For Lori McFarland, the upcoming holiday season will be a chance to spend time with her family and friends, and the people she loves.
But sadly Lori also knows that this year it will be another Christmas where one very special person will not be there with her.
Winter is setting in throughout Manitoba, and in the small city of Portage la Prairie Lori McFarland, the mother of Amber McFarland, said her and her family are dealing with the emotions that always come along with the changing of the season, and the start of shorter days and colder nights.
“This is in part due to knowing that another summer is over, and with winter on the horizon, there is little hope of Amber being found.” Lori said.
“And another year passes.”
This upcoming Christmas will mark the 13th that Lori will spend without her daughter Amber, who went missing on an early fall morning back in 2008 after a night out at a Portage la Prairie nightclub, and has not been seen or heard from since.
Lori said she still remembers how difficult that first Christmas was after Amber had gone missing only about two months before.
“That first Christmas of 2008 without Amber, we just left the house,” Lori said. “We didn’t put up a tree. We packed up and went to my sister’s house for Christmas, and she looked after us.”
Lori said that over the last 13 years that her, her husband Scott, and Amber’s sisters Ashley and Lisa have, in time, been able to celebrate the holidays, but always with the thoughts in their minds that Amber is not there with them.
“Our family is incomplete without Amber, but we have learned to go on without her,” Lori said. “It's become a little easier over the years as now we often reminisce with laughter in our memories of Amber, wherein the earlier years the reminiscing always brought tears.
“We have special ornaments for Amber that we put on the Christmas tree every year. We really missed her those first few Christmases because she always wore the Santa hat and loved to hand out the presents in her pyjamas.
“She loved Christmas morning.”
Amber McFarland was just 24 years old when she was last seen by friends at the Cat & Fiddle Nite Club in the Midtown Motor Inn at 177 Saskatchewan Ave. W. in Portage la Prairie at around 1 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2008.
Friends of Amber’s have said she was at the nightclub with her ex-boyfriend, Kelly Garrioch, and there is security footage from that morning that shows her with Garrioch and another man, later identified as Graham Saxon, in the hotel’s beer vendor.
Garrioch was 38 at the time, and later admitted he was with Amber early that morning despite a court order prohibiting him from being with her, stemming from an alleged assault in May 2008.
To this day, Lori maintains her belief that someone who was with her daughter that early morning has information that could help to finally move the case forward after it has sat cold for so many years, but sadly Lori said her and her family no longer have hope that Amber is ever coming home.
“We do hold out hope that one day we will know what happened to Amber, and who was responsible for taking her life,” Lori said. “We know in our hearts that she is not coming home, that she has passed away.
“But we still hope that her remains are found, so that she can be properly laid to rest.”
Police have said that two searches were conducted at the home where Garrioch lived when McFarland went missing, with one taking place in 2008, and a second being conducted in 2009, and in the 2009 search, officers from the forensics identification units reportedly dug up parts of the property.
But to this day RCMP investigators have not had enough evidence to press any charges in the case, and Garrioch has maintained that he does not know where Amber ultimately ended up, or what happened to her that morning.
The Winnipeg Sun sent a message Garrioch offering him a chance to be interviewed for the story, but did not hear back before Saturday’s press deadline.
And despite the passing of 13 years since she last saw her daughter, Lori said a day does not go by where she does not think about Amber.
“I miss Amber just as much now as in the initial years that she was missing. A parent never gets over the loss of a child. You just learn to live with it and find ways to cope. It becomes your new normal. I immerse myself in my work and in giving attention to my family.
“At the 13-year milestone the grief is of course more manageable, and we have all gone on with living our lives, but Amber's never far from our thoughts on any given day.”
While Lori continues to grieve for her daughter, she said Amber’s siblings and friends and family all now live with the sadness of losing Amber.
“It's nothing that you ever get over,” Amber’s twin sister Ashley said. “You do learn to cope, but life is never the same. My son absolutely adored his auntie Amber, and he’s had to grow up without her.
“He was the light of her life too, and was only nine months old when she went missing. He had lots of questions when he was younger about what happened to her.”
Amber’s younger sister Lisa, who was married this past summer, said she has had to deal with celebrating many milestones, including her wedding, without her sister.
“Amber has been missed at the special milestones in my life,” Lisa said. “Any new family picture taken reminds us that our family is incomplete.
“I’ve resolved myself to know that Amber is at peace, she’s with the earth. I draw comfort in knowing that.”
After spending years without her daughter, Lori said the family now lives with the memories of the kind of person that Amber was.
“When she walked into a room you noticed her. She just glowed. She was such a kind and loving person, but she also stood up fiercely to anyone that wronged her loved ones,” Lori said.
“We have been approached by many people telling us stories of how she touched their lives. We really love hearing those stories.”
As the friends and family of Amber continue to mourn her loss, they say they are still desperately seeking any answers that could help the family finally figure out what really happened to her that October morning back in 2008.
“We want there to be justice for Amber,” Lori said. “She was loved, and she had her whole future ahead of her.
“Her life mattered.”
Anyone with information about Amber McFarland’s disappearance can contact their local RCMP detachment, or call Manitoba Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS).
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun