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BELFAST, Maine — Leone “Kitty” Harriman, a 71-year-old who contracted coronavirus at the Commons at Tall Pines in Belfast, was the 35th Mainer to die of the disease.
But the illness won’t define the Northport resident who fed what seemed to be the entire town with the pickles she canned every summer and who connected with everyone she met.
Her family won’t let it.
“My mom is more than just a number,” Melissa Harriman Staples said.
Because of the pandemic, the family hasn’t been able to hold a celebration of Harriman’s life yet. But Staples has created a space to publicly grieve her mother, and those in the state who have died from the disease: a Facebook group called “Remembering Maine’s COVID-19 — Every Number has a Name.”
The 2,300 members use the group to share stories, memories, photos and obituaries of the people the state has lost. They wrote comforting notes on Mother’s Day, urging the recently bereaved to go easy on themselves. And they seem to share a common goal — a desire to remember the humanity behind the statistics.
The Facebook group shows one way that Mainers are dealing with the grief of losing loved ones as they grapple with not being able to mourn in person with each other.
“My brother was the eighth person to die from this awful virus,” one woman wrote of her brother, Joseph “Mac” Daniel MacDonald, of Biddeford. “Forever loved and never forgotten.”
For Staples, the pain of losing her mother is still sharp, the ragged edge of loss unsmoothed by time. But the fact that people are using the group in the way she had hoped is a balm.
“I want others like myself to find peace in knowing that they aren’t alone and that others care,” she wrote on the page. “Thank you all thus far for your kind words not only for my mom (my family) but for other families, too. It definitely helps in the healing process for losing someone, and I am forever grateful.”
After Harriman fell ill from an infection in January, she spent weeks in and out of intensive care and then rehabilitation centers.
“The infection was brutal,” Staples said. “She struggled for eight weeks.”
Then things took a turn for the better. Harriman went to the Commons at Tall Pines, where she was gaining strength and was on the road to recovery. Physical and occupational therapists were working with her and she was able to walk more steps, her daughter said.
“She was proud, and we were making plans for her to come home,” Staples said.
But on April 9, those plans were upended when the family learned that Harriman had tested positive for COVID-19.
The outbreak at The Commons at Tall Pines, one of the worst in the state, ultimately led to 32 patients and 11 staffers testing positive for coronavirus. Thirteen residents died.
For more than a week, Harriman was considered asymptomatic, her daughter said, but then she began feeling sick. Always optimistic, Harriman believed the illness would pass.
“I’ll get through this,” she told her family. “It’s just a little bump in the road.”
But the end came swiftly. She died the morning of April 19.
“We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye,” Staples said. “We were preparing for her to come home. That’s the hardest thing. She wanted to come home.”
Home and family were practically synonymous with Harriman. She had been married to Frederick Harriman, her high school sweetheart, for almost 50 years. The couple had two daughters, Staples and Shelley Patten, and even though life wasn’t always easy, they knew what was important.
“Of course they had hard times, in the 70s and 80s, but they always made sure their family had everything,” Staples said.
Every year, her husband planted a big vegetable garden, and every August and September, she turned the zucchini and cucumbers into something special.
“She made great, amazing Christmas pickles and amazing zucchini relish,” Staples said. “She cooked not just for the family but, it seemed, for the whole town of Northport.”
Harriman had a generous spirit, and as a girl, had wanted to go into nursing but couldn’t afford the training. She worked as an accountant, then a homemaker, always holding on to her love of helping others.
“She just always took care of people,” Staples said.
As her family — which includes four grandsons and many others who loved her — searches for ways to honor Harriman’s memory, they want to share that caring spirit. They are raising money for a scholarship to help someone from Northport go into the medical field.
“This will actually keep my mom’s legacy alive,” Staples said.
So, she hopes, will the Facebook group.
“I want people to be remembered as a person and not a number. I want people to know about her, and the others,” she said. “I want them to know about our loved ones.”
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