Cristina Pastia will very likely never know happened to her mother and father on Sept. 12, 2009.
Pastia, then 20 years old, was living in Burnaby, studying criminology at SFU, and expecting her parents to return from a three-week trip from their home country of Romania.
"The day they were supposed to come back, I found out they are not," says Pastia, a tiny, thin woman with wide brown eyes.
Friends of the family informed her there had been an accident, but later that day, Pastia's uncle told her what the allegations were: that her father had killed her mother and then himself. Pastia fell utterly apart.
"That was the first time I completely lost it. I've never done it since."
From the beginning, Pastia was perplexed. Her parents' marriage seemed happy, and there was no history of abuse or violence. There was a note, allegedly left by her father, but the signature didn't match the one Pastia had seen him regularly use. Romanian police eventually closed the case, but Pastia was left bewildered.
"There are a lot of things that don't make sense," she says. "I don't know that he did it. I don't know that he didn't do it. I don't want to believe that he did it."
Pastia was left to deal with the aftermath with support from friends but her family was far away in Romania. She fought with Romanian police to have her statement taken and grappled with bureaucracy for the documents needed to make funeral arrangements and ensure the wills were carried out.
For roughly six months, Pastia was in shock. She buried herself in school, pumping out papers and earning good grades. She was accepted to the fall 2010 honours program, but sheer exhaustion caught up with her. She would start crying a lot and became frustrated over small issues. Pastia decided to take a year off school.
Pastia searched online for information about the grieving process but was frustrated with the sappy tones, pastels and floral motifs that glossed over the worst.
"When I really experienced all the ugly parts, I felt something was wrong with me. I needed the acknowledgment that it's horrible," she says. Also, about four months after her parents died, Pastia started volunteering with Women Against Violence Against Women, in the office and on the crisis line, helping women escape violence.
Counselling others gave Pastia hope that she would get through her loss.
"I'd spend my time talking to people on the phone. They'd been through these horrible situations," she says. "It made me think I could learn to live with it."
Pastia spent two-and-a-half years with WAVAW and is now volunteering with B.C. Victims of Homicide, a small organization that helps people who've lost loved ones to murder. Pastia works mostly in the office, making lists of resources, compiling information on death benefits. She also finished her honours thesis and has already started the master's program in SFU's school of criminology. She was originally considering law school but has since shifted her focus to helping victims of violent crime.
"It's the one thing that really seems to fit for me and my life," she says.
On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Pastia received the Terry Fox Gold Medal at SFU, reserved for one student each year who demonstrated courage in the face of adversity. "That's really intimidating, honestly," she says. "It's unbelievably flattering and also a little scary. It feels like a lot to live up to."
The ceremony was held just before the Terry Fox Run.
Pastia still struggles with day-to-day activities, and the sudden loss of her parents will always be a part of who she is.
"It doesn't go away. It's really hard to, I don't know, do anything. I don't know how to explain it. Everything reminds me of it."