The death of Shirley Brooks on March 12 was a devastating loss for her family and many in the Portland area whom she served in the cafeteria at Deering High School for more than 40 years.

Brooks’ funeral service and visitation would have drawn hundreds of mourners. Instead, the family held a private visitation with 10 people in attendance at Jones, Rich & Barnes Funeral Home in Portland. On March 20, the funeral home used Facebook to live-stream the Mass at St. Joseph’s Church and committal service at Calvary Cemetery.

Brooks’ daughter, Colleen Brooks Cunningham of Gorham, said none of her great-grandchildren or friends could attend the service. Only a few relatives logged in to watch the live video stream on Facebook.

Cunningham choked up Thursday, saying it’s been a difficult time for her family and for others grieving the loss of a loved one. Countless funeral and memorial services in Maine have been postponed or moved online as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen and intensify concerns about people being in close contact.

“The level of stress is compounded by the fact that we are afraid for our community,” Cunningham said. “My mother deserved to have a full church and beautiful burial. To have been in that big empty church that we all went to as children, … it just really felt sad.”

Cunningham said one of the most difficult aspects of losing a loved one during the viral outbreak is that grieving families are unable to connect in person with those on whom they normally would rely for emotional support.

“We can’t touch them. We can’t be with them,” she said. “My heart goes out to all the families who are dealing with this.”

Funeral homes across Maine are adapting to help people mourn as best they can. When a death occurs, seeking comfort from loved ones, sharing stories of a life well-lived, laughing, crying and embracing are all part of the grieving process. But current restrictions prohibiting public gatherings of no more than 10 people are interrupting that process.

Michael Martel, local market director for funeral home operator Dignity Memorial, said his organization has teams of people who are ready to serve families on their worst day. He said the safety of his associates and the families they serve is his top priority.

A wedding photo of Shirley Brooks and her late husband Albert Brooks and a photo of Shirley Brooks later in life. Shirley Brooks passed away on March 12. Her family held a funeral mass and graveside service on March 20, and the funeral home Jones, Rich & Barnes streamed it live on Facebook. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Everything is a smaller, private service,” Martel said. “Our professionals know that. Our families know that. It’s matter of working around those rules. COVID-19 or not, a death has occurred. Someone has walked this earth. Someone’s life needs to be celebrated and there are family members grieving, regardless of what’s happening in the world around them.”

Providers are finding ways to allow families to honor their loved ones through Facebook, Zoom and other online formats. But for Elinore Dunton’s family, incorporating technology or holding a small service were not viable options.

Dunton spent her final days at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, surrounded by her five children and large extended family.

Last week, the hospice house made the difficult decision to limit visitors to two people. That was in response to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit exposure to patients, family members and friends – and health care workers.

Dunton died on March 19 at age 80. At the time of her passing, four of her children were by her side saying their final goodbyes. Her obituary said, “A celebration of life service will be postponed due to the prevalence of COVID-19.”

Her daughter, Patti Buck of Buxton, said there are 29 people in her immediate family.

“Even if we wanted to do something on a small scale right now, we couldn’t,” Buck said. “I completely understand and support what measures are being taken to contain the virus, but when you have a celebration of life for someone, it’s a way to honor them. It almost feels like a betrayal to my mother that we can’t do this right now. It’s a way for closure. I feel like we are suspended in grief until we can have a celebration of life.”

Hobbs Funeral Home in South Portland is equipped with cameras to record services and offers Apple FaceTime video calls to allow relatives and friends to communicate with loved ones during services.

Jeffrey Inman, a funeral director at Hobbs, said they are evaluating every case to ensure the staff and the community they serve are safe.

“The families have been very patient and understanding,” Inman said. “I’m planning a private service for a few family members who do not have the virus as far as we know. We’re going to wait until spring to do a full service for them. They were very grateful that we could provide a private service just so they could have closure, which is why I got in this job.”

Conroy-Tully Walker Funeral Homes in Portland and South Portland also are offering private family funerals or the option to postpone the service until a later date.

The funeral provider posted signs in public areas asking people to refrain from any physical affection, such as hugging, kissing or shaking hands. Family members will each receive a mini hand sanitizer bottle. The chairs are spread apart to comply with recommendations for social distancing.

Colleen Brooks Cunningham stand for a portrait outside her office in Saco on Thursday. Brooks Cunningham lost her mother, Shirley Brooks, on March 12.

Adam Walker, owner and funeral director, said once the coronavirus dissipates, he will offer families a memorial gathering at no charge so the community can come together to honor, remember and reflect on the lives of their loved ones.

“We feel for families,” Walker said. “At a time of loss, that’s when you really need to lean on your family, friends and community and come together to honor and remember somebody. With limitations in place, some families are not experiencing that very necessary means of support by the broader community.”

At a time when many are self-isolating and towns are issuing stay-at-home orders, Buck and and her four siblings are holding onto their grief with no relief in sight. Buck said friends have left flowers and food at her door when they normally would have come in to visit.

“We would have hugged. We would have cried together,” she said. “Even though we can see each other through FaceTime, it’s not the same as in person. We live in an age of technology and we are very well connected, but it doesn’t replace the human connection.”


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