TRACADIE, N.S. – The funeral service inside the big, old church by the harbour started with the arrival of two caskets — one draped in the Canadian flag and carrying the remains of former soldier Lionel Desmond, the other his mother Brenda.
More than 300 people filled the pews inside St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Tracadie, a small village in northeastern Nova Scotia on the edge of St. Georges Bay. Many onlookers crowded into the entryway of the 200-year-old church, and a handful stood outside, despite a cold, driving rain.
Desmond was a 33-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He took his own life last week after he fatally shot his 52-year-old mother, his wife Shanna and their 10-year-daughter Aaliyah — a ghastly, unthinkable crime that attracted national attention and sparked a difficult debate over PTSD and family violence.
The funeral for Desmond’s wife and daughter is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, across the street from St. Peter’s, at the local hall.
During the Roman Catholic service Wednesday, Rev. John Barry said it was impossible to offer an explanation for such a “horrific tragedy.”
“In the face of such tragedy, it sometimes feels that all is lost,” the priest said. “Inevitably, we all are searching for answers and we are asking many questions … We cry out to God, for he is the only one we can turn to.”
Among mourners were members of the military and the Royal Canadian Legion, as well a few veterans wearing leather jackets with their regiments displayed on the back.
Brenda Desmond’s casket was brought in first and placed in the centre aisle. Her son’s flag-draped casket was brought in next, as a piper played a dirge.
As the caskets were carried to the front of the church, a few mourners at the front wailed with grief.
“I cannot answer all of your agonizing questions … during this dark hour,” Barry said later. “God has all of the answers … Let us be patient and confident that we will one day be able to ask Him, face to face.”
The priest described Brenda Desmond as “loving and kind.” He mentioned her sense of humour, her capacity for hard work and her enduring faith.
“Nothing seemed impossible to her,” Barry said, adding that she always seemed to win at bingo, which drew a laugh from the mourners.
“Brenda led a good life, as short as it was,” he said.
On the cover of the leaflets handed out at the service, a photo of Brenda Desmond shows her in a white construction helmet, a broad smile on her face. Family members say she worked on road construction crews during the warmer seasons.
In Lionel Desmond’s photo, he is wearing the green uniform of the Canadian army, his wide smile very similar to his mother’s.
Barry described Lionel Desmond as “affable and friendly.”
“He, like his mother Brenda, always had a lovely smile, and a pleasant manner and an engaging personality.”
“He was always ready to do whatever he could to help and provide for others. These attributes, no doubt, were the primary reason he went to serve in the Armed Forces in September of 2004.”
“He married Shanna Borden and they brought into this world a little daughter, and he provided so well for them. They were both so proud of her.”
The couple first met when they were in high school. Shanna Borden trained to be a hairdresser, but she later worked as a nurse at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in nearby Antigonish, N.S.
The bodies of all four family members were found in the Desmond home in nearby Upper Big Tracadie, N.S.
Desmond, a former member of the Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a tour in Afghanistan in 2007, and a military source later confirmed he had received treatment before he left the military and returned to Nova Scotia in July of 2015.
Family members say the retired corporal also spent time at a medical clinic in Montreal last year, but they say he continued to struggle when he returned home.
On his Facebook page, in which he called himself “Lionel Demon,” he made it clear he was aware of his mental illness and was committed to dealing with his PTSD, and a head injury that left him with “post-concussion disorder.”
In one post, he said his mental-health challenges helped explain “my jealousy towards my wife and being over-controlling and (my) vulgar tongue towards my family.”
Family members say Desmond appeared to be coping well in recent weeks, but they say he would sometimes let loose with fits of rage and swearing, symptoms common to those suffering from PTSD.
Still, relatives said Shanna Desmond and her husband were working together to deal with the illness, and they even took part in counselling over the phone. On New Year’s Eve, the family gathered with relatives for a lobster dinner, during which Desmonds seemed to be at ease and enjoying themselves.
But at least two relatives later said Lionel Desmond was not getting the help he needed, saying the Canadian Armed Forces did nothing for him once he left military.
A day after the slain family was discovered, a relative said she couldn’t understand why Lionel Desmond was recently refused treatment at the mental health unit at St. Martha’s — an allegation flatly denied this week by a hospital official.
Last Thursday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said an investigation will look into how the province’s health-care system dealt with Lionel Desmond.