Heartbreaking messages from loved ones to family members killed by COVID-19 fluttered on more than 670,000 white flags placed on the National Mall in Washington on Friday in an art installation that captures the magnitude of the US toll since the pandemic began last year.
Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, a Washingtonartist, and her team of volunteers hand-placed the flags over the course of three days to create the poignant exhibit across 20 acres of land in the center of the nation’s capital.
Anprovides a stark picture the toll COVID-19 has taken, but standing among the rows and rows of flags gives visitors a personalized view of the tragedy’s depth.
Families of lost ones posted messages on the flags, with some reading, ‘I miss you so much mom,’ and ‘Forever loved, forever missed. Always in our hearts, forever our inspiration.’
The flags also give families who were not able to have a funeral or a memorial service for their loved ones a chance to pay their final respects and be surrounded by others who understand their anguish.
Although Firstenberg has not suffered a personal loss to COVID-19, her time as a hospice volunteer has taught her to ‘acknowledge the pain of others.’
Firstenberg created this installation to create empathy and unity among a nation so divided, she said.
‘I wanted to make a community over our loss,’ she told DailyMail.com on Friday. ‘We have a lot of things that divide us, but we are all united here.
‘I wanted to create empathy, the physical manifestation of empathy.’
The National Mall’s grounds will be filled with white flags to honor COVID-19 victims in a new art installation by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg
Firstenberg and her team started out with 666,624 flags, but more will be added as the death toll rises. They are already up to 670,000 flags as of the first day. The art piece will stay on the grounds until October 3
Aerial view of National Mall shows patchwork of white flags planted to pay tribute to COVID death toll start of pandemic
Firstenberg only had three days to plant the more than 670,000 flags, and was helped in the project by Ruppert Landscaping and almost 300 volunteers.
‘It was extraordinarily hard to have to plant each one slowly and think about the life that person represented,’ she told DailyMail.com.
A standstill moment for the artist came when she stood by two flags: one for a 15-year-old, another for a 99-year-old World War II veteran. The pair were divided by so many years and different experiences, yet they ended up side by side.
‘The difference in age was fascinating. It speaks to how this pandemic was first favoring the elderly and now everyone is here. Every race, every political bent, is here,’ she said.
Firstenberg’s installation, titled In America: Remember, was originally named almost a year ago. The word ‘remember’ was chosen specifically because the artist thought the pandemic would be under control by September 2020.
‘I named this art because it was going to be September and people were supposed to be going back to work and school. This pandemic was supposed to be over,’ she said. ‘It’s horrifying. I never would have guessed we could suffer this much.’
Firstenberg and her team have since added 4,000 flags overnight to the originally 666,624, in an event she described as ‘heartbreaking.’
When she first purchased flags for the make-shift memorial, she only purchased 630,000, never thinking she’d need more.
When she refreshed the death toll, she had to order 60,000 more and two days ago she had to order another 25,000.
When asked if she thought she was going to have to order more, she paused before saying: ‘I’m going to have to order flags. If this continues, I’m going to have to order more flags. It’s heartbreaking.’
The most heartbreaking moment for her is going to be changing the sign outside the installation with the new death toll each day, she said.
The artist began envisioning the tribute in March 2020 as the pandemic settled in with full force across the US.
She was also spurred to act after Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Americans ‘there are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country’ in an interview with Tucker Carlson.
‘That really disturbed me. I just felt as though someone had to do something to make a statement that with all these people dying, we had to value each of these lives as well,’ she told.
‘Last fall, I create the art out of outrage,’ she told Daily Mail. ‘We were devaluing the lives of the elderly and of people of color. We were devaluing people to a number.’
Her outrage has since lessened by the show of humanity.
She recently saw a deaf man consoling another through an interpreter, a doctor donated flags for the patients he personally lost, and a CDC employee came to take pictures to bring back to the office so his coworkers understood the devastation this country has faced.
Her art was built to honor the lives lost and make sure their stories and memories lived on. She wanted to make sure they were no longer considered a number.
‘It was so important to have on flag for each person. We care and will never let you be a number,’ she told Daily Mail.
Over all of her years as a hospice volunteer, she has seen the pain and suffering on the small, individual scale when families lose a loved one. She said the hardest part for grieving families was thinking their loved one would become just a number and that no one cared.
‘We will never let their loved ones be just a number. Just today, a woman came to the flags and thanked me, because the hardest part of her grief was thinking her lost mother was just a number and no one cared anymore.’
Almost 300 volunteers helped Firstenberg plant the flags, some with personalized notes from loved ones (pictured: volunteer)
Firstenberg announced the installation earlier this summer to allow families to have time to make travel arrangements, but she certainly didn’t forget those who would not be able to make the trip to DC to leave a hand-written note for their loved ones.
In partnership with In America Flags, the artist has made it available to families to fill out awith a message that someone will handwrite for them and place among the others.
The messages that are submitted are printed off and immediately brought to the National Mall where visitors are asked to help volunteers write the love notes and goodbye letters on the flags.
There is also an interactive map that families who use this option can see where their flag was placed and see a picture of the message on the flag.
Some of the heart-breaking messages read: ‘My father was a kind unique soul. He was my best friend. I was lucky enough to have him in my life. He is dearly missed.’
Another read: ‘My beautiful cousin and sister by choice. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of you.’
‘The absence of my mom’s love has left a huge void in all the lives she touched. We love you mom,’ one wrote in the wake of her mother’s death.
The flags were planted in even squares across one section of the lawn by several volunteers
‘We have lost so many loved ones too soon, but we carry the memories with us,’ a positive one said.
And one wrote what so many feel: ‘Wish we had more time.’
After the art installation closes, the flags will be cleaned, kept, photographed, and archived. Some will make it to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Among the 300 volunteers, who help write the messages and plant the flags, some have been impacted by COVID-19 themselves.
Jeneffer Haynes lost her brother John to COVID-19 in January, before he had access to the vaccine. She helps plant the flags to honor and remember those lives.
‘It brings me some form of comfort to keep their memories alive. That’s what this is all about — to memorialize and keep them alive in some way, shape or form,’ she told.
The installation is supposed to show the magnitude of the loss from COVID-19. ‘Encountering a personalized one and then lifting one’s gaze across this immense field…I think that will help people understand the magnitude of our loss,’ the artist said
Messages can be left by family members to honor their loved ones. For those who cannot make it to DC, Firstenberg and her team has a website available for family members to fill out a form and have someone write their message on a flag. They will also be able to use an interactive map to locate the flag and see a photo of the message
So many families lost loved one too soon, including parents and children. The installation is meant to honor their grief and their loved ones lives
Haynes, who had to take medical leave at her job after her brother’s death, now suffers from panic attacks and is still reeling with grief.
Getting to see her dying brother through glass for only 30 minutes a day still affects her, she said. Like so many others, her brother died alone in a hospital room without a loved one to hold his hand.
‘I couldn’t hold his hand, I couldn’t hug him, I couldn’t tell him, “Hey, I’m here.” None of that,’ she told Roll Call. ‘When he passed away, he was without his family.’
Firstenberg’s art installation is the largest interactive piece on the Mall’s lawn since the AIDs Quilts, according to Firstenberg and her team.
And this isn’t the first time she has honored COVID-19 victims either. Last October, when the death toll was in the low 200,000s, she and her team planted 219,000 flags near Washington’s RFK Stadium. By the end of the five-week display, they planted 267,000.
Although there has been talks about a COVID-19 memorial, Firstenberg doesn’t believe the time is now.
‘The plane is still crashing,’ she said. ‘We’re still in the middle of this. But I hope one day there will be a memorial, but now is not the time.’
The installation will run for 17 days until October 3 and volunteers will continue to add more flags as more lives are lost.
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