When Hugs Can Kill: Mourning Nova Scotia’s Mass Shooting in a Pandemic

The coronavirus has destroyed most of our rituals to cope with death.

A makeshift memorial for the victims of Canada’s worst mass shooting, along a road in Portapique, Nova Scotia, on Thursday.
Credit...Tim Krochak/Reuters

TORONTO — Soon after his neighbors were gunned down in rural Nova Scotia, Cees van den Hoek started a memorial site near an old church.

He hammered together boards for people to fasten cards and mementos to, and was hauling one into place when a middle-aged woman raced toward him.

“She gave me a hug,” said Mr. van den Hoek, an antique dealer who lives in the area where a gunman murdered at least 22 people last weekend in a 13.5-hour killing spree, before being shot by police. “I couldn’t stop her. That’s the natural instinct, people need hugs.”

But these days, hugs can be almost as lethal as bullets.

As Canadians mourn the country’s worst mass shooting, they are also mourning the toll of the global coronavirus pandemic, which, in Canada, has sickened 42,000, and claimed 2,200 lives — and robbed the nation of its routines and rituals for recognizing loss.

It's a pattern being repeated around the world as the public script for mourning is being rewritten because of lockdown orders and prohibitions on large gatherings.

In some places, like Italy and Washington state, funerals have been outright banned. In others, like Canada, they have been so severely restricted that most people are delaying them.

In Nova Scotia, a small Atlantic province about twice the size of Massachusetts but thinly populated, there have been 772 confirmed cases and 12 deaths from the virus. It’s the kind of rural place where friendships stretch back generations and funeral receptions are so packed, they spill out from church basements.



‘Canada Is in Mourning,’ Trudeau Says After Nova Scotia Mass Shooting

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada called for unity after a gunman killed at least 18 people in Nova Scotia in one of the country’s worst mass shootings.

We are a country that stands united in our effort to defeat a pandemic to save lives, and to help each other make it to a better day. But yesterday, we were jolted from that common cause by the senseless violence and tragedy in Nova Scotia. A gunman claimed the lives of at least 18 people, among them a woman in uniform whose job it is to protect lives, even if it endangers her own. Constable Heidi Stevenson of the R.C.M.P. This happened in small towns: Portapique, Truro, Milford and Enfield are places where people have deep roots. Places where people know their neighbors, and look out for one another. There everyone knows a Mountie because they’re everything from police officers to social workers to teen counselors. Now these communities are in mourning, and Canada is in mourning with them. Such a tragedy should have never occurred. Violence of any kind has no place in Canada. We stand with you, and we grieve with you, and you can count on our government’s full support.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada called for unity after a gunman killed at least 18 people in Nova Scotia in one of the country’s worst mass shootings.CreditCredit...Dave Chan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But now, any kind of mourning — whether for coronavirus victims or mass shooting victims — must abide by life-preserving but isolating rules that prevent hugs from strangers, and outlaw gatherings of more five people. That includes funerals.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a vigil for the Nova Scotia victims, which was broadcast on two national television networks Friday evening so all Canadians could watch. Organized by locals, it had many of the elements of public mourning — tributes and music. But, it was done entirely online.

In perhaps the most touching moment, the famed Canadian fiddler Natalie MacMaster played on a split screen alongside Emily Tuck, one of the victims, who was killed along with her parents. Ms. Tuck, just 17, recorded the piece a few weeks earlier for a “Covid kitchen party,” while dressed for quarantine in a pair of pajama bottoms and a crop top.

“There is no template for this,” said Tiff Ward, one of the vigil organizers and a retired home care nurse, who personally knew five of the victims.

She added, “We all feel so helpless.”

Obituaries in Canadian newspapers now end with a version of this one, for Heather O’Brien, a nurse and grandmother who was among the victims of the shooting rampage: “Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, we ask for no visitors at this time as we already have a large immediate family. A celebration of life will be held at a later date.”

Still, some mourners are creating intimate rituals and virtual ceremonies, combining traditional elements with new ideas forged by circumstance. They are setting new templates on how people can mourn together, which grief therapists say is so important.

“There’s the human need to collectively acknowledge the fact we are devastated and we’re heartbroken,” said Andrea Warnick, a grief therapist in Toronto, who has been advising grievers to develop their own rituals at home.

“I do worry if people aren’t doing anything,” she added. “Suppressed grief manifests itself in different ways.”

Credit...John Morris/Reuters

The irony is, grievers often feel the world has stopped. And now, it literally has.

“I think we are all grieving,” said Lysa Toye, a psychotherapist in Toronto who specializes in complex trauma and grief. “This is a grief-inducing situation, whether you are experiencing the death of people around you or not.”

In many ways, Wayne Irwin is the perfect pioneer who could light a new path for grieving. A former minister of 40 years with United Church of Canada, he has overseen hundreds of funerals. But, he also has the technical savvy of a millennial; he spent the last decade helping churches go online.

When his wife of 20 years, Flora May Litt-Irwin, died in his arms in late March, of causes not related to the coronavirus, the country had already locked down, but he did not contemplate delaying a service for her.

With friends and family, Mr. Irwin created an online service with sermons and hymns, but also with personal elements more common to wakes — video clips from her grandchildren, a slide show of personal photos, a video of a girl from their church dancing the Scottish highland “Flora MacDonald Fancy” in her honor.

The family also held a Zoom visitation, which at one point was crowded with more than 40 people, offering condolences and stories.

“I came away feeling we’ve been to a funeral, we’ve been to a celebration, we’ve done it,” said Mr. Irwin, 75, from the condominium in Dundas, Ontario, that until recently, they shared.

“We can move forward in our own lives now,” he added.

Credit...Tim Krochak/Reuters

Mr. Irwin’s stepson Warren Litt, who recorded a eulogy on his iPhone mounted on a bedroom dresser, found the experience both “weird” and “heartwarming.” Since then, he’s remained isolated at home, digging through his mother’s photos, poems and letters.

“Often society gives you the three days to grieve and then moves on,” said Mr. Litt, who is a retired interfaith minister.

Now, though, he said: “There has been more time to remember and to grieve and not to kind of rush through it because you have all this other stuff to do. There’s nowhere to rush.”

In Nova Scotia, emerging details of the shooting are stirring anger that the police chose Twitter to send out an emergency warning, not cellphones which might have alerted more people to the danger.

On Friday, officials revealed that the killer began his rampage after assaulting his girlfriend, who escaped from him and hid in the woods overnight. At dawn the next morning, they said, she alerted police that he was disguised as a police officer and driving a fake police cruiser, which allowed him to camouflage himself.

Before the murders, bereavement workers in Nova Scotia were already grappling with how to offer those dying of coronavirus a “good death” and offer grievers support even as hugs and casserole deliveries are forbidden. Since then, they’ve been drafting ways to support a whole community in grief, from a distance.

“People are kind of numb and frozen and they don’t know what to do,” said Serena Lewis, a bereavement, grief and wellness coordinator with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

The local tradition is to show up with a casserole on the doorstep after a death. “Can you do a grocery order instead?” Ms. Lewis said she was suggesting, or “make a card and put it in their mailbox.”

Credit...Tim Krochak/Reuters

“This is physical isolation, but we need the social connection,” she said.

A Facebook site, set up by Ms. Ward, the vigil organizer, and others working with her on Friday’s vigil has been flooded with videos of people offering music and dances, and photos of local windows decorated with 22 hearts — one for each victim. The vigil will be broadcast nationally.

But local family-run funeral homes are backed-up with ceremonies, delayed until whenever the pandemic has passed. Ms. Lewis worries that might mean never.

“Is that what people are going to want to do when COVID lifts?” she asked.

In Portapique, where the gunman began his crime spree by killing eight of his direct neighbors, Mr. van den Hoek has continued to display sympathy cards — which started arriving by the boxload — on his memorial site.

Since the hug, he has painted orange footprints spaced two meters apart as a socially-distancing reminder to visitors.

“I don’t want a whole lot of people getting sick,” said Mr. van den Hoek, his voice quivering with emotion. “That’s the last thing I want.”

Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting from Montreal, and Ian Austen from Ottawa.