Missing From Me
Tellwell Talent (2022)
“Empowering people to Create connectivity in their communities.”
Heather Shtuka was an ordinary daughter, wife, friend and mother of three beautiful children. In between all these titles, she went to school, played sports, made friends, skinned knees, had first kisses, butterflies, broken hearts, adventures, a career, a wedding and three uneventful but deeply moving births. A perfectly imperfect life, one of her own making. Until February 17, 2018, when she received the notification that her first born and only son, Ryan was missing from Sun Peaks, B.C. She waved goodbye to him only two months earlier as he left on his own to work a seasonal position in the ski resort, 9 ½ hours away, never imagining this would be the last time she would see him.
With her years’ experience as a Guest Service Manager with a major airline, Heather drew upon her strong background in training and leadership to create a command center to coordinate thousands of volunteers in the search for her son. Using social media platforms, she expanded awareness for Ryan where over 33,000 members converge for information.
In the wake of her son’s disappearance, Heather became a passionate advocate of missing persons. In collaboration with three amazing women, a non-profit that supports families of missing people was founded. The Free Bird Project’s mission is to provide resources, skills, and loving support to families of missing loved ones, giving them the toolset to plan their searches.
After graduating from MacEwan University with a degree in public relations, Heather uses writing as a way to raise awareness for those still waiting to find their way home.
Hi Heather. Thank you for joining us today at Reader Views. Tell us about your book, Missing from Me.
Thank you for having me. My first-born son, Ryan, disappeared after attending a party in the ski village where he moved for a winter season of working and snowboarding. Missing from Me chronicles his disappearance and the year following. The book is divided into three parts. The first part describes the normalcy of our family until the night of February 17, 2018, when we received the notification that Ryan had gone missing. The second part of the novel details the search and rescue efforts my husband and I undertook to find our son and the coming together of a community to help us. The third part is the transition back home and trying to come to terms with our loss while still advocating for Ryan.
How did you come to the decision to sit down and write this book about what happened to your beloved son, Ryan?
I think I always knew that I wanted to tell Ryan’s story. I envisioned this as a way to preserve his memory and leave a legacy that would endure long after Scott and I were gone. But knowing and doing are two separate actions. I struggled with procrastination. There always seemed to be some reason I couldn’t start writing. March 2020 changed that. With the pandemic, everything and everyone came to a stop. Suddenly there was no good reason not to tell the story. My husband Scott was probably the most instrumental in encouraging me to use that time given to me.
How has writing through the different expressions of grief been therapeutic for you?
It has allowed me some measure of forgiveness. Writing my thoughts and reading my posts allowed me to reflect on the situation we found ourselves in. At the time, all I could see was failure and all I could express was guilt and fear. Now looking back, I can see that so many things were out of my control and that I did, and we did our best in the face of an unimaginable tragedy. There comes a measure of peace that has been therapeutic for me.
Your involvement at every stage, from rescue coordinator to missing-person advocate, is commendable when many people may have easily fallen apart. Can you tell us about the how your proactive participation aided in the processing of your grief?
I wish I could tell you that it was this formidable strength that I knew always was inside me, but that is simply not true. If you had told me five years ago that I would be faced with the loss of my son, I would have told you with certainty that I would be curled on the floor in the fetal position, too numb with grief to move. But walking into that command centre on Monday morning to find no one there and that the search for Ryan had been called gave me the realization that if our son were going to be found, it would be up to Scott and me to do it. We had no choice but to put our grief aside and focus on the logistics of bringing Ryan home.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself through this journey?
That all the adjectives I used growing up to dismiss or diminish myself were the very things that gave me the strength to do the unthinkable. Words like bossy, stubborn, talks too much or takes up too much space are how I described myself to people. Later on, I tried to joke about traits I thought no one would like about me. I’m not bossy; I am proactive. I’m not proactive, I just have a dynamic personality. The last four years have taught me that I may be some of these things, and they can be useful, but I am also much more than that. I can be kind and attentive. I can be graceful and thoughtful.
It is said that raising a child takes a village, but the same can be said about losing one and it sounds like your community came together with unwavering support. What does/did that support mean to you at the time and do you feel it has strengthened your community as a whole?
The community and support we received was a lifeline that I will forever be grateful for. The grieving process, especially ambiguous loss, can strain any relationship. Each person grieves and uniquely processes loss. Some may close off and make no mention of the person they lost. Others may have difficulty moving forward. If two people are at two ends of the spectrum, they may lose their way together. Having our community surround us allowed Scott to vent his frustration about the search with his friends and me to cry with my girlfriends during the day so that when we came together at night, our only focus was to comfort and support one another. I don’t know if people recognize what a gift that is.
Can you share a favorite story about Ryan?
There are so many. But one of my favourites was Mother’s day. Ryan had been in trouble and as a result, I grounded him. The weather was beautiful that day, and he could hear the sounds of his friends playing outside. He begged and pleaded to be released from his grounding. The truth was that Ryan’s whining was more painful than the initial offence. For supper, my dad had made paella filled with seafood of every kind, including baby octopus, which I won’t eat. I made Ryan a deal; if he, the pickiest eater, would take a bit of the octopus, I would let him go. I watched as he took a bit, swallowed it, and almost managed it. Then came this green look to his face, and he went outside on the deck to throw it up. For a moment, I felt bad, but he came in triumphant. According to the terms of the agreement, he just had to eat it, not keep it down. Outside he went, bragging to his friends.
What do you want people to come away with after reading Missing from Me?
I hope some pieces resonate with them. I am, by no means, an expert on parenting, marriage or grief. This is not a how-to book. Each person navigates grief uniquely. I just hope that someone struggling can see that there is a way to move forward for us. Never moving on but a way to honour our son and still be present for our two daughters and ourselves.
What do you want them to remember about Ryan?
He was so much more than one night on February 17th. He lived almost twenty-one years and made a mark on everyone who knew him. I want people to remember Ryan for all he was and is, not for one tragic night.
What kind of response have you received from readers about Missing From Me?
It has been overwhelmingly positive. People have told me that they feel as if they know him, which is an honour for me. It means that I did justice to his story. Another response was how shocked they were reading about the reality of search and rescue efforts. Every family deserves to have the resources to bring their loved one home.
You mention on your blog that you find yourself in an incredible paradox with the writing and publishing of Missing from Me. Can you explain?
It is so bittersweet. To be praised for writing a story that resonates with people, yet you wish you never had to write it. I am always at a loss when people talk to me about the book. The words “enjoy” as they purchase feels wrong, as much as people saying, “I loved it.” We both know what we mean, but it feels weird nonetheless.
Tell us about The Freebird Project and the mission behind the organization.
Within a couple of weeks of Ryan going missing, another family experiencing a similar tragedy reached out to us. Tammy Neron and Kate Sinclair’s brother disappeared after taking off in a plane. The insight they offered was invaluable, but it was the support that gave us that we will forever be thankful for. Our relationship continued, and we all knew we wanted to pass our knowledge to other families. In this way, we could find a purpose in our tragedies. Along with my dearest friend, Coco Vogel, we formed a non-profit. Our mission is to provide support and resources to families with missing loved ones.
Is this organization open to volunteers or are there other ways to help? Where can readers learn more?
People can do such amazing things that will have a real impact on families going through a tragedy such as ours. Sharing posters, conducting meal trains, and donating snacks, money, or equipment are simple acts anyone can do. We set up command centres on behalf of families and call out to volunteers in the neighbourhood who would like to canvas or help with search efforts. Readers can go to our website www.thefreebirdproject.com to learn more.
How are you and your family? What does your life look like today?
We are moving forward. That phrase changes daily, I think. Most days, it is feeling a little less brittle than the day before. On other days, it feels like groundhog day that never ends. But perhaps those days occur less often. I am starting to feel a little more light coming through these dark clouds.
Are you able to find peace in all you have done to preserve Ryan’s legacy?
Yes. Every day, we spread awareness for Ryan, and this book offers a way to create an everlasting legacy that I believe my son would have created for himself if he were here. For now, that is enough.
Is there any advice you can offer to others in the same situation?
You are the advocate for your loved one. It is okay to push and ask for accountability. It matters not whether a person has gone missing willing, unwillingly or unknowingly; there is always someone left behind that wants to know what happened to them and to bring them home.
CONNECT WITH HEATHER SHTUKA
Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2052336918380120
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063737283623
Instagram Author Page: https://www.instagram.com/heather.shtuka/
Instagram Find Ryan Shtuka: https://www.instagram.com/findryanshtuka/