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Why We Need a National Memorial to our Pandemic Grief

Lighting the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool isn’t enough

Illustration © Rachell Coe

The first funeral I ever attended was for my Grandfather. Standing by his graveside on a steamy Miami morning, I paid attention to the despair surrounding me. Tears quietly streamed down my Grandmother’s face; my mother and her sisters bowed their heads. I cringed as the mounds of dirt thumped onto the coffin shoveled by each one of us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

I was 24 years old; fortunate to make it into my second decade before shaking hands with grief.

Driving home, I watched cars speed by and marveled that everyone was oblivious that we were trapped inside the car, claustrophobic to our sorrow. It was a sunny day, but no one was aware of our individual darkness.

During the week of shiva and for days afterwards we held each other, we told stories and we ate too much food. There was laughter and many tears; we were filled up with love. I hoped that the memories people shared about him had been voiced before he died. It was exhausting but also cathartic. I thought I understood the process of mourning then. It prepared me for the loss of others, including my father and my Grandmother years later.

I doubt that any of us could prepare for the ways COVID has changed our relationship to death and what it means to grieve as a nation.

The overwhelming sadness is so pervasive; some days I’m afraid to read the paper or look at social media. Early morning or late night phone calls from friends and relatives are the worst; I’m shuddering before I even answer.

Every day it feels as if I hear about the death of someone’s friend or family member, an acquaintance or a notable stranger — either from COVID or from circumstances that one can imagine has been hastened by this pandemic that is killing people in our community.

Yet, we are mostly alone in our grieving, aware that many in-person gatherings have become super-spreader events.

We text our condolences or post them on social media. Sometimes, we send a card. But we don’t attend funerals, memorials or even sit Shiva in person these days. It’s all done by video calls. There are no long hugs, no holding hands, no human connection to support the ones who’ve been left behind. We’ve been forced to separate ourselves from the dead and those who are in mourning. It was a huge relief that our President-elect on the edge of a historic inauguration urged us to grieve. For reasons most of us will recognize, it felt remarkable but also appropriate to lead into the celebrations by mourning this past year with the first-ever lighting of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool.

About the 400 luminaries, which represented the 400,000 lives lost, Biden said, “To heal we must remember, and it’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal.” Across the country people lit candles and many buildings were lit up.

But was it enough?

I know there have been discussions about leaving the lights up permanently as the mortality figures continue to grow each day. Will we, as a nation, work together to permanently memorialize everyone and this moment in history?

History has shown us that people prefer not to remember the magnitude of death from plagues; unlike our war dead, there’s nothing patriotic about dying from an invisible foe.

In May, the New York Times reported on the two small markers for the 50 million who died in 1918. The article also quoted Catharine Arnold, the author of “Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts From the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History.” “To die in a firefight, that reflected well on your family. But to die in a hospital bed, turning blue, puking, beset by diarrhea — that was difficult for loved ones to accept. There was a mass decision to forget.”

I believe that like the many Holocaust Memorials, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the center dedicated to 9/11, we must never forget.

Photo Eli Wilson

Photo Eli Wilson Dreamstime.comBefore the lighting at the Lincoln Memorial, there had been individual efforts to remember those we’ve lost.

In March, Twitter site “Faces of COVID” launched to put a human face on the statistics. Created by Alex Goldstein, he wrote about his experience of memorializing the dead in The Atlantic and why Americans need to remember this time. “We have a responsibility to affirm the basic dignity of our dead, proclaiming that their lives had meaning,” he wrote, “and that those who loved them are not alone in their grief.”

Perhaps this same idea motivated a group of friends in Washington to launch the COVID Memorial Project and raise money online. In September, they gathered volunteers and placed 20,000 flags on the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument, each representing 10 American lives. That number seems paltry now compared to the current statistics.

This was followed in October by artist Suzanne Firstenberg’s installation when 240,000 flags were placed at the DC Armory Ground in front of RFK Stadium.

Various cities have also focused efforts on supporting families and the members of their own community who’ve lost their lives. From ribbons to empty chairs to small plaques, there’s been an outpouring dedicated their memories and to help the grief-stricken. On January 25, the City of New York created a visual memorial in the subway to honor the 100+ MTA transit workers who lost their lives the past year.

All of these noble efforts are commendable, but no individual effort to quantify our loss of life will be enough. We may never know when the last person has died from this virus. There will be no white flag from the enemy.

We need a permanent memorial to this crucial moment in our history, a place to commemorate our national and worldwide loss.

When you compare the many monuments, museums and structures to war, hopefully we can agree that this silent battle we are waging against COVID is at least equal.

Scrolling through the photos of beautiful war memorials I’m struck by their magnificence. These are places for people to gather and remember. They are places for loved ones to know that their beloved’s lives weren’t lived in vain. They are also a historical reminder of our survival; we need one for this time in our history.

Uruguay was the first country to announce a memorial to remember the victims of COVID worldwide. On the website, architecture and urbanism designer GomezPlatero states, “the memorial aims to continue building a collective consciousness that reminds us that mankind is not the center of the ecosystem in which we live since we will always be subordinate to nature.”

In December, NPR reported on the idea of a national memorial and quoted Paul Farber, director of the nonprofit Monument Lab. “The time is now,” he said, “Because we are both mourning our losses and fighting for our lives, it’s important that we have urgent forms of commemoration.”

One day I hope to be standing with my friends and family at a memorial. Perhaps we will be surrounded by the names of cities across our world and the numbers of people lost. We will be able to touch it, feel it and remember them.

Like the walls at Yad Vashem, it will be a visual reminder of all we’ve lost and the urgency to work together to prevent it in the future.


For our children and ongoing generations, hopefully, we will be confident in saying, “Never again.”


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