What most people remember about Shanna Desmond was her ever-present, winning smile and the optimism it reflected.
READ MORE: Lionel Desmond murder-suicide a ‘horrific tragedy’ priest says during funeral
But behind that smile was a steely sense of determination that made the 31-year-old woman an admired figure in Upper Big Tracadie, N.S., the village where she lived with her husband Lionel and their 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah before a horrific murder-suicide.
Shanna and Aaliyah Desmond were to be laid to rest at a private funeral Thursday in nearby Tracadie, a day after a funeral for her mother-in-law Brenda Desmond as well as Lionel, who police say killed them all and then himself.
Shanna Ralene Desmond was born in Ontario, but her family moved back to their ancestral homeland in northeastern Nova Scotia when she was in high school. Soon afterwards, she met Lionel Desmond, the young man who would later join the Canadian army and become her husband.
Along the way, Desmond studied to be a hairdresser, but she wasn’t content with that. Eventually, she would enrol in a four-year nursing program at St. Francis Xavier University, a 30-minute drive away in Antigonish.
READ MORE: Funerals for Lionel Desmond, family members to be held this week
She graduated in May of 2016, and landed a job as a registered nurse at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital, also in Antigonish.
“That’s what she wanted to do,” her aunt, 66-year-old Catherine Hartling, said in an interview from her home in Upper Big Tracadie. “She went after it … She was always determined.”
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A spokeswoman for Nova Scotia’s Health Department said no one at the hospital was willing to speak about their colleague, but spokeswoman Kristen Lipscombe later released a brief statement from the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
“This is a sad day for staff at the Nova Scotia Health Authority and particularly at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital,” the statement said. “The staff have asked that media respect their privacy as they continue to grieve and cope with the loss of a dear friend and colleague.”
Staff at the nursing school at St. F.X. also declined a request for an interview.
READ MORE: Nova Scotia community holds candlelight vigil to mourn murder-suicide victims
Lionel Desmond, 33, was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he served two tours over two years. Relatives and fellow infantrymen say the mental trauma he suffered there left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. A military source says he received treatment at the Joint Support Unit at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in central New Brunswick.
However, relatives have insisted that Lionel Desmond did not get the help he needed after he was released from the military in July 2015, prompting a national discussion over the treatment of war veterans and the role domestic violence may have played in the deaths.
Lionel and Brenda Desmond’s funeral was held Wednesday at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Tracadie, N.S., where 300 people packed the old church to overflowing. The private funeral for Shanna and Aaliyah Desmond was to be held across the street at the local hall.
Before that service at the hall began, Hartling reflected on her niece’s life, as she has done in other media interviews in the past week, appearing determined to let everyone know how much Shanna Desmond was loved and respected by her family, friends and neighbours.
READ MORE: PTSD not the only factor in Nova Scotia triple murder-suicide, experts suggest
“She was always happy and smiling,” she said, her downcast, raspy voice suddenly becoming clear and strong. “And she always had respect for older people.”
Hartling recalled how her niece and Brenda Desmond, 52, spent a great deal of time together, often driving with Aaliyah to various after-school programs.
“Everywhere they went, they went together,” Hartling said. “(Shanna’s) joke was that when they got in the car and had the two others were with her, she would say, ‘The motor and the transmission are with me now.”‘
On New Year’s Eve, the last night relatives saw the family together and alive, the little girl joined in a celebratory lobster supper after returning home from horseback riding lessons. That’s when Aaliyah announced to her family that she wanted to become a veterinarian when she grew up.
READ MORE: Family ‘trying to hang in there’ following Nova Scotia murder-suicide
As she prepared for the final funeral Thursday, Hartling said the magnitude of the tragedy caught up with her the day before.
“I had a full panic attack,” she said, her voice trailing off.
As for Lionel Desmond, Hartling had little to say, aside from restating her firm assertion that the lack of treatment he received for PTSD was the main reason he killed his family and himself.
“He was a sick man, but he did what he could,” she said. “But the mental illness overcame him.”