Marking a collective loss: COVID memorial event at Three Sisters Sanctuary a chance to grieve those lost in the pandemic

  • Doreen Catterson, left, of Belchertown, and Lissette Blondet, who was visiting from Cape Cod, stop to look at The Dragon’€™s Den while walking through Three Sisters Sanctuary on Saturday afternoon in Goshen. People who attend the COVID memorial event Sept. 10 will be able to leave mementos for their loved ones at The Dragon’s Den. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Visitors make their way to the entrance of Three Sisters Sanctuary on Saturday afternoon in Goshen. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Three Sisters Sanctuary on Saturday afternoon in Goshen. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2022 6:49:53 PM

GOSHEN — Organizers of a memorial to remember those who have died from COVID-19 know that Sept. 10 is going to be a difficult day. They also know how important it will be for loved ones who have had to grieve in isolation.

“We need to come together to recognize this collective loss,” said Jennifer Ritz Sullivan, who has organized the Massachusetts COVID Memorial event to take place at Three Sisters Sanctuary on Saturday, Sept. 10.

The event is meant to provide a way to memorialize all of the 21,390 people lost to COVID in the commonwealth and the loved ones of Massachusetts residents who died from the disease anywhere.

One of those people is Ritz Sullivan herself, whose mother, Earla Dawn Dimitriadis, died early in the pandemic. Ritz Sullivan is the COVID justice leader in Massachusetts for Marked by COVID, an organization founded in the pandemic to advocate for the concerns of and provide support to those affected by the disease.

“I’ve had zero funding to do this,” Ritz Sullivan said, of the memorial. “This is a labor of love.”

The memorial was originally scheduled to take place in 2021, but was postponed because of safety concerns.

Three Sisters Sanctuary is hosting the event at no charge. Its owner, Richard Richardson, lost his mother last year to COVID, although he offered the space for the memorial at no charge before that happened.

“He saw the necessity for the event before becoming a member of our community,” Ritz Sullivan said.

The event will take place from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., and Ritz Sullivan said that the ceremony itself will take about 45 minutes.

In the ceremony Ritz Sullivan will make an introduction, after which Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, and radio host Monte Belmonte will read small obituaries for those who have died from COVID.

“It’s going to be a difficult day,” said Blais, who added that it’s “critically important” to create space to honor the lives that were lost.

Belmonte has known Ritz Sullivan for several years, first meeting her when she was a participant in the Cancer Connection Camp Out. She has also been on his radio show speaking about grief and the COVID pandemic.

Ritz Sullivan has been writing the obituaries based on information loved ones have sent them, sometimes supplementing this from information from the deceased’s obituaries as well.

As of Thursday morning, 45 people had submitted names for obituaries.

“The loss of a loved one to COVID is deeply isolating,” Ritz Sullivan said. “I want people to find community however they need to.”

After the reading Richardson will talk about the sanctuary.

“Our community needs this,” Richardson said, of the memorial. “This is a place that offers healing for everyone who visits it.”

Richardson said that he hopes exposure to the space helps attendees to heal. He began work on what would become the sanctuary, now a showcase of art and landscaping, in 1994 to deal with the impending death of his brother Chuck. It was named for his three daughters after the death of his daughter Tina Marie Richardson in 2004.

The space is free to use for those wishing to hold memorials, although donations are accepted.

Attendees will be able to leave trinkets for their loved ones at The Dragon’s Den, a big sculptural dragon piece that breathes actual fire. There will also be a grief wall with paper that attendees can write on. They can then take the notes with them, leave them on the wall, or burn them in the dragon.

Ritz Sullivan said that those who have lost loved ones to COVID have not had a space to share their grief without being shamed or judged outside of the COVID bereaved community.

“There’s been a lot of suppression of grief,” Ritz Sullivan said.

And she said that there is no wrong way to come to the memorial and grieve, whether it is with sadness or a beautiful thought.

“Anger is welcome as well,” she said. “However you feel is valid.”

Attendees will be asked to mask “for the safety of everyone” at the outdoor event, with Ritz Sullivan noting that the pandemic is still ongoing and deadly.

“We lost 57 people last week in Massachusetts,” she said.

In addition to Domb and Blais, Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Becket, and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, will also be in attendance.

Sabadosa said that it’s important to take a moment to remember those who have died due to COVID, and to learn from the mistakes that were made.

“What does our public health response look like next time?” she said.

Ritz Sullivan said that she expects roughly 60 people at the event, although the space can accommodate a lot more.

Those who wish to submit their loved ones names for obituaries that will be read at the ceremony can email Ritz Sullivan at markedbycovidma@gmail.com. The deadline for doing so is Thursday, Sept. 1.

“We are fighting for recognition every day,” Ritz Sullivan said. “Memorialization is radical work around COVID.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.
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