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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.