Heather Shtuka reflects on personal journey while looking for missing son
For decades Sun Peaks has offered people from all over the world an escape.
Many come, and stay, in search of a fresh start and to get away from their past. For Heather Shtuka it’s an escape despite the fact she’s returning to the location of the most significant trauma of her life.
In February 2018 her son, Ryan Shtuka, went missing in Sun Peaks after a night out with friends. No trace of Ryan has never been found; two years later Heather returns as often as she can.
From the day he was reported missing Heather has been open with her experience on social media, at first to raise awareness and share information while she was unable to physically search herself, and then as a kind of therapy, sharing and reliving memories with those who knew Ryan or with thousands of people who had not.
“I didn’t expect any of this,” she said, about the, at times overwhelming, social media following and attention. “I just needed something to do that I felt was helping in the search for Ryan… I couldn’t even walk without a limp, so sitting at the command centre, for the first day you’re in shock but after that you sit there and go ‘what is my contribution to finding my son?’
“I don’t think I ever would’ve been able to forgive myself if I didn’t participate in some way. It was just writing the story, and I never thought that I would write one every single day…it was just getting Ryan’s name out there, getting that exposure, getting that awareness. And then it took a turn where I felt it was cathartic.”
She’s able to carry the torch of Ryan’s legacy online and has been applauded for her strength but also been the target of heavy judgments.
“Of course being in that spotlight you open yourself up…the criticisms and failings that people perceive come back to you…I would get the messages that would come through that had the most horrendous things said.”
On top of online attacks, Heather and her family face other reminders behind the scenes that few people know about.
“When you start recognizing you’re the parent of a missing child, you feel over time that there are a lot of violations.
“You get the violations from his credit card and bank, we have no access to that at all…we’ve paid, there is money in the account but we don’t know what’s recurring. But they will send us letters and send us to collections agencies. And Scott will call and they will say ‘well there’s no activity on the bank but we can’t do anything about that’….so every month I get a thing from the bank saying he has bad credit now.”
In addition, the family faces well meaning questions that sting. For example, people asking if they will keep going back to Sun Peaks to search despite the lack of information or evidence he may still be there.
“You feel like you’re on the defensive,” she explained. “If we had found Ryan and there was a memorial bench and Scott and I wanted to come up and visit as a family, not one person would probably fault us for wanting to continue that connection. But for some reason us coming up seems foolish to a lot of people and you get that backlash.”
Two years later Heather remains on unpaid leave from her job and has continued to use perks from her employer to travel as a way to get away. But she worries about how her ever-growing social media following will perceive her posts.
“I work for an airline, even though I’m on unpaid leave I still get to travel,” she said. “People will have their opinions but if they were to ask me…I hate the house that I live in. Every single time I go home after I’m gone for a couple of days the walls close in on me.
“I’ve never experienced anxiety in my life in any form or function and yet my heart beats fast and it races and I can’t quite catch my breath and I find myself having this inability to do much when I’m there. I think it’s because I feel like I’ve lost so much. That house and that city just reminds me of everything I’ve lost. Not just my son and whatever future would’ve come from that and from him, but I’ve lost my job essentially. I’ve lost me, that person that loved experiences, was frivolous sometimes, would look for intentional joy. All of those things. I’ve lost so much of myself and I don’t know how to get it back. So anywhere I can go, if I can come to Sun Peaks, if I can go visit my parents in Florida, if I can just go away for a little bit I feel like I can breathe.
“And people will criticize you for that, because blessed, they have never experienced anything like that.”
In another effort to find purpose in the tragedy, Heather has joined forces with others who have experienced searching for a loved one to work on the Free Bird Project.
The goal of the project is to create a website that can act as a free resource for anyone who needs information on searching for a missing person anywhere in Canada, from which search and rescue teams are available, to waivers for volunteer searchers, to advice on media relations.
With the help of a group of women who bonded helping search for Ryan, the project aims to cover every province and territory.
“I think that’s the one place I find purpose is helping other families.”
Despite the challenges she said she is not a victim or a martyr, but wants to be a motivator.
“I always say I will never, ever, ever say that Scott and I are victims…the true person that that would apply to is Ryan because he is the person not living the life he imagined.”
In the end, she said, the experience has taught her about herself.
“People search for a child they don’t know,” she reflected. “I always think ‘would I have been that person?’ It’s humbling to reflect and say I don’t know if I was. I would be now, I hope I would have been then, but I’ve never been tested.”
She said her family is more communicative and open now with sharing support and love for each other openly. They’ve also experienced a deep appreciation for the community of Sun Peaks.
“The fact that this community embraced us (despite) the kind of publicity that has gone on in the past couple years. (It’s) a very engaged public and if there was anything to do with foul play or something nefarious then Sun Peaks was it (to them). That you guys all know about it and you’re hiding it and covering it up. I don’t think that (Sun Peaks) was always shown in the best light but even to this day people have always made us feel welcome like we were part of the community and we didn’t hinder or detract from what Sun Peaks was trying to create.”
While more days pass without answers, Heather and her family will continue to return to Sun Peaks. Both to look for their son and relish in the feelings of relief that come from being around people who wholly understand.
“I had somebody go ‘Oh my God, two years, how fast time flies.’ No, not for us, it doesn’t really fly for us…I most likely will never get a happy ending. I may find closure in this lifetime I may not, there’s no guarantee.”