This past year, we’ve experienced loss on newfound levels. We’ve grieved privately and publicly, watched the livestream of luminary lightings by WaterFire, gathered in masks outside of the State House and on our own street corners. Many of these have been fleeting moments of healing, but in June, something more permanent is to be unveiled: A flag garden in memory of loved ones taken by COVID-19.
“With this pandemic, it has been impossible for us to gather and share our rituals of honoring and remembering those we have lost,” says Nancy Rafi, artist and chief organizer of the memorial. “So how does a community come together safely to process unfathomable grief?”
Rafi worked for over 20 years with the Silent Witness Initiative, the international nonprofit honoring victims of domestic violence homicides. Her role was to listen to the heartbreaking stories of those left behind and coordinate vigils to offer peace, healing, and awareness in the wake of tragedy. Many of the family members and friends expressed to Rafi how grateful they were for those memorials, which gave them a space to share their sorrow while remembering their loved one.
“It was such an intense privilege for me to do that work,” Rafi begins, “and when I started listening to my own friends talking about their personal losses due to COVID-19, it made me realize that perhaps they, too, needed a place to gather and remember.”
The North Kingstown COVID Memorial is a collaboration between Rafi and the North Kingstown Arts Council, along with a small committee. The lawn at the Old Meeting House on Boone Street will be the temporary home to the installation of individual garden flags until December 1 of 2021, when they will be moved to a permanent location. The flags – each of which will bear the name, age, date of death, and photo of each North Kingstown resident lost to COVID – are being created this month by an army of dedicated local volunteers.
“I am coordinating the sewing end of the project,” explains Suzanne Mancini, owner of The Sew-Op in Wickford. “I have ordered all the materials and prepared everything so that the flags are ready to stitch by our volunteers,” whom she will also offer technical assistance.
Mancini has lived in North Kingstown for 23 years; she’s raised her three kids and started her business here. “I was most interested in this project because of the restrictions placed during the pandemic,” she reflects. “So many folks were alone in the hospital during their final days. Limited funerals were allowed. It seemed to me that closure was not taking place. All of our lives have been touched in so many ways during the past year. This memorial will not only be important to the families of those who were lost, but the community of North Kingstown as well.”
Town Councilor Kim Page has also been instrumental in the project. Since moving to North Kingstown in 2004, Page has become deeply rooted in the community; she was on the school committee for eight years and served as chair for the last three, she currently helps jumpstart small businesses through her job as an attorney, lectures full-time at URI, and is a member of the NK Food Pantry board.
When a former minister friend of Page’s approached her asking about a memorial, Page pitched the idea at a meeting of the Arts Council. They loved it, and quickly formed the committee that Rafi joined, where the artist put her creative skills to work designing a website and banner concept. “This committee is composed of very committed people working to honor the loved ones who passed as well as allow the survivors a place to grieve,” says Page, who notes that at the unveiling on June 5, there will be grief counselors available.
For everyone involved, this initiative has been deeply personal. “I have friends who have lost mothers and fathers, aunts and neighbors. I’ve wept with them from a distance and Zoomed with them, but we all know it’s not the same as hugging someone and giving them comfort up close,” says Rafi. “I can’t think of a single person that I know that hasn’t been impacted in some way by this pandemic. It’s changed all of our lives.”
“Over the last year, we were isolated from one another,” adds Page. “COVID denied the community a means to show they cared for neighbors and friends who died. I am hoping this memorial is one way the community can acknowledge the lost lives of North Kingstown residents and aid in the grieving process. While the vaccine may aid our community physically, I am hoping the memorial helps the community to start healing mentally.” For more information on the memorial and how to get involved, visit NKCovidMemorial.com.