Three years after her son Ryan Shtuka went missing, Heather Shtuka said the pain has just begun to lessen.
“It’s gradual, it’s not like this aha moment,” she said. “Ryan is still the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. .It’s not that I miss him less, talk about him less, that I don’t look at his pictures every single day…but I feel maybe less brittle. I feel like the edges aren’t quite as sharp as they were when this first happened.”
Ryan, the son of Heather and Scott Shtuka, disappeared after a night out with friends on Feb. 17, 2018 and he, or any clues, have yet to be found despite extensive searches and an ongoing police investigation.
In an email Kamloops RCMP told SPIN they still receive and follow up on tips and review the case but still have no answer as to what happened.
It’s left his family and friends in limbo without answers and with search options dwindling by the day. It’s a situation Heather said she wouldn’t wish on anyone, but those who do experience the unimaginable pain may find some relief in her new projects.
The first, the Free Bird Project, was launched alongside others who have missing family members as a way to gather and provide information on searching and support.
Recently the group became a non-profit organization which is responsible to a board and any funds raised will be used to directly help other nonprofits or families searching for a loved one.
The goal 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, providing details ranging from which search and rescue teams are available, to waivers for volunteer searchers, to advice on media relations.
“It will have links to organizations, civilian services like the avalanche and disaster dogs, you know all of these ones that are volunteers that are outside provincial, official sources that people can look to,” Heather said. “What we want to be able to do is have something by province…so if it’s the middle of the night or if you as a family didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to us as an organization you could certainly look through the website and find the information that you need.”
In addition to Free Bird, Heather has made significant progress on her goal of writing a book about her experience.
During the first few months of searching for Ryan she regularly wrote and published updates and about her personal experiences to social media platforms.
“I knew I wanted to put something on paper. I wanted something permanent that would showcase Ryan’s life. I wanted something, long past after Scott and I have left this earth, some sort of evidence or sign that Ryan was here and he impacted others.”
She said she knew she wanted to include her original social media posts but not how to start.
“How do you begin up…I struggled with that over a year, how to get started. The posts were all sitting there waiting…but I couldn’t get it started. How do you talk about a life that’s so average, so ordinary?”
She said with time off of work due to COVID-19 she was able to sit down and start.
“It just started flowing; I’ve been writing almost every single day.”
Her writing will talk about Ryan, their time spent searching for him in Sun Peaks and the first year after.
She’s set a goal for herself to complete the first draft by April 1, 2021.
In the meantime the family hopes to travel to Sun Peaks to quietly mark the third anniversary of his disappearance. Throughout the years, visiting and continuing to search in the community has been an important part of the family’s healing and searching efforts.
While working on her projects, she has had to grapple with not being able to visit Sun Peaks as much as usual because of travel recommendations related to the pandemic.
“It was out of our control, which I think made that easier,” she said.
She explained that their previous visits from their home in Beaumont, Alta,, usually monthly for a few days at a time, were becoming costly and draining.
“We knew we were going to have to transition,” she said. “But I don’t know if Scott and I would’ve been able to know when that moment came that we had to do something different. I think we struggled with that, when was the right time? Would there be a right time?
“The reality is that COVID forced us, it took away our options. It took away our control and I think that was a breather for us…we couldn’t come up for the safety of the community.”
But searching is still a priority for her and the family as long as they are physically able, she said, as it connects them to Ryan and the relationships they’ve built in the community.
Until then, work will continue on her book and Free Bird. In June her eldest daughter will turn 21; Ryan was one month away from turning 21 when he went missing.
“He’s part of our everyday [lives]. You think you’ve processed it really well but every once in a while something will come up and you recognize that this is a journey that we’ll be on for the rest of our lives.”