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Visitors See More Than Just Grief And Loss At COVID-19 Memorial In D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most of the time when you take a stroll along the National Mall here in Washington, D.C., your eyes are drawn to the Washington Monument, standing tall in the middle of wide-open space. But this week, it's the space around it that demands your attention. From a few blocks away, it looks almost like water. Come closer, and you see row after row of white flags, thousands of them. And when the wind picks up...

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

ELAINE WANG: It almost sparkles in a way, kind of like sequins.

MARTIN: Elaine Wang (ph) is a medical student in Washington, D.C. For her, the beauty of the sea of flags is a stark contrast to what it represents, the more than 680,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19.

WANG: It feels almost wrong in some way, given that, you know, with so many lost, you want to be mourning and frustrated and angry that the pandemic has taken a hold of our nation in such dramatic ways. But it is really beautiful.

MARTIN: It is beautiful and strangely familiar, reminiscent of another place that commemorates grief and loss buried nearby, Arlington Cemetery, with its row upon row of white gravestones. Here, each flag is inscribed by hand with the name of someone who died from COVID and sometimes their stories. We bumped into another visitor, Audie Santoyo (ph), just as she was trying to reach her mother Claudia (ph) on the phone.

AUDIE SANTOYO: Mom's letting me down today.

MARTIN: She wanted to walk virtually through the memorial with her mom, an ER nurse in Chicago. Santoyo has been worried about her all throughout the pandemic.

SANTOYO: It's just so scary to think about what could happen and knowing - like, my aunt, she's a nurse in Mexico as well. And she got it. And sadly, it didn't go the way we wanted to. It's really hard to accept death overall in life. So, I mean, I have gone through it. But it hasn't been so, like, everyone in my life, whereas with my mom, a lot of her friends did unfortunately pass away.

MARTIN: Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg created this project, which is called In America: Remember. She's been hearing similar stories from visitors. When we meet up with her, she's talking with and comforting a woman whose father's name is inscribed on one of the flags.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you...

SUZANNE BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: You take good care...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Very much again.

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: ...Of yourself. And...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I will. And my mom really appreciates this.

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: And take good care of your mom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I will. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Brennan Firstenberg told us she's able to hold space for people's grief, in part because of her 25 years as a hospice volunteer.

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: But I break down. I'll tell you, every single day, I'm walking amongst these flags. I'm writing flags for people. And it just brings me to tears, like this one that I'm about to plant. It's Dr. Peter L. Yu, the first doctor who passed away from COVID-19 in South Bend, Ind. He went to work one day and never left.

I just couldn't let people's deaths become simply a number. And the white flag is perfect. People can write on it to personalize it in honor of a loved one whom they've lost. And white, of course, is the color of innocence and purity. None of these people wanted to die from this.

MARTIN: How have you seen people responding to the work?

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: You know, I knew that they would bring their grief. But I got to tell you, this installation has taught me that America is hurting. We are hurting.

MARTIN: How so?

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: The grief is overwhelming. And so many people have said to me, Suzanne, this is the first time I've been able to cry. It's a safe space for grief. But what that also says is we in America need to figure out our relationship with grief.

MARTIN: So you did this once before, when there were under 300,000 deaths due to COVID. That was last year. Did you imagine that it would get to this point?

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: I had no idea it would get this bad. I ordered these flags, specially made for this installation, in June. And I ordered 630,000 thinking we would never reach that number. I've had to reorder twice.

MARTIN: Brennan Firstenberg asks that visitors look at one flag and then imagine the concentric circles of grief around that flag - the family, the neighbors, the friends, the coworkers, the people in their faith community and the medical professionals who treated them.

BRENNAN FIRSTENBERG: It's the physical manifestation of empathy. And when people see the names on flags, it really does spur empathy.

MARTIN: That was Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. Her installation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is called In America: Remember. If you'd like to dedicate a flag to a loved one, you can find instructions on inamericaflags.org. And you can visit the installation through next Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.