Floral hearts comfort grieving families of pandemic dead

When artist Kristina Libby started the Floral Heart Project to give the survivors of COVID-19 victims places to mourn, she was thinking of people like Michelle Pepe.

The last time Pepe saw her father was just before she went into quarantine after contracting the coronavirus — and unwittingly infecting both parents. Her last goodbye to him came by phone.

Family members were unable to visit him at the hospital, nor could they hold a funeral service for him after he died in Delray Beach, Florida. Instead, they held a socially distanced, 15-minute graveside burial in Boston. Pepe watched via video conference call as she continued to care for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis and was recovering from COVID-19.

“We never had any closure. … He was treated, as they were back then, as diseased,” she said, “a body that nobody wanted to touch.”

Similar stories can be told by countless families, survivors of a pandemic that has now claimed more than 500,000 lives in the United States. Living in New York in the early days of pandemic, Libby was saddened that families had no public memorials, so she decided to act.

Each week she would construct and lay large floral hearts around New York City.

“I would watch people kneel down and pray. I would watch people sort of kiss their fingers and then kiss the heart,” Libby said. “It was allowing them to feel like it was OK to admit our sadness in this moment.”

Libby expanded her efforts outside of New York with the help of volunteers and donations from large floral companies like 1-800-Flowers and Bloom Studios. So, on Monday, floral hearts were laid in 75 locations nationwide in remembrance of the victims of COVID-19.

In Tempe, Arizona, Tara Krebbs honored her jazz-loving father with a floral memorial at the Arizona Heritage Center. He died in the summer after contracting the virus.

“I think it’s just a really important step nationwide, but especially in Arizona, that our community sees our numbers have been bad,” Krebbs said, “but this is a part of our history. It’s not a beautiful part, but it needs to be remembered.”

In the Boston metro area, three separate floral hearts were placed in different towns throughout the day. Pepe, Jill Federman and Lisa Mazerolle, who lost their fathers within days of each other, visited all three.

The women hugged as they visited the first one, each of them holding a single yellow rose and photographs of their fathers. They knelt silently and placed the flowers inside the heart-shaped wreath.

Federman, whose 83-year-old father died almost a year ago, describes this as the worst year of her life.

“I feel like I’m in a nightmare and I just can’t wake up,” Federman said in a recent video call with Pepe and Lisa Mazerolle. “I wish I could wake up and my father be here.”

“It’s really about not just memorializing them but raising awareness,” Mazerolle said. “The more awareness, the more people might understand, like, `Oh, wow, this could happen to me.’”

“There’s no other outlet for our grief. We have nothing,” Pepe said.

The three say they have become like sisters and plan to create another memorial in April around the anniversary of their dads’ deaths. They consider Libby’s efforts both moving and vital.

“It’s just so precious that Kristina thought to do this … and all of these volunteers, to memorialize our dads,” Pepe said. “They deserve it.”

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“One Good Thing” is a series that highlights individuals whose actions provide glimmers of joy in hard times — stories of people who find a way to make a difference, no matter how small. Read the collection of stories at https://apnews.com/hub/one-good-thing

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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