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Floral hearts comfort grieving families of pandemic dead

March 3, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
In this June 19, 2019 photo, Jill Federman hugs her father, Harvey Federman, in Hingham, Mass. Harvey Federman died from COVID-19 in Colorado on April 8, 2020. (Jill Federman via AP)

NEW YORK -- 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, Fla. 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, Ariz., 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."

In this May 27, 2018 photo, Lisa Mazerolle hugs her father, David Post, during her wedding at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel, in Boston. David Post died from COVID-19 in April 2020, at age 79. (Chris Mazerolle via AP)
In this May 27, 2018 photo, Lisa Mazerolle hugs her father, David Post, during her wedding at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel, in Boston. David Post died from COVID-19 in April 2020, at age 79. (Chris Mazerolle via AP)
In this March 4, 2020 photo, Bernie Rubin, 82, sits with daughter Michelle Pepe in a hot tub in Boynton Beach, Fla. Rubin died the following month from COVID-19. (Michelle Pepe via AP)
In this March 4, 2020 photo, Bernie Rubin, 82, sits with daughter Michelle Pepe in a hot tub in Boynton Beach, Fla. Rubin died the following month from COVID-19. (Michelle Pepe via AP)
In this Aug. 27, 2020 photo, artist Kristina Libby constructs a floral heart in New York City's Washington Square Park to honor the victims of COVID-19. Libby realized that the community had no physical space to mourn, so she began her project of laying floral hearts across the city. (Erica Reade via AP)
In this Aug. 27, 2020 photo, artist Kristina Libby constructs a floral heart in New York City's Washington Square Park to honor the victims of COVID-19. Libby realized that the community had no physical space to mourn, so she began her project of laying floral hearts across the city. (Erica Reade via AP)
In this Aug. 27, 2020 photo, a man stops to look at a floral heart honoring the victims of COVID-19 that was made by artist Kristina Libby in New York City's Washington Square Park. Libby realized that the community had no physical space to mourn, so she began her project of laying floral hearts across the city. (Erica Reade via AP)
In this Aug. 27, 2020 photo, a man stops to look at a floral heart honoring the victims of COVID-19 that was made by artist Kristina Libby in New York City's Washington Square Park. Libby realized that the community had no physical space to mourn, so she began her project of laying floral hearts across the city. (Erica Reade via AP)
In this July 2019 photo, Tara Krebbs hugs her father, Charles Henry Krebbs, on his 74th birthday in Phoenix. He died from COVID-19 in August 2020. (Tara Krebbs via AP)
In this July 2019 photo, Tara Krebbs hugs her father, Charles Henry Krebbs, on his 74th birthday in Phoenix. He died from COVID-19 in August 2020. (Tara Krebbs via AP)
From left, Michelle Pepe, Lisa Post Mazerolle and Jill Federman hold photos of each of their fathers as they mourn, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
From left, Michelle Pepe, Lisa Post Mazerolle and Jill Federman hold photos of each of their fathers as they mourn, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
From left, Michelle Pepe, Jill Federman and Lisa Post Mazerolle mourn their respective fathers, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
From left, Michelle Pepe, Jill Federman and Lisa Post Mazerolle mourn their respective fathers, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
From left, Michelle Pepe, Jill Federman and Lisa Post Mazerolle place photos of their fathers onto an array of heart-shaped roses, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments or have proper funerals. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
From left, Michelle Pepe, Jill Federman and Lisa Post Mazerolle place photos of their fathers onto an array of heart-shaped roses, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 these three woman who lost their fathers in April, 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments or have proper funerals. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Photos of loved ones are seen on a floral arrangement and wooden box, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 who lost their loved ones and who were unable to see them in their last moments nor have funeral services. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Photos of loved ones are seen on a floral arrangement and wooden box, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Lynnfield, Mass. 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 who lost their loved ones and who were unable to see them in their last moments nor have funeral services. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
From left, Lisa Post Mazerolle, Michelle Pepe and Jill Federman mourn their respective fathers, Monday, March 1, 2021, in front of the Medfield Town Hall, in Medfield, Mass. The three women, who all lost their fathers due to COVID-19 within days of each other, placed three separate floral hearts in different towns in the Boston metro area throughout the day Monday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
From left, Lisa Post Mazerolle, Michelle Pepe and Jill Federman mourn their respective fathers, Monday, March 1, 2021, in front of the Medfield Town Hall, in Medfield, Mass. The three women, who all lost their fathers due to COVID-19 within days of each other, placed three separate floral hearts in different towns in the Boston metro area throughout the day Monday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Lisa Post Mazerolle, Michelle Pepe and Jill Federman, from left, mourn together after laying a wreath in memory of their fathers, during a ceremony on the town common, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Natick, Mass. 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 these three women who lost their fathers in April 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Lisa Post Mazerolle, Michelle Pepe and Jill Federman, from left, mourn together after laying a wreath in memory of their fathers, during a ceremony on the town common, Monday, March 1, 2021, in Natick, Mass. 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 these three women who lost their fathers in April 2020 and who were unable to see them in their last moments. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Michelle Pepe wears a mask honoring her father, Bernie Rubin, with concern to stop the spread of the coronavirus during a ceremony, Monday, March 1, 2021, on the town common in Natick, Mass. 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 Pepe, who lost her father in April 2020 and was unable to see him in his last moments of life. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Michelle Pepe wears a mask honoring her father, Bernie Rubin, with concern to stop the spread of the coronavirus during a ceremony, Monday, March 1, 2021, on the town common in Natick, Mass. 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 Pepe, who lost her father in April 2020 and was unable to see him in his last moments of life. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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