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N.S. palliative care group will co-ordinate support for people grieving after mass shooting

Christine Heart stops to pay her respects at roadside memorial for Lillian Campbell in Wentworth, N.S., on Friday, April 24, 2020. Campbell was among the 22 people killed in the mass shooting across N.S. (Liam Hennessey/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Christine Heart stops to pay her respects at roadside memorial for Lillian Campbell in Wentworth, N.S., on Friday, April 24, 2020. Campbell was among the 22 people killed in the mass shooting across N.S. (Liam Hennessey/The Canadian Press - image credit)

An established palliative care organization is set to offer a new approach to bereavement services for people affected by the mass shooting in northern Nova Scotia nearly four years ago.

The non-profit Nova Scotia Hospice Palliative Care Association (NSHPCA) will work with community organizations and Nova Scotia Health to design and deliver care in Colchester County, East Hants and Cumberland County.

"We will never forget it. We will never be without it. However, there is the opportunity to do some really good work and help individuals learn how to deal with it as part of their lives," Alana Hirtle of the Rotary Club of Truro said Friday.

"Hopeful, is where we are."

In April 2020, a gunman driving a mock RCMP cruiser killed 22 people across northern Nova Scotia, including many of his neighbours in Portapique.

The Mass Casualty Commission that led the public inquiry into the shooting recommended that the federal and provincial governments fund a program to address residents' unmet needs for mental health, grief and bereavement support.

From left to right, commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald, chair, and Kim Stanton deliver the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
From left to right, commissioners Leanne Fitch, Michael MacDonald, chair, and Kim Stanton deliver the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in Truro, N.S. on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

From left to right, commissioner Leanne Fitch, chair Michael MacDonald, and commissioner Kim Stanton deliver the final report of the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia in Truro, N.S. on March 30, 2023. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The two-year, $2.3 million project will start in the northern region and then extend to the rest of Nova Scotia in 2025. It comes out of an $18-million fund from the provincial and federal governments announced last spring.

Hirtle said she's hopeful that besides grief and bereavement — which are vital — the services will approach mental health with trauma-based methods.

"There should be no cookie-cutter approach to this situation because grief and trauma are an individual experience and not everyone handles it the same way or processes it the same way," Hirtle said.

Group focusing on long-term impact

NSHPCA president Ann Cosgrove said that's exactly what her group plans to do. They will pull together both new and existing grief services, and listen to what else people need.

"The long term is what we're looking at, not the immediate Band-Aid piece," Cosgrove said.

The province said it has already made investments in the northern region, including 23 new positions at Nova Scotia Health in outreach, promotion, public engagement and specialists in grief and bereavement.

There are also mobile health clinics, featuring health professionals like nurses and an emotional wellness navigator. Eight community health boards also saw funding increased to provide suicide prevention training, grief workshops and rural internet access programs.

A new transportation pilot project offering free rides for people to get to non-urgent health and wellness appointments is also in place. The province said the program has received more than 1,000 requests since it launched in August.

That program which uses a combination of rural transit and taxi services is open to any resident of Colchester, Cumberland, and Pictou counties as well as the Municipality of East Hants.

Hirtle said while the investments are all a good start, they've been a "mixed bag" for residents.

She's heard people have had a hard time figuring out how to book the transportation program, while mobile clinics can have inconsistent services. A nurse might not always be present at the clinic, and the times and locations can change week to week, Hirtle said.

Alana Hirtle of the Rotary Club of Truro says now that the Portapique playground is complete, they need about $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations to help finish the new community hall.
Alana Hirtle of the Rotary Club of Truro says now that the Portapique playground is complete, they need about $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations to help finish the new community hall.

Alana Hirtle of the Rotary Club of Truro has worked with Portapique residents to build a new hall and playground in the community. (CBC)

Minister of Addictions and Mental Health Brian Comer said Friday that the province and health providers have been working hard to help break down mental-health stigma in the area, and get people to come out to talk about their issues in less formal settings.

"I think now that folks realize that we made significant investments, you know the model is really ready to take off with a very well-respected group," Comer said about the palliative association.

Hirtle said she was glad to hear the work will eventually spread across the province, because for Nova Scotians the events of April 2020 "shattered our concept of who we are," and support is needed everywhere.

In years to come, Hirtle said she hopes the new approach makes a difference — whether it's one family dealing with a tragedy, or the entire province.

"Death impacts all of us and grief is a reality. Grief is the price of love. And you know, we all could probably have more tools in our toolkit to deal with it when it happens to us," Hirtle said.

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