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Joan Phillips
Jan 13, 2011

Makeshift Memorials - Why We Need Them

The recent tragic and sad event in Tucson continues to be in our awareness daily, and as I watch the news I note the growing makeshift memorials both at the scene of the crime and at the hospital. This phenomenon of a spontaneous development of a gathering of mementos, candles, poems, prayers, artwork, trinkets, etc. is a common and apparently universal one. In the face of chaos and loss it appears to be a very human impulse to mark the spot as well as create some kind of concrete representation of grief and caring. I saw this in large form after the bombing at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (I live near OKC).

I know there were many such memorials all around the scene of the 911 attacks in all the places they took place- and most have continued to be present and added to. We have all seen roadside crosses or flowers marking the scene of accidents, or front yard displays of concern and grief for families suffering a loss. Communities sometimes gather at specific places and leave personal messages of hope or healing. All these are very important and remind me again of the need for something tangible, visible and concrete in times of trauma and loss. As an art therapist I know the universality of this, but all counselors can become more aware of client needs to document, memorialize and in some way make visible statements of their grief and pain.

It doesn’t take art skill to scrawl out words or poems, or to use photos or personal items and frame them with thoughts and images that recall and honor that person. The chain link fence that surrounded the Murrah bombing site became heavy laden with keychains, bandanas, pictures, poems, stuffed animals…all ways that visitors to the site left a part of themselves there to mark the connection we feel as humans with all other humans. In our modern digital and disconnected times it is sometimes hard for people to find ways to personally express themselves.

I am heartened by the memorials and even from far away, seeing them on TV gives me some sense of connection as well- maybe this is one positive gathering point for a media that often isolates or distances us. The fence in Oklahoma City is a permanent part of the National Memorial there, and I am glad it is. It honors everyday people in our attempts to cope and share- and it’s very important that is it tangible and visible.

Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

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