Center for Spiritual Life creates COVID-19 vigil for grieving community members

By Bailey Allen, Staff Writer

In the lobby of 172 Tremont stands a small table adorned with electric candles and stickers with names of people and experiences lost over the past year—a space of reflection and remembrance for Emerson community members grieving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erected by the Center for Spiritual Life, the display commemorates the one year mark of the pandemic, which has caused the deaths of over 500,000 people in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CSL also hosted a Zoom gathering on March 26 where Emersonians could meet virtually to mourn all that has been lost this year, as a community.

Patty Tamayo, a senior political communications major, collaborated with CSL to develop the physical remembrance space that will stand until the end of the semester. She modeled it after a similar space she previously created—also in 172 Tremont—for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrated in Mexico and parts of Latin America to honor dead loved ones and accept the inevitability of death, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

“For Día de los Muertos, we did an altar,” Tamayo said. “That’s actually where we took inspiration to make this one—we followed a similar format since that one went pretty well.”

The table in 172 Tremont is divided into three important layers, Tamayo said. While the first commemorates tangible losses, such as relatives who have passed away, the second focuses on intangible, non-physical losses—like giving hugs or seeing people smile. The third layer, Tamayo said, is meant to center on reflection; community members can take a piece of paper and write a question, lesson, or intention that they would like to keep with them and think about. 

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“We wanted you to be able to take something with you,” Tamayo said. 

Each level is lined with upside down styrofoam and plastic cups with electric candles on top. Passersby are encouraged to leave trinkets and notes, as well as the names of who or what they have lost this year. Community members can also submit names to be included on the table through a Google form.

Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Julie Avis Rogers, who also worked to organize the display, said intangible losses are often given less importance or emphasis than physical ones.

“An ambiguous loss might be a class you had been so looking forward to doing in person and all of a sudden it became fully virtual, or a play, or sporting events,” she said. “It is an equally prominent part of the table that is meant to mark the losses that are really easy to ignore… we as a society don’t really know how to do that, when it’s really easy to downplay those … I hope the table communicates that those are really real.”

Tamayo said the layer for intangible losses is important to value the mourning that isn’t typically given space in society. 

“We added a layer for losses [for which] we can’t quite say, ‘Oh, this is exactly what was taken from me,’ but that people still grieve,” Tamayo said. “Something very difficult about this year has been that many times people don’t have the words to say what exactly they are grieving, what exactly it is that they lost.”

Visitors to the space also have the option of lighting an electric candle to memorialize someone they’ve lost.

“I do hope that when students are noticing that they’re really missing someone, or that grief is becoming much more prominent to them, the table becomes a space to pause from whatever is going on in their life and to light a candle that represents that this person is still among us, in a new way,” Rogers said.

M.J. Halberstadt, an affiliated faculty member in the visual and media arts department who also collaborated in organizing the vigil, said the different layers of the memorial were discussed virtually with Emerson community members watching via Zoom on March 26. The organizers then invited the attendees to share the names of those they have lost.

“There were 13 or so people in the Zoom and they shared names directly into the chat,” he said. “I grabbed a stack of stickers and started writing down the names people were contributing. During one of the brief musical interludes, I just slapped those names on some candles.”

Although people were watching online, Halberstadt said he hoped seeing the names placed on candles would help attendees feel more connected to the physical memorial.

“I hope that was a moment where the virtual engagement translated into engagement in the physical space,” he said. “For me, there’s something really important and powerful about taking up physical space—that’s one of the reasons why I felt like this had to be a physical reminder or a physical tribute.”

Tamayo said the organizers made a point during the virtual ceremony to commemorate those also lost to non-COVID-related causes over the past year. The names of the victims of the mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia and Boulder, Colorado this year were also read aloud.

“It was about people that we’ve lost, not limited to COVID deaths, but that have happened during the year, and [have been] heightened by the fact we were in the pandemic,” she said. “There’s been a lot of racially driven violence. We also commemorated victims of those.”

Rogers, who also serves as the college’s chaplain, said there are many ways to reach out to the Center for Spiritual Life if one is struggling with grief.

“If you’re interested in talking through a particular faith tradition, there’s a whole staff of folks who are very well trained in grief and how [to] navigate it,” Rogers said.