The family lives in the southwest Ottawa community of Barrhaven after moving from Halifax, where Fanyan Bu and her partner Yue Liu each earned degrees from Dalhousie.
The couple and their son, as well as a nine-year-old daughter, were enjoying the last day of their stay at a Varadero resort when tragedy struck last Wednesday.
Bu said her 40-year-old husband was playing in shallow waters with their son Connor when an undertow swept them into deeper water.
"(Connor) couldn't swim back so my husband pushed him to shore, tried to push him and the last thing my husband said to him (was) ‘I cannot save you anymore,’” Bu said on Monday.
She said another Canadian identified only as “Woody” managed to take Connor from Yue and get him to shore, but Yue didn’t make it back.
“I think another wave dragged him back to the ocean again,” she said.
“I asked him to come back, I said ‘You have two kids, come home with me, please please please,’ then I passed out. People brought me back to the hotel.”
Family friend Andy Wang said Bu now has to care for her two children and two elderly parents.
Ottawa’s Chinese community and other supporters have already raised $20,000 for the family as of Monday afternoon, he said.
"If that were to happen to anyone you wouldn't want to be alone taking that burden,” he said.
“You would want other people behind you, to be there for you."
Wang said the Canadian consulate has told the family it will cost around $10,000 to bring his body back, plus about another $20,000 for a funeral.
He said they didn’t have any travel or life insurance.
A website has been set up with details on how to donate to help the family at http://comefromchina.com/liuyue/.
Wang said they’d also like to get in touch with “Woody,” calling him a “brave Canadian hero.”