Jennifer Pottinger, who was the foster mother of Shannan Gilbert...

Jennifer Pottinger, who was the foster mother of Shannan Gilbert in the early 2000's, holds a 2003 New Paltz High School graduation photo of Gilbert in New Paltz, N.Y. home. (April 13, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

There was the heartbreak of knowing, finally, that Shannan Gilbert was dead -- and a measure of relief, too, that the agonizing uncertainty was over.

"I'm glad for her to finally have peace," Lori Grove, Gilbert's aunt, said Saturday.

Now that police have positively identified the skeletal remains found at Oak Beach as Gilbert's, Grove said her niece's spirit can be "returned to God, where she came from."

"For me, the grief will go on in the sense of missing her," Grove said.

"I'm just devastated that it ended this way. It's very sad," said Jennifer Pottinger, who was Gilbert's foster mother for two years.

Gilbert's disappearance 19 months ago prompted a search of the Gilgo Beach area that resulted in the discovery a year ago of slaying victims Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman and Melissa Barthelemy. Six more sets of remains were found in subsequent searches earlier this year.

The mixed emotions experienced Saturday by the Gilbert family was something relatives of the other victims know all too well.

"It's sad, but it's a relief," said Melissa Cann, sister of Brainard-Barnes, who had been missing for 2 1/2 years. "Shannan is finally going to be home, instead of being somewhere lost alone."

But then comes the somber realization that "all the hope is gone," she said.

"You've gotten used to holding on to that hope. It's what keeps you getting out of bed in the morning -- that one day she'll come home," Cann said.

Cann said the relatives of the victims have become close, forging their own support group.

"We've been on Facebook since 9 a.m. It's hard. They're not doing good," Cann said of Gilbert's family. "They finally got the confirmation that they've been waiting for. I know what they're going through. You're numb. You don't know how to feel."

Waterman's mother, Lorraine Ela, knew what Mari Gilbert, Shannan's mother, was feeling.

"It's heartbreaking [but] now Mari doesn't have to wonder. Is this the outcome we wanted, though? No."

Cann, Ela, and Costello's sister, Kimberly Overstreet, said that after their hopes of seeing their loved ones alive were shattered, the police hunt for the killer or killers became their focus.

"I'm clinging to the hope for justice," Cann said. "That's what lets you put your shoe on your foot in the morning and keep going."

With Tania Lopez

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