Families of N.S. mass shooting victims left with vivid memories, searing grief

·6 min read

HALIFAX — Tom Bagley's birthday was just two days away on April 19, 2020, when his daughter Charlene called his cottage in West Wentworth, N.S., and small talk ensued about the possibility of a socially distanced party in her driveway.

Like other final conversations and images, what at the time was a routine chat is now remembered in crisp detail — Tom's cheery desire for ice-cream cake and the playful, back-and-forth banter with Patsy, his wife of over four decades.

But for the 70-year-old naval veteran and former firefighter, there would be no gathering, and like other families in Nova Scotia and across the continent, Charlene Bagley was about to lose a person whom she loved and leaned on for guidance.

Bagley died that morning from gunshot wounds near a neighbour's burning home, one of 22 men and women and an unborn child who were killed in a mass shooting that began late the night before and continued over 13 hours. The neighbours, Alanna Jenkins and Sean McLeod, were also among those killed by the gunman. The horror ended when the killer was shot dead outside a gas station in Enfield, N.S.

Charlene Bagley believes her father's military training, including a stint on the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure, combined with his years as a firefighter at the Halifax airport, led him instinctively to try to help when he saw the nearby fire, leading to his death.

"I remember him as a hero," she said in an interview in Halifax.

One year after the mass killing, the simple conversations with loved ones remain vivid in the families' minds, held as treasured memories but — if their thoughts wander too far — bringing back searing grief.

"That day replays in my head a lot," Bagley said. "From the moment of hearing his voice for the last time, to my mother calling to say the neighbours' house was on fire, to an hour later (her) saying she was told to stay inside and lock the doors," she recalled.

"Having to tell my children of his death. That was the absolutely hardest thing I've ever had to do."

In a world of electronic devices, final images sent via text are also part of the enduring memories families hold. Just hours before she was killed in Portapique, Lisa McCully, a neighbour of the gunman, sent her sister Jenny Kierstead a photo of a labyrinth she'd laid out with small stones on her lawn that same day.

It's a pathway where people walk in circles to the centre and then back out again, reflecting on the patterns and concerns of their lives.

"What a thing to do on your last day," Kierstead, the 48-year-old owner of a Halifax yoga and mindfulness studio, said during a recent telephone interview.

"She was as much a spiritual seeker as an academic striver," she said of McCully, a teacher who held four university degrees, including two master's degrees.

The sisters, just one year apart, shared a room for 17 years, travelled the country from Nova Scotia to Vancouver, became educators and remained in close touch while raising their children.

"She was passionate about learning, honouring students' different learning styles, inclusivity in the classroom and creating a safe learning environment," Kierstead said. During the pandemic's early days, McCully worked long hours to ensure her Grade 3 pupils at Debert Elementary School kept learning in online forums.

Now, in ways that sometimes surprise them, family members like Kierstead and Bagley find that the pain of their loss is becoming more powerful and present — and the trauma emerges unexpectedly after months of numbness and denial.

"It's sneaky, because, for the most part, often I feel 'normal' and then I will be at the Apple Store in a lineup (to get into the store) and when someone puts a thermometer that looks like a gun to my forehead, I'll have a full-blown panic attack, and have to leave," said Kierstead.

Bagley said she's been unable to return to her job working with people with intellectual disabilities, as she continues to have nightmares. A poor appetite has led to weight loss. She says she needs answers and hopes the upcoming public inquiry will shed light on how the gunman managed to continue his rampage on April 19 across multiple communities before he was stopped.

"I feel closer to my father in some ways than I ever did before," she said. "A lot of times I speak to him for guidance. Guidance on what I need to do to get the answers I need."

For Jon Farrington, 39, of Oshawa, Ont., and his brother Ryan Farrington, 41, of Trenton, Ont., the loss of their mother Dawn Gulenchyn and stepfather Frank Gulenchyn still seems surreal.

"In my mind, I sometimes just think they're still down there in Nova Scotia," Jon said in an interview from his home.

The Farringtons enjoy telling the story of their role bringing the couple together. As boys playing road hockey, their tennis balls sometimes hit Frank's Chevrolet Cavalier Z24, prompting Gulenchyn to ring their mother's doorbell and gently offer to bring the rambunctious pair to a Maple Leafs game.

The couple had only been together in Portapique since the summer of 2019, after Frank spent a decade meticulously renovating the retirement home while Dawn continued in her job as a dietary aid in an Oshawa care home, awaiting eligibility for her pension.

The residence on Orchard Beach Drive — which was burned to the ground with the couple's bodies inside — was to have been the happy final chapter in their late-life love story.

"Mom knew in the long run once she made her retirement day, she'd be down there for good with him. She counted on the calendar every day. She would cross off every day," Ryan said.

They were to be golden times of family visits and walks near the ocean.

The couple's cremated remains are in urns in the brothers' homes. Both of the sons say they walk by and talk to them upon occasion. Jon sometimes kisses his own hand and then touches the container as he passes by.

"I didn't expect them to live forever, but the manner of their passing haunts me. I have nightmares," he said. "He (the gunman) stole our chance to say goodbye."

Those interviewed say they're hoping that a year later, Canadians recall their lost loved ones rather than the 51-year-old killer who fired semi-automatic guns and set homes alight using containers of gasoline.

The key, Bagley says, is to remember they were ordinary people whose lives were rich and nuanced and vital to those who loved them. She holds up a photo her smiling father took of himself and proudly sent to his 14-year-old granddaughter.

"It was probably one of the only selfies he'd ever taken of himself, and I can just picture him giggling as he's doing this," says the 42-year-old mother of two teens.

"When I see this picture it makes me smile, because I can hear him. I can hear him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press