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Personal Essays

Saying Goodbye With Lanterns in Labrador

August 13, 2016
Friends and family light lanterns for Jeffrey Loder from Goose Bay Labrador

There are a pantheon of dark and horrible things in life that you hope you never have to deal with.  Suicide is one of them.

Last week, my partner Rob and I flew to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador for the funeral of his young cousin, Jeffrey Loder.  The Thursday morning before, Jeff shot and killed himself.

Suicide is hard to talk about.  It’s an ugly, dark dog.  It’s too permanent.  There are no solutions.  No more possibilities.  No take-backsies.  There is nothing to put back together because the pieces are gone.  Life is not the same.

Yellow lanterns for Jeffrey Loder float in the sky in Labrador.

Yellow lanterns for Jeff float up to the sky. (Mel Hattie)

On the edge of the map

Labrador is in Canada’s north and is very isolated.  Not many people know much about it, so I’m just going to quickly introduce you.

Labrador is known as “the Big Land”, and it is.  There are few people and endless skies.  You can see the northern lights here.   You can also see icebergs and whales.  The climate can be  sub-artic or humid continental.

If you spread everyone who lives there out evenly, you could walk about 11 square kilometres before ever running into another person.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is one of two large towns in Labrador.  There are about 7,500 people there, and despite the vast landscape, people are close.  Everyone knows each other.  Everyone talks about each other.

In these beautiful but isolated communities,  suicide is often endemic.

When you fly over southern Labrador, it looks kind of like someone took a mountain range and sliced off all the tops — bare, harsh rock and sandy earth stare up at you. There is a sparse covering of spindly trees and thick blue veins of rivers and lakes pulse through. Basin cliffs stick up unapologetically.

30 kilometres north of Goose Bay there’s an Innu first nations community of about 1,300 people called Sheshatshiu. Even further north lies the remote and mountainous Torngat Mountains National Park.

If you challenge nature here, you will lose.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the kind of place where Friday nights mean driving around with friends, getting into alcohol or drugs, getting into trouble. Maybe speeding through one of the town’s two sets of traffic lights. You might go to the one movie theatre in town. There’s no recreation centre. There’s no gym.

The kind of place where you don’t buckle your seat belt because, “What are you going to hit out here?” and a good house party can grow to be the thing of legend (Rob once threw a jello-wrestling party in his parent’s basement in 2006 and, much to his dismay, it gets brought up every time we go back).

The last permanent psychiatrist in Goose Bay left last year.

A heart-shaped red balloon floats in the sky for Jeffrey Loder of Labrador

A heart-shaped red balloon floats in the sky for Jeffrey Loder of Labrador. (Mel Hattie)

So there we were

We landed at the airport around 7pm. Rob’s parents picked us up. We headed straight to Fillatre’s — the only funeral home in town. It’s the second time I’ve been there.

Standing outside Fillatre’s, I see a quick succession of half-ton trucks whip by — all pulling fancy skidoos or boats. The Muskrat Falls development has brought a lot of money into a community where there’s really not much else to spend it on. Homes, trucks, skidoos, booze, repeat.

As we head into the funeral home, I see a small, stark sign tacked to the door frame above the viewing room. It’s one of those black changeable boards with white letters, like what you’d use to identify a class for an old school photo.

The sign said, “JEFFREY LODER – AGE 20 YEARS – FUNERAL 2PM THURSDAY”

On Thursday morning we went to the funeral home for a private family service to say goodbye to Jeff, then we ate a quick lunch and drove down to join friends and community members for Jeff’s public funeral. His softball team formed the honour guard, their bright orange jerseys lighting the corridor for Jeff’s casket to pass through.

It was hard to tell exactly how many people were in the huge room, but I heard the number 450 thrown around a few times. People were laughing and crying, singing and holding each other.

Like boats at sea, all week people were fighting to stay afloat as they were hit with wave after wave of emotion. Sometimes it’s nice to just let the wave come.

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There were pins and stickers made with Jeff’s picture on them. All his friends and family wore them, showing their solidarity. (Mel Hattie)

Jeff’s family chose the Salvation Army to do the funeral, and the pastors Brent and Melissa Haas led the community through honouring his memory, while inviting people up to share stories about the good times, and consider our choices in life while also acknowledging the issue of youth suicide in Labrador.

At one point, Brent even pulled out and performed part of the service wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey — Jeff’s favourite team.

Releasing the lanterns

After the funeral, friends and family gathered at the place known as ‘the causeway’, where the Trans-Labrador highway crosses the Churchill River just outside of town.

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Jeff’s friends started arriving in a clearing at the edge of the river, just down from the highway. They skipped rocks, waiting for everyone to arrive.

Trucks, SUVs and Jeeps started pulling in around dusk, finding space on the gravel beside the highway that headed up to the Muskrat Falls work camps.

Jeff’s friends gathered at the river’s edge with his sister, Jodi, and on the highway above with Jeff’s mother, Rob’s Aunt Pat.

One of Aunt Pat’s best friends, Michelle, organized the handing out of lanterns. Michelle lost her own son, Clay, last year in a dirt biking accident. Clay was Jeff’s best friend.

As everyone was writing messages to Jeff on their lanterns, Michelle said, “Now. I know today at the funeral we already said goodbye to Jeff’s body. Now I want you to release his soul… When you light these balloons and send them off, I want you to think of a good memory you had with Jeff.”

Beers and torches came out of trucks and then slowly — big paper lanterns wearing messages of love and memories written in sharpie started to drift up and over the water, lighting a path in the dusk. The lanterns formed a warm glow of aching hearts, drifting south.

There’s something magic about sending messages up to the clouds. People smiled with wonder and delight as the flotilla of lanterns flew high and warmed the sky. They remembered Jeff. Through memory, each bit of tissue paper and fire transformed into a shrine for the boy who died too soon.

Death is still death. Hard is still hard. Despite the long road ahead, as the lanterns floated over the river I think I felt at least some of the darkness being lifted. Even if just a little.

On Jodi’s arm there’s a tattoo in cursive writing. It’s a short proverb that reads, “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”

Rest in peace, Jeffrey Loder.

Lantern for Jeff Loder floats over the Churchill River in Goose Bay Labrador

During the funeral, Jeff’s family — Aunt Pat, Uncle Colin, Jodi and others — collected donations to be used to fund a crisis centre at the Labrador Friendship Centre.  If you’d like to make a donation, please contact the friendship centre. You can also find them on Facebook.

Here’s a list of suicide crisis centres across Canada. Labrador does not have one, but you can call any of them from wherever you are. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is feeling depressed, please talk to someone.

Jeff was an organ donor and his heart, liver and lungs were able to go on to help other people. Here’s how you can register to be an organ donor.

  • Reply
    Jo Jo Rideout
    August 13, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    i am sitting in Montreal in a restaurant and crying. I found this piece so moving and so appreciate you having written it to share. My heart aches for all people who are in such pain that suicide seems the only way out. The lantern release is so gorgeous..so full of hope.
    much love

    • Reply
      Glenda Cabot
      August 13, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      Mel this piece really touched my heart. We were unable to be at Jeff’s funeral. Thank you for sharing your experience.

      • Reply
        Mel Hattie
        August 14, 2016 at 9:45 am

        Thanks Glenda. That’s good to hear.

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      August 14, 2016 at 9:45 am

      I love you Jo Jo! ❤️

  • Reply
    Ardella Pike
    August 13, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Beautiful and sad all at once. Suicide is an ugly beast and my heart aches for Pat, Colin and Jodi. Jeffrey’s heart will beat for someone else for hopefully many years to come, they can find comfort in that. Great article.

  • Reply
    Angele Yetman
    August 13, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Beautiful piece. I was lucky enough to live down the street from Pat and her family for a few years. My heart breaks for them. Sadly Labrador is not only the Big Land but once you live there. You realize that it can be the forgotten land. The government is not providing what is needed. Hugs Pat, Colin and Jodi.

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      August 14, 2016 at 9:52 am

      Thanks Angele, I think you’re right.

  • Reply
    Kelly
    August 13, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Mel, Robert really is a lucky guy to have you in his life. You are a wonderful photographer and writer. You’ve really captured the pain and sadness and yet the love and hope as well. Thank you for that.

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      August 14, 2016 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Kelly — the luckiness is mutual.

  • Reply
    Roseann
    August 13, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Beautifully written, very touching; our thoughts and prayers are with Patsy, Colin and Jodi.

  • Reply
    Wendy
    August 13, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Beautifully written, suicide has affected so many families, it is something we will never fully understand even though it has affected so many of us personally.

    I am in awe that this family is looking at setting up a crisis centre in memory of their loved one, I will be sending a donation in memory of my 3 brothers who also died at the hands of this ugly thing they call suicide.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to the Loder families.

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      August 14, 2016 at 9:59 am

      Thanks you Wendy, and so sorry to hear about the loss of your brothers. The perseverance of people left in the wake of suicide amazes me. Thanks for your note and all the best.

  • Reply
    Jonathan
    August 14, 2016 at 12:07 am

    Beautiful Article. ..I was born and raised in Labrador, Actually Lanse au clair pop. approx 350 .I also suffered Anxiety and depression and once attempted suicide. Its vast land ..Big skies…big mountains…Beaches…fishing…Beautiful ocean…is ultimately stunning and often breath taking.
    Underneath this Beauty lies a forgotten people in many ways ,left alone to survive to fend for themselves….Not only mentally but also physically. Many times wandering where the next meal comes from,When the mail is going to arrive,when the next Dr is going to arrive,…The list goes on and on..And unfortunately it continues.
    I left Labrador 31 years ago to seek,Support, Education, Employment and thankfully survived .
    I frequently return to visit my homeland and pay visits to my family and relatives who still live there. I fine a mix of emotions waiting as I arrive but as the few days come and go the beauty of the ocean. ..walks on the beach..and the love of family, find their way in my soul .And Its then i start to settle in and enjoy the visit.
    My heartful wish is and always have been for the people to have access to proper medical care..mental health support and Addiction services. I hope someday my wish will come through…..
    My condolences to Jeff’s family and friends.

    Peace
    Jonathan Dumaresque
    Regina Sk

    • Reply
      Mel Hattie
      August 14, 2016 at 10:01 am

      Thanks for telling your story Jonathan. I think the things you shared ring true for a lot of people. I hope your wish comes true someday too.

  • Reply
    Terry Casey
    August 14, 2016 at 8:41 am

    Life on this earth is short!!!

    As an educator I have often used the metaphor, “the breath of life is like a painter’s brush swiped across the sky, in rainbow colours”. Once those colours fade, life fades.

    Working with children, young men & women, and parents over the last 30 years has brought with it both joys and tears. We often wonder what life really is? Just as Dillion Wallace once wrote, we are “lured to this land” and further to this we are “lured to one another”. We say the Big Land, and with this comes a vastness, often untouchable, but contrary to this, living here has created many connections via family and friends. There have been times in Southern Labrador and this Big Land when people have been faced with tragedy. Over the years I have espoused that we are not just a support for our families and neighbours, we are a support for one another!

    In all walks of life, over the last few years there has been a greater focus placed on mental health. Centres have to become a reality, so I encourage you to make a donation and support our crisis centres. We have to be a voice and advocate for all, in the hope that our leaders come on board and throw their support to this very worthy cause. We can’t allow large international companies & corporations to take all from us, they have to give some back. I will be a voice to promote this.

    My condolences to both the Loder & Pittman families. We will always remember CLAY & JEFF, as they are now guiding us……stay strong!!!

  • Reply
    Steven Buechler
    August 15, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    A very touching piece on an issue that effects us all. Kudos on your skill and for bringing this forward!

  • Reply
    sandraphinney
    August 15, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Thank you for this.

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