Former soldier Lionel Desmond and his wife Shanna were in counselling as the pair struggled to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder, and she seemed content the day before they died in a murder-suicide, friends and family said.
“They were working to be a family,” Rev. Elaine Walcott, a relative, said Friday. “They were working against a common enemy: PTSD.”
And in the days before tragedy struck Tuesday, when Lionel Desmond fatally shot his family and then himself, it appeared the enemy was on the run.
Sheila Pelly, another family friend, said she met with Shanna Desmond and their daughter Aaliyah the night before the killings.
“She was very happy, and we all thought she was very happy,” said Pelly, deputy warden of the Municipality of Guysborough. “I gave her a hug, and her little girl.”
The RCMP confirmed Friday that autopsies showed the deaths were a murder-suicide.
Desmond was diagnosed with PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan in 2007, and last month he apologized for “freaking out” on friends and family in a social media post.
He had received PTSD treatment from the military. But it remains unclear what level of care — if any — was provided by Nova Scotia’s health system after he left the Armed Forces in 2015.
Relatives have come forward to say the 33-year-old Nova Scotia man was unable to get help more recently when he went to St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish, N.S.
That was on Jan. 2, the day before Desmond killed himself, 31-year-old Shanna, their 10-year-old daughter and his mother Brenda Desmond, 52.
Catherine Hartling, Shanna Desmond’s aunt, said the couple had taken part in counselling over the phone to help them deal with his rapid mood swings.
“That’s just part of what they did,” Hartling said in an interview, noting that Shanna Desmond was well acquainted with the health-care system, having worked for more than a year as a nurse at St. Martha’s, a 30-minute drive west of their rural home in Upper Big Tracadie.
The former soldier received treatment in Montreal in May of 2016, but there was little help for him after that, which frustrated his wife, Hartling said.
“Shanna said, ‘The man is asking for help.’ And she said the military was not paying any attention to him. And he was working hard at getting help.”
Walcott, a spiritual adviser for the community, said Lionel Desmond made it clear on his own Facebook page that he was fully aware of his mental illness and was committed to dealing with his PTSD.
Pelly said Lionel Desmond confided in her husband in the hours before he killed his family and himself.
“(He) said he wasn’t happy and had to do something with his life,” she said. “He said he had to make some changes in his life ... and my husband told him to go see the right people. He seemed normal ... My husband said, ‘If you’re feeling that way you should go do something about it, you know you can’t go on living like this.“’
Hartling said it appeared Lionel Desmond was making progress, his outward appearance and actions offering few clues about his inner torment.
“They seemed to be doing OK,” she said, recalling how the family joked and laughed easily during a lobster dinner on New Year’s Eve. “He was good. Absolutely. But with a sick brain, you don’t know what is going on.”
Walcott said she couldn’t understand why Desmond was apparently refused treatment at St. Martha’s the day before the shootings. His bid to get help should be recognized as an act of sheer bravery, she said.
“What kind of courage, what kind of stamina, what kind of fortitude did it take Lionel to bang at that door, after he’d already been losing hope that the country he went to defend and the service he gave ... didn’t count for anything when he needed help.”
The Nova Scotia Health Authority issued a statement this week saying those in need of emergency help would not be turned away.
“We do not turn away anyone who requires admission as assessed by a psychiatrist,” the Jan. 5 statement said. “If there are no local beds, a bed is found elsewhere ... St. Martha’s consistently has capacity for inpatient admissions if required.”
The hospital’s mental health inpatient unit consists of 10 beds.
However, the authority said the rules are different for those who do not require emergency care: “Outpatient intake services triage referrals so anyone who is in serious need but does not require emergency services, is seen quickly, usually within five working days.”
On Thursday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said an investigation had started into how the province’s health-care system dealt with Desmond.
“The Department of Health and Wellness and the Nova Scotia Health Authority are gathering information internally so we have a better understanding of what may or may not have happened,” Health Minister Leo Glavine said in a statement released Friday.
“We have to be careful not to draw any conclusions without having all of the information. Once we have a clearer picture of what happened, we will look at what can be learned and whether there are things we should be doing differently.”
During the RCMP news conference Friday, the Mounties could not say when the family died, or anything about the two guns that were found in the house, including what kind they were or who owned them, whether Lionel Desmond was living in the home, or whether police searched any other crime scenes.
“We will continue to work through this investigation until we understand exactly what took place to their best of our ability,” said Cpl. Jennifer Clarke. “It’s a very unique and tragic and very disturbing case.”
An online fundraising campaign to help pay for the Desmond family’s funeral expenses had received more than $10,000 in donations by late Friday afternoon. The gofundme.com campaign is aimed at raising $30,000.
Veterans Affairs Canada typically pays for the funeral, burial services and grave markers for eligible veterans. However, relatives of the Desmond family have suggested the federal government should also pick up the costs for the family.
A spokeswoman for the department said she couldn’t comment on the request, citing privacy concerns. But the department issued a statement late Friday spelling out its obligations.
“Veterans Affairs is committed to remembering the service and sacrifice of those who have served,” the statement said. “Funeral and burial assistance is provided to veterans who die of a service-related injury or illness, or to those in financial need as determined through a means testing of their estate and, if applicable, that of their survivors.”Report Typo/Error