Recently installed on a large grassy expanse of Washington D.C.’s National Mall near the Washington Monument is a sight that is hard to ignore. Covering the area, there are more that 600,000 small white flags. They comprise what ABC News’ Michelle Stoddart refers to as a “chilling exhibition” by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg called “In America: Remember.” Each flag represents a life lost to the pandemic, and each sit “amid a sea of symbolic grief,” she reports.
“On one small, white rectangle is the name of a 29-year-old engineer,” says Stoddart. “On another, the name of a World War II veteran, and on a third, that of a 15-year-old.” More names are being added daily as visitors walk among the flags on more than three miles of paths to view the exhibit, many stopping at a table to pick up a magic marker to personalize a flag with the name of a loved one lost.
“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 on both an individual basis and on a national basis,” Firstenberg explains to ABC. In the fall of 2020, she had installed a similar exhibit of 200,000 flags near RFK Stadium in Washington representing the then current death toll. Time passed. The pandemic continued. Since then, the scope of the new project has more than tripled.
As a recent Time magazine article points out, America has always struggled to memorialize our national tragedies. There is currently no national recognition of the pandemic’s human, societal and emotional cost. The “In America: Remember” exhibit, officially unveiled today, will only stay on the National Mall lawn until Oct. 3.
As Time magazine’s Simmone Shah reports, “In response to the ongoing national tragedy, communities around the country are finding their own ways to mourn the individuals within the numbers with local memorials. They are also pushing for permanent, national recognition of the pandemic’s toll. The urge to memorialize follows all tragedies, whether individual or national.” The COVID-19 pandemic represents the biggest national emergency the country has seen since 9/11. It also “highlights important questions about how and why we acknowledge loss,” says Shah.
National memorials create a focal point for recognizing losses that have shaped our national history. Equally important, they create a dedicated space for grief. Not all worthy tragedies are recognized. “More Americans died from the 1918 flu than the number of soldiers killed in World War I, yet there are few public memorials or sites of memory that recognize the flu’s death toll,” she points out.
Seth Bruggeman, the director of the Center for Public History at Temple University, explains to Time that no matter how neutral they might seem, monuments “are always arguments about the past.”
As psychologist Katherine King cautioned in a Psychology Today report last year, with the onset of the pandemic, “grief is finding its way into many of our intimate personal lives.” It requires special space to deal with it, she says. “We humans are meaning-making animals, and rituals help us understand and emotionally process the events of our lives. They demarcate important times of transition and transformation, and the loss of someone close is just such a time … Rituals help create the space for us to emotionally process our loss. The ritual creates a container for such experiences and often helps keep these feelings from consuming the rest of our days.”
Ken Dokais works as an expert in end-of-life care for the Hospice Foundation of America and has written books about aging, dying, grief and end-of-life care. In a recent Kaiser Health News report, he speaks about a current state in this country of “disenfranchised grief,” where many mourners “feel they don’t have the right to express their loss openly or fully because of the cultural stigma about how the person died … Refusing to face the truth about what killed a family or community member can make the grieving process much harder.”
Kaiser Health News reporter Brett Sholtis says nearly half the families he interviewed for his story asked that COVID-19 not be mentioned in obituaries or death notices. “Some families wanted to have their loved one’s official death certificate changed so that covid was not listed as the cause of death.”
“Doka predicts that Americans who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 in communities where the disease isn’t taken seriously may also encounter similar efforts to shift responsibility — from the virus to the person who died.” The emerging term for this is “death shaming,” or shaming those who die from COVID-19, and you have to wonder what has brought us to this place so devoid of empathy for someone’ loss?
A recent Cleveland Clinic health report underscores that we have been heading toward a profound state of “empathy fatigue” for some time now. “With so many competing priorities of what we should care about and pay attention to, it’s starting to come at a cost to our mental health,” they write. “What many people don’t realize is that our ability to relate to and care for others (aka our empathy) is a limited resource. If we drain our empathy account, we can end up feeling some pretty negative emotions.”
Psychologist Susan Albers explains, “Over time, we start to see people experiencing a sense of numbness and distancing or difficulty continuing to care.” Empathy fatigue is also being seen as a form of secondary traumatic stress disorder.
Times are tough, but nonetheless, we need to get a grip. As wise old Texas Baptist Minister Joseph Fort Newton once proclaimed, “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”