Heartbreaking messages from loved ones to family members killed by COVID fluttered on more than 660,000 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 Washington DC artist, and her team of volunteers hand-placed the flags to create the poignant exhibit across 20 acres of land in the center of the nation’s capital.
An aerial view provides a stark picture the toll COVID 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 one a chance to pay their final respects and be surrounded by others who understand their anguish.
‘For Americans who lost a family member to COVID, there will be no normal to go back to,’ Firstenberg told Time. ‘Encountering a personalized [flag] 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.’
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. 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’s installation, titled In America: Remember, will run for 17 days and volunteers will continue to add more flags as more lives are lost.
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 NPR.
‘I wanted to focus on my message. My outrage led me.’
Firstenberg 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 a form with a message that someone will handwrite for them and place among the others. 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.
‘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.’
Among the 300 volunteers, who help write the messages and plant the flags, some have been impacted by COVID-19 themselves.
Almost 300 volunteers helped Firstenberg plant the flags, some with personalized notes from loved ones (pictured: volunteer)
The flags were planted in even squares across one section of the lawn by several volunteers
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 Roll Call.
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.’
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
When Firstenberg first purchased flags for the make-shift memorial, she only purchased 630,000, according to NPR. When she refreshed 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’s lawn since the AIDs Quilts, according to Firstenberg and her team.
This isn’t the fist 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.
As a former hospice worker, Firstenberg knew firsthand how trauma affected those around her. She ‘basically defunded’ her studio to start the first project before donations came rolling in to help her finish it.
‘Early on, we gave in to our lesser selves, and I hope now that seeing all these flags gives our nation a moment to pause and to think about who we are,’ she told Roll Call.
‘This says something about who we are as Americans.’
The installation will be at the National Mall until October 3.