Heartbreaking messages from loved ones to relatives killed by COVID waved Friday at more than 660,000 white flags placed Friday on Washington’s National Mall in an art installation that captures the magnitude of the U.S. toll since the pandemic began last year.
Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, a Washington DC artist, and her team of volunteers placed the flags by hand to create the poignant exhibit on 20 acres of land in the center of the nation’s capital.
An aerial photo paints a stark picture of the toll COVID has taken, but standing between the rows and rows of flags gives visitors a personal view of the depth of the tragedy.
Families of the missing posted messages on the flags, with some text: ‘I miss you so much mommy’ and ‘Forever loved, forever missed. Always in our hearts, forever our inspiration.’
The flags also give families who were unable to hold a funeral or memorial service for their loved one a chance to pay their last respects and be surrounded by others who understand their fear.
“For Americans who have lost a family member to COVID, there will be no normal to go back to,” Firstenberg said Time. ‘Encounter with a personalized’ [flag] and then lift your gaze over this immense field… I think that will help people understand the magnitude of our loss, both on an individual basis and on a national basis.”
The National Mall grounds will be filled with white flags in honor of COVID-19 victims in a new art installation by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg
Firstenberg and her team started with 666,624 flags, but as the death toll rises, more will be added. The artwork will remain on the site until October 3th
Firstenberg’s installation, titled In America: Remember, will last 17 days and volunteers will continue to add more flags as more lives are lost.
The artist started imagining the tribute in March 2020 as the pandemic settled in the US in full force.
She was also urged to act after Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Americans in an interview with Tucker Carlson “there are more important things than life, and that is saving this country.”
“That really disturbed me. I just felt like someone had to do something to make a statement that with all these people dying, we need to value each of these lives too,” she said. NPR.
“I wanted to focus on my message. My indignation led me.’
Firstenberg didn’t forget those who couldn’t make the trip to DC to leave a handwritten note for their loved ones.
In collaboration with In America Flags, the artist has made it available to families to create a form with a message that someone will write for them and post among the others. There is also an interactive map that allows families using this option to see where their flag was placed and a picture of the message on the flag.
Some of the heartbreaking 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 sorely missed.’
Another read: “My beautiful cousin and sister of choice. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.’
“The absence of my mother’s love has left a huge void in all the lives she has touched. We love you mama,” someone wrote after her mother’s death.
“We lost so many loved ones too soon, but we carry the memories with us,” said one positive.
And one wrote what so many feel: ‘I wish we had more time.’
Among the 300 volunteers who help write the messages and plant the flags, some have been affected by COVID-19 themselves.
Nearly 300 volunteers helped Firstenberg plant the flags, some with personal notes from loved ones (photo: volunteer)
The flags were planted in even squares over part of the lawn by several volunteers
Jennifer 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 gives me a kind of comfort to keep their memories alive. That’s what this is all about – to commemorate them and somehow keep them alive,” she said. Roll Call.
Haynes, who had to take medical leave from work after her brother’s death, now has panic attacks and is still reeling from grief.
The fact that she can only see her dying brother through glass for 30 minutes a day still hits 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 died, he was without his family.”
The installation should show the magnitude of the loss from COVID-19. “Meeting in person and then lifting your gaze over this immense field…I think that will help people understand the magnitude of our loss,” said the artist
Family members can leave messages to honor their loved ones. For those unable to reach DC, Firstenberg and her team have a website available for relatives to fill out a form and have someone write their message on a flag. They can also use an interactive map to locate the flag and see a picture of the message
So many families lost a loved one too early, including parents and children. The installation is intended to honor their grief and the lives of their loved ones
When Firstenberg first bought flags for the makeshift monument, she only bought 630,000, according to NPR. Refreshing the death toll, she had to order 60,000 more.
She ordered even more as the memorial opened at 11am today.
“I just ordered another 20,000,” she told Roll Call.
Her art installation is the largest interactive piece on the mall lawn since the AIDs quilts, according to Firstenberg and her team.
This is also not the first time she has honored COVID-19 victims. Last October, when the death toll was less than 200,000, she and her team planted 219,000 flags near Washington’s RFK Stadium.
As a former hospice worker, Firstenberg knew firsthand how trauma affected those around her. She “discovered” her studio to start the first project before the donations poured in to help her finish it.
“At first we gave in to our lesser selves, and I hope seeing all these flags gives our country a moment to pause and think about who we are,” she told Roll Call.
“This says something about who we are as Americans.”
The installation will be on the National Mall until October 3.