Memorial to fallen Mountie becomes a time of healing for many
October 13, 2023 By Paul Pickrem
The ordinarily busy beach was quiet as the late afternoon breeze rocked arching coconut palms. Waves of turquoise sea gently nudged and lapped against the white sand before ebbing to make room for the next.
The beaches continue for miles. But on one tiny slice of this earthly paradise where tourists flock to “get away from it all”, to forget and escape the stress and challenges of their lives, a wave of red approached from The Sanctuary at Grand Memories Resort, nestled beachside at Varadero, Cuba.
Around 6 p.m., over 60 resort guests wearing red shirts poured out onto the sand to gather in front of a gazebo where a camera was set up on a tripod. Like a throng of pilgrims, they returned to this place to remember rather than forget, to sit with and face the life challenge of grief and loss.
Every red shirt was emblazoned with a heart framing a memorial ribbon of Nova Scotia Tartan over the numbers 2020-4-19. It marks the year, month and day RCMP Cst. Heidi Stevenson, of the Enfield Detachment, was murdered in the line of duty when she single-handedly confronted a gunman ultimately responsible for 22 deaths during a 13-hour rampage across several communities in Central and Northern Nova Scotia.
The bottom two lines of the shirt said N.S. Strong over Reg # 45161, the Regimental Number of the twenty-three-year veteran RCMP who would have been close to retirement as this group photo to honour her was being taken.
May 2, 2023, was the second ritual gathering on this beach to stand together on the sand as one. One year before, almost to the day, a similar-sized group clad in the same red tops gathered there for the first photo during the inaugural Cst. Heidi Stevenson Memorial Fitness Trip.
Both times, they came to honour a wife, mother, daughter, comrade in service and respected community member. Wearing the red was an act of solidarity and tribute.
The mood on the beach was sombre and hushed, considering the size of the cohort. Many quietly removed sunglasses and shoes, walking barefoot on the sand to form a wall of red for the camera.
After the photographer checked the shot, hugs were shared freely. Some tears were wiped away. As in 2022, tears mingled with the sea, ebbing away with the retreating surf.
The Stevenson family lingered off to the side for a quiet moment.
Stevenson’s husband, Dean, stood alone on the water’s edge, silhouetted against the softer colours of the evening light as the red shirts began to file from the beach.
In early 2020, Heidi and Dean Stevenson had looked forward to joining long-time friend and fellow RCMP Cst. Cheryl Ponee for a week-long Caribbean fitness vacation in April at this same resort, along with their two children and her mother. Ponee, a fitness instructor for several resorts in Cuba, organized the trip through her fitness business NRG2GO.
The family’s vacation plans never materialized. Ponee cancelled the trip after Stevenson’s death.
“Police officers are human,” said Ponee. “Everybody’s gone through some type of loss in their life, and it could have been as recent as last year or maybe it was 20 years ago. But it’s still a tragic loss.”
A new purpose
In time, Ponee rescheduled and reorganized the event to bring grieving family, colleagues and friends together in a relaxing tropical environment to memorialize Stevenson.
On April 30, 2022, after two years of planning and delays due to travel restrictions, 71 family members and retired and serving RCMP from several provinces joined with friends of Stevenson at the same resort. During a week of daily workouts on the beach and poolside, gala dinner events, live music and entertainment, participants enjoyed each other’s company in idyllic surroundings.
That relaxed ambiance created a safe space to allow strong emotions associated with loss and grief to roll in and then ebb much like the rhythm of waves rising and ebbing on the beach.
The first memorial ended with a request by Stevenson’s family and several participants to plan the second event, which happened at the same location from April 29 to May 6. Sixty-one currently serving RCMP, retired RCMP and several members of the public took part.
As the original architect of the event, Ponee thought of it as a vehicle to bring together a small circle of family, friends and fellow law enforcement personnel to deal with their grief over the loss of Stevenson. Serendipitously, several members of the public, many of whom didn’t know Stevenson personally and with no law-enforcement connection, but who had suffered the grievous loss of a loved one, have also found solace and healing during the memorials and the lasting relationships formed with other participants.
“Police officers are human,” said Ponee. “Everybody’s gone through some type of loss in their life, and it could have been as recent as last year or maybe it was 20 years ago. But it’s still a tragic loss. And by bonding with other people that have gone through a similar experience, it is healing. I think that’s important for everybody to remember this trip was for Heidi, but so many more things came from this trip beyond my wildest expectations.”
Moms meet on the beach
Barbie Burkert had signed up to attend the first memorial week in 2022 as she struggled to cope with the grief of losing her 15-year-old daughter Nicole to suicide six years ago.
Burkert recalled how a chance meeting during an evening stroll on the resort helped her progress towards healing.
“During that trip, there was a beach party, and I was walking down towards the beach, and a lady was walking towards me. I don’t have very good eyesight; it was dark, but I could tell it was Heidi’s mom,” Burkert remembered. “So, I went up to her as we were crossing paths and said, ‘Hi. you don’t know me. My name is Barbie, and as one mother who has lost a child to another mother, do you mind if I hug you?’ And she said, ‘No, not at all.’ So, she and I had quite a nice little chat.”
The two grieving mothers met again the next day for coffee and shared stories of their lost children’s lives.
“She shared stories of Heidi with me, and I shared stories of my daughter Nicole with her,” Burkert said. “No one else on that trip could quite understand, as you don’t when you haven’t lost a child. And even though her child was older and an adult, they both died in horrific ways, and it leaves you with a trauma and a loss. And a sense of sadness. She had made peace with the world, and so had I. It was very comforting to know we were both in the same place.”
Burkert was comforted by the compassionate and kind reception received during the week of events.
“What was pleasantly surprising to me was when I got talking to people and they found out I wasn’t a police officer and I wasn’t a friend of Heidi’s and I didn’t know her, but that I wanted to be there to pay tribute to her and I also lost a child so I was in a lot of pain myself, they really became like my friends. They really got to know me and would hug me every time they saw me, all of them,” Burkert said.
“I even almost forgot they were police officers because they came with their hearts, not their badge,” she said. “Grief is hard, really hard. It’s isolating.”
Barbie Burkert returned in 2023 with her son and daughter, who also struggled with the death of their sibling.
“This trip was so healing for my entire family, seeing people overcome grief and pulling together,” Burkert said.
A timely opportunity
For Wendy Abramson, this year’s memorial fitness event was well-timed. She lost her son Brogan, a volunteer firefighter and medical first responder, four years ago in a motorcycle accident on May 28, 2019.
“When something like that happens, it changes you and the rest of your life forever,” Abramson said.
“It was in the month of May. And May is always my worst month of the year because if you’ve ever lost anybody suddenly like that, you know, every time it comes to that month, your brain goes into automatic. You think, ‘Oh, this time four years ago, he was still alive, and we were having dinner.’ Just being around other people that have lost somebody that they love greatly… it definitely helped me,” Abramson said.
A change of perspective
Fitness instructor Tina Rowe had helped Ponee lead exercise classes during the first memorial. However, weeks before leaving for this year’s trip, something changed her perspective on the memorial. Rowe unexpectedly lost her lifelong friend.
It definitely meant more to me this year because I could feel what they felt, which I hadn’t the year before,” Rowe said. “I could sympathize before, but this year I could really empathize. I made healing stone necklaces for everyone and brought them because that’s what they were doing for me.”
“So yeah, it’s definitely a healing experience for me as well and it just lets you know that life does go on, but together it just makes it that little bit better,” Rowe said.
Resources for coping with grief and loss are available at mha.nshealth.ca.
Information about future plans for the Cst. Heidi Stevenson Memorial and Fitness Trip is available on Facebook at NRG2GO FITNESS.
Paul Pickrem is a freelance writer and storyteller based in Nova Scotia.
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