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Reflecting on a Year of Ebola: Decoration Day in Liberia

Decoration Day in Liberia.
Adrienne Bloomberg, Rita Sue

This piece in cooperation with Capital for Good andthe Ebola Crisis Fund

For the past 99 years, every second Wednesday of March has been observed in Liberia as 'Decoration Day', a day to honor and remember those who have died. Yesterday, I was part of the large crowd of families and friends who visited the graveyards where their loved ones are buried. In Ebola's wake, it was a day when families arrived at the yard with paint, shovels, tiles, as well as drinks and snacks, to clean up and decorate the sites where their loved ones lay to rest.

Families visit the graves of loved ones on Decoration Day | Image from Adrienne Blomberg, Rita Sue

The yards were full of people, the atmosphere was filled with emotions ranging from merriment and loud music playing while family members painted, cleaned and enjoyed drinks from the cooler, to sadness and grief, with wailing and tears.

Painting the graves of those lost | Image from Adrienne Blomberg, Rita Sue

With the last confirmed Ebola case discharged from the Ebola Treatment Unit last week, the country is counting down 42 Ebola-free days in order to reach the declaration of becoming Ebola-free. Complacency is not yet appropriate, but there is a certain feeling that the strict 'no contact' social rules have been relaxed. I am again seeing normality in every day life, including children in school uniforms walking and playing on the way to school.

Community and painting on Decoration Day | Image from Adrienne Blomberg, Rita Sue

At the graveyard I shared tears with people, smiled, hugged and recalled life stories. Together, we remembered the good times we had shared with our loved ones.

Communities and families gather on Decoration Day in Liberia | Image from Adrienne Blomberg, Rita Sue

It was my first time taking part in Decoration Day and I found peace taking a day to grieve and pay tribute to lost loved ones with others by my side. The day’s events ensured that those lost had a place in our hearts as we collectively recover from Ebola’s weight.

Decoration Day in Liberia reinforces bonds within grief-stricken communities and strengthens unity through communal work and ritual. We expressed thanks for the role these individuals continue to play in our lives, while rallying around a sense of commitment to honoring their enduring impact.

In Loving Memory... | Image from Adrienne Blomberg, Rita Sue

However, not all who lost loved ones to Ebola had this experience yesterday. During the day my thoughts frequently migrated to the many families who lost loved ones to Ebola; what were they going through on this day, and what were they experiencing? They had no grave to go to, no site to clean and care for, and many unfinished words, and thoughts for their loved ones prematurely taken by Ebola.

Once I returned home I phoned some of the many Ebola survivors and individuals impacted by the virus that I have met working in Liberia.I was unsure of what to say, however, aware of the day’s difficulty, I just wanted them to know that they were being thought off. The calls were short, not much to say, but each person told me the same thing; how very sad they felt, how today, Decoration Day, was one of the hardest days they have had to endure since losing their loved ones.

Decorated graves | Image from Adrienne Blomberg, Rita Sue

They told me how they all, yes all, stayed indoors today, as they couldn't cope with seeing other families having a place to go. For them there was no place to go, no grave to paint, no place to grieve and pay respect.

Many of those who died from Ebola have been cremated, a practice which was never used before in Liberia, a practice that was necessary but generally not understood and difficult to accept. The ashes are now stored in large barrels and kept in a safe place, to be placed at a future memorial.

Hopefully, when we celebrate the 100th Decoration Day in Liberia next year, families who have lost loved ones to Ebola can both grieve and honor the victims of this outbreak. Then, together as a country, we can really begin the healing process.

To support Liberia's recovery and other community-based organizations in West Africa, visit www.ebolacrisisfund.com