Advocates call for community supports to tackle 'unspeakable' grief after N.S. massacre

·4 min read
Grief specialist Serena Lewis finds peace at MacElmon's Pond Provincial Park.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Grief specialist Serena Lewis finds peace at MacElmon's Pond Provincial Park. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

MacElmon's Pond Provincial Park is a picturesque place just east of Portapique, N.S.

It has become a peaceful refuge for social worker Serena Lewis as she tries to find beauty in an area now synonymous with a mass shooting that left 22 people dead.

She said the lasting damage in the community has been as devastating and destructive as an earthquake.

"I think about the people who have courageously spoke up and said, 'You know, we're not doing well,'" Lewis said.

"And then I think about that dangerous silence of all of the people who are trying to resume their life and trying figure out where do we put all of this? How do we keep living our lives? ... But there's this eerie silence about how, where, why, do we even get to talk about the impacts of this, the aftershocks?"

On April 18, 2020, the earthquake struck in the form of a 13-hour deadly rampage through multiple communities. The mass shootings took the lives of 22 people, with many more forever changed.

"This isn't just tragic grief. It's horrible grief. It's unspeakable," said Lewis, who specializes in grief counselling.

"People think about the earthquake is done and over with, but it isn't. I mean, now we've got to start sorting through the rubble, the devastation."

'The trauma is ongoing'

Dr. Karen Ewing, who ran a family practice in Colchester County at the time of the shootings, continues to advocate for ways to help the community heal, even in her retirement.

"The trauma didn't end when the shooting stopped," said Ewing.

"The risks and harms that are known to occur after a mass casualty of this magnitude include worsening of mental health issues, worsening of addictions, worsening of domestic violence, suicide risk increases."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Tod Augusta-Scott is witnessing that first-hand.

He is the executive director of Bridges Institute, a non-profit in Truro that provides domestic violence intervention. He said the numbers are steadily climbing following the mass shooting and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with an increase in government funding, Augusta-Scott said it's hard to keep up with the growing demand for services.

"It's harder to respond to the crisis," he said. "We now have a two- to four-month wait-list for individual counselling, but we have modified our programs to offer more immediate support."

Concerns over lack of support

Together, Lewis and Ewing authored a report, Find the Path; Trauma & Grief in Colchester, to raise concerns about the lack of support and services, but they say their appeals to all levels of government have gone unanswered.

Ewing said if a recommendation for more support and services comes at the end of the ongoing Mass Casualty Commission, it will be years too late. The commission is expected to release its final report in November. An interim report is due Sunday.

"It's devastating and disappointing to me that in the interim report, they've already said they're not going to put forward any recommendations," said Ewing. "And we were hoping. I was certainly hoping that the the commission itself would come forward with a recommendation for the safety of the community."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Lewis said she hopes the beautiful and peaceful surroundings at MacElmon's Pond Provincial Park may also offer others refuge some day.

"Right next door, there is this vacant building in a beautiful property that has a building that we — myself and Dr. Ewing — proposed to different levels of government," she said.

"Can we please make this a healing centre? Can we please put this out to the community to see if a healing centre would be of interest? Because I think what's important to remember is that we're currently building the social legacy of these communities."

Both women said they believe the community would have been better served if the government and the mass casualty commission had realized the need to address the public health crisis of trauma before releasing the disturbing details, and committed to a foundation of long-term support.

In the wake of the shootings, Nova Scotia Health seconded Lewis to develop a provincial grief strategy — but her job ended abruptly and the plan never enacted.

Submitted by Serena Lewis
Submitted by Serena Lewis

Nova Scotia Health spokesperson Brendan Elliott said a new strategy is in the works "that will highlight different levels of support and resources that might be required to fill current gaps."

But Lewis and Ewing said the communities desperately need the help now.

Lewis said there is an opportunity to turn the epicentre of a disaster into "an epicentre of healing."

"Not only for these communities," she said, "but for the province that's been impacted by so many tragedies."