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As Lewiston mourns, a community pulls together

At first they worried, wondering if a loved one had been killed. Then the professionals who both serve the region and are part of its fabric mobilized to help others.

Chad Poitras, who is planning a service for one of the victims of the mass shooting, stood outside his funeral home in Buxton, Maine.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

See the Globe’s complete coverage of the Maine shootings.

LEWISTON, Maine — Last Thursday morning, while the news was still fresh and the suspect’s whereabouts were unknown, Billie Jo Brito was at her flower shop, the Blais Flowers & Garden Center, mentally preparing for the surge in orders that was sure to come.

Then her phone rang.

It was a florist from Texas, who’d worked through the aftermath of the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. She wanted to share some encouraging words, and offer the kind of moral support that only a peer with experience navigating this type of tragedy could provide.

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“She said, ‘Just letting you know, it’s like every big holiday combined, times ten,’ ” Brito said.

Her advice? “Just keep moving forward.”

In a week that brought unimaginable suffering to this community, professionals who both serve the region and are part of its fabric have leaped into action, helping to offer — depending on their skill set — a tasteful ceremony, a rousing speech, or a carefully trimmed bouquet, to soothe a population stricken with shock and grief.

It has, as the Texas florist warned, been busy for Brito, whose staff is making roughly three dozen deliveries a day. She knows it won’t slow down anytime soon. Arrangements will be needed not just to brighten the living rooms of grieving relatives, but also for funerals, public gatherings, and the makeshift memorials that have popped up around Lewiston and surrounding communities.

At the same time, birthdays, anniversaries, and other happy occasions continue to arrive on schedule, each deserving of a floral arrangement, particularly now.

On Saturday, her team worked all day to build the floral centerpiece of a widely attended vigil at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. They contacted area funeral directors to let them know victims’ families could have arrangements for free.

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Brito has had help, including her mother, who’s been working with her in the shop this week. On Friday, a florist who made arrangements in Newtown, Conn., after the 2012 school shooting also plans to lend a hand.

But so far Brito’s spent so much time on her feet she’s barely had time to think, much less process the trauma of what occurred.

“There are days when I have sat in my car for half an hour and cried,” she said. “Then you just keep going.”

An hour south, in Buxton, Chad Poitras prepared for a funeral he expected would draw as many as 500 people, as the victim — whose name he asked not be shared publicly out of respect for the family — had a large network of friends and colleagues.

Poitras, who owns and operates two Maine funeral home and cremation service facilities, has spent 22 years helping families process heartbreak.

But nothing like this.

“It’s a horrifying situation,” he said. “We’re doing the very, very best we can to comfort when there are probably no words that can be said that can offer comfort for something so senseless.”

As always, he said, the ache is deeper when families never get the chance to say goodbye.

“Especially when it’s something so heinous,” Poitras said. “These were innocent people enjoying a night out and tragedy struck and horror struck. And there’s just no answers for it.”

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Last week’s shooting at a bar and bowling alley, where Robert R. Card II killed 18 people and wounded at least a dozen more, forced professionals in the field of mourning to leap into action, thrusting them into a call to service of unprecedented proportions for the state, even as they were touched by the tragedy themselves.

Jason Guest, who has sold funeral supplies like caskets and urns statewide for more than a decade, said that first thing Thursday, he began sourcing the supplies that might be needed, lest he be caught off guard and keep families waiting to bury loved ones. At the same time, he was scanning the internet, hoping he didn’t have friends or family among the victims. Thankfully, he didn’t.

“It’s definitely been uncharted territory,” said Guest, who is a funeral service consultant for a firm called Matthews Aurora Funeral Solutions and has lived in Maine for more than two decades. There were conversations that I did not ever expect to have to have.”

A week on, locals were also plotting out the next steps for a community emerging from the unthinkable.

Even after a Sunday night vigil that drew more than a thousand people to a church in Lewiston, faith leaders have worked to find ways for residents to grieve publicly.

In neighboring Auburn, Pastor Jonathan Case, at Faith Baptist Church, was planning a candlelight vigil Thursday night, four days after the one on the opposite side of the river in Lewiston.

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“We put our foot forward wanting to help people in our area to heal,” he said.

Case has begun thinking long term about what this all means for his church members and their neighbors. He worries that after the initial burst of public grieving, attention, and support, those touched by the tragedy may feel left behind, particularly as the holiday season soon gets underway.

“When people move on and get busy with life as normal, that is going to be another pain that victims’ families are going to have to suffer through. The presence of help and comfort to stop the loneliness, that’s all going to dissipate,” Case said. On Thursday, he said, he’ll remind them that a higher power “can do a lot more than what mankind can do.”

Public memorials have also offered somewhere for people to process grief. Eighteen white crosses were placed just off Main Street in Lewiston, at Laurier T. Raymond Jr. Gateway Park. Each has a large wooden heart attached, and a black Sharpie dangling on a string so loved ones can leave messages for the victims.

“I love you so damn much,” one of them says.

“I wish I had said good morning more often,” reads another.

Signs reading “Lewiston Strong” dot intersections, lawns, and porches, and are on T-shirts sported by athletes at Bates College, where a ceremony honoring victims was held Tuesday night.

Ahead of a Lewiston High School football game, which was expected to draw a large and emotional crowd Wednesday, celebrities like actor Will Ferrell and current New England Patriots player Mac Jones and former star Rob Gronkowski recorded videos to inspire the young athletes.

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Other out-of-towners have also tried to do their part.

Comfort dogs, which had been flown here from across the country, put in shifts lifting people’s spirits around town. On Wednesday afternoon, a dozen or so tuckered-out pups — including a floppy eared golden retriever named Caleb, from Immanuel Lutheran Church in Valparaiso, Ind. — lay splayed out on the concrete floor of the pub at Lewiston’s Baxter Brewing Co.

Occasionally, he stood upright to accept head scratches from patrons who might have needed a reprieve from this new reality.

Around here, at a time like this, they’re always on the clock.


Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.