Deaths of four Desmond family members shocks community, country

A community in mourning

By Helen Murphy    

GUYSBOROUGH – The shooting deaths of four members of the Desmond family in Upper Big Tracadie on Jan. 3 has devastated the local community and sent shock waves across the country.

Dead are Shanna Desmond, 31, a registered nurse at St. Martha’s Hospital; her husband Lionel, 33, who relatives say suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his military service in Afghanistan; their daughter Aaliyah, who just turned 10 on Dec. 28, a student at Chedabucto Education Centre in Guysborough; and Lionel’s mother Brenda, 52, a mother of five who worked with Industrial Cold Milling.

RCMP say the incident was a triple homicide and suicide, with Lionel Desmond turning the gun on himself after shooting his family members.

The tragedy has sparked a national discussion about PTSD and what more can be done to provide timely and effective treatment for veterans and their families who are suffering. In a deviation from usual protocol, the federal government has said it will pay for the funerals of all four deceased family members. Normally the government would only pay for the funeral of the deceased veteran.

Family, friends and neighbours gathered for a vigil in memory of the four on Saturday night in Upper Big Tracadie. Speakers included former Sunnyville United Baptist Church Deacon Clara Jordan, Tracadie United Baptist Church Deacon Alonzo Reddick, local councillor Sheila Pelly, MLA Lloyd Hines and MP for Cape Breton - Canso Rodger Cuzner.

“This vigil is an opportunity for us to grieve together as a community,” said organizer Nancy MacLean. “Many of us are in shock right now, both physically and emotionally.” She said some people are having trouble sleeping, some can’t stop crying, while others are finding themselves unable to cry.

“We have a strong community here in Upper Big Tracadie, Lincolnville and Sunnyville, and all of our surrounding communities as well. And we know that we are strong when we come together, and we can support one another, that’s when we are our strongest.

“Dealing with this incredible loss is going to be a long road,” said MacLean.

As students and teachers returned to Chedabucto Education Centre / Guysborough Academy last Thursday morning, Jan. 5, they were offered support services to help them deal with the sudden death of Aaliyah.

Members of the school and SRSB’s regional incident response teams were at the school offering support and counselling services. This support will be in place as long as it is needed, Principal Barbara Avery told The Journal Monday.

Avery said it is a time of “great sadness” for the school community as it tries to deal with this “heartbreaking loss.”

Pelly, a friend of the Desmond family, said she last saw Brenda, Shanna and Aaliyah at a social event in Tracadie on Monday evening, the day before their deaths. They exchanged hugs and chatted. Shanna told Pelly she had some time off work over the holidays but would be going back the next day, Tuesday evening, for a night shift.

Lionel Desmond had been an infantryman with 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment. He enrolled in 2004 and deployed to Afghanistan from Jan.-Aug. 2007.

According to the Dept. of National Defence, he was posted to the Joint Personal Support Unit (JPSU) in June 2014 until his release in July 2015. The JPSU supports members by providing access to benefits, programs and family services to help them recover.

Shanna and Aaliyah’s funeral will be held Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m. at Monsignor Donnelly Hall, Tracadie. Funeral mass for Lionel Desmond and his mother Brenda will take place at St. Peter’s Church, Tracadie on Wednesday at 11 a.m.