The deaths of at least 23 people after a mass shooting in rural Nova Scotia over the weekend have left communities devastated and horrified across the country.
A gunman, who police say wore a uniform similar to an RCMP officer and drove what appeared to be a police vehicle, attacked residents in quiet communities.
The violent rampage is the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.
The weight of the tragedy is now layered with Nova Scotia continuing to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, along with much of Canada.
Terrible loss is now coupled with social-distancing restrictions, as a maximum of only five people can attend the funerals of the victims, Nova Scotia health officials announced.
A virtual vigil is planned for April 24 at 7 p.m. ADT and will be streamed via Facebook and YouTube.
But the mass in-person vigils that have accompanied other Canadian tragedies like the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018 cannot happen due to the pandemic.
It can be difficult to engage in a collective grieving process without large, physical examples of support for Nova Scotians, said Stephen Fleming, a psychologist and professor emeritus at York University in Toronto.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible, though, he said. There are other ways for Canadians to process loss and find a way to support those who are most impacted by this incident, he explained.
“In the face of adversity, you need to be creative and search out ways that are meaningful for you. And you’re doing it without the social or religious customs,” he said. “It’s saying: ‘I will be there. I can’t be physically there, but I will be there.’”
Redefining how we mourn
When a loss occurs, we often try to engage in a “meaningful ritual” to help process the death of a person, Fleming said. Often that can involve a gathering at a funeral or, in this case, organized vigils.
Those kinds of gatherings allow an opportunity to discuss the people who died and hear more about them. The COVID-19 pandemic impeding those processes ruptures our ability to engage with those rituals, said Fleming.
Many of us were already feeling unsafe or anxious in our daily lives, and a disturbing act of violence will add to that sense of danger, he explained. This makes it more paramount for Canadians to engage with one another, even from a distance, at this time, he said.
“You have to redefine meaningful ritual,” he said.
Along with shows of support online, read about the victims and what they were passionate about, he explained. If possible, donate money or your time toward what they cared about, he said.
“What is meaningful to you? What can you do that’s positive in the face of this horror, that might make a difference in this world?” he said.
Even though it’s not easy, staying in your own grief or pain will allow you to figure out what about the victims resonates with you so you can take meaningful action to make a difference, he said.
“Fully engage yourself in the vigil, and that’s a challenge because it’s painful. But out of that pain will come a sense of what you might be able to do that is positive,” he said.
‘Still a lot we can do’
The absence of public gatherings in our cities doesn’t mean we can’t engage with each other, said Christine Korol, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.
“We can still share our feelings with each other, send out condolences and listen to stories about the lives that were lost,” she said. “One of the most helpful things you can do for somebody who’s grieving is ask them about the person they’ve lost.”
Funerals or public mournings are helpful because they allow an opportunity to discuss death when we often shy away from these topics otherwise, said Korol. Since meeting in person isn’t possible, this gives many of us the chance to engage with these discussions more often, she explained.
“Everybody’s talking and telling stories about the person… but that often dries up after the funeral. Give people the opportunity to remember and honour the life of people and to have those conversations you would have had at a funeral,” she said.
After the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, some took up causes like organ donation or support towards families. Continuing to support families of victims, in this case, is a good way to direct grief, said Korol. Using social media as a tool to connect with others has become more important than ever, she said.
“Amplify the messages that the families and Nova Scotians want to share with the rest of us,” she said. “That’s always helpful to ask what we can do to help as well. There’s still a lot we can do, even if we can’t get an in-person vigil.”