement co-ordinator with the palliative care service of the Nova Scotia Health Authority. (Submitted by Roy Ellis)

Roy Ellis, a bereavement co-ordinator with the palliative care service of the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said murder is a "very different kind of death," one with a more intense and complicated grief.

While making friends at a cemetery may seem morbid to some, Ellis said it's a powerful form of healing. 

"I just thought the story was beautiful, this idea of these people meeting in a cemetery and actually creating community, to me that's gorgeous, that's community at its finest," said Ellis. "And out of community comes healing."    

He said people are hardwired to be pack animals and need to come together to grieve. Those who mourn alone often end up heart sick or physically ill.

The Upper Hammonds Plains Community Cemetery is nestled between two groves of trees in suburban Halifax. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

Even McInnis decorating her son's gravesite is perfectly healthy, according to Ellis. A person's body needs to be engaged in mourning, he said, and decorating the gravesite is a kind of ritual that could be healing. 

"That's why we've been doing rituals for eons, that's why there's ancestor worship, which is basically the same idea where you go somewhere and you recognize that individual existed, and that individual was important, and you somehow honour that person by making some sort of offering or some sort of recognition," said Ellis. 

He's glad McInnis found a group of people that's helping her heal, and advises anyone who's lost a loved one to seek out friends, family, a therapist or grief counselling group to help them deal with their loss.

McInnis said her other two children understand her need to spend time at the cemetery. Her daughter even gave her a Tim Hortons gift card and a gas card to make it easier for McInnis to visit the site. (David Burke/CBC)

McInnis did that too. She took part in a 12-week grief program, which she found helped her deal with her loss.

"Grief is going to be with you the rest of your life, so you just got to figure out how to manage it, what's best for you," she said.  

What is best for her for right now, she said, is visiting the cemetery regularly.        

"Sometimes I think, you know, people may think I'm crazy or whatever, but I don't think of it like that. It helps with my anxiety." she said.

"I don't care what anybody's opinion is, this is my son. I brought him into this world and it was unfortunate he was taken out of this world at a young age, but I want to continue [coming here] until I can't continue no more. Even my kids know when I'm older to still bring me up here."

Tylor would have turned 30 this year. His family celebrated by sprinkling golden 30s on his grave, and held a birthday party that included a soccer-baseball game and a barbecue. (David Burke/CBC)