Beautiful, sad reminders of death dot highways

May 03, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Travelers of eastbound Route 100 have an eerie daily reminder of their mortality -- yellow ribbons and purple chrysanthemums tied to the guardrail, marking the exact spot of a fatal accident in early March.

Elsewhere in the county, similar memorials come and go -- tributes to deceased family members and friends, young and old, victims of car accidents or homicides.

Experts say these public expressions of grief are generally healthy, particularly early in the grieving process when people need to do something to get over their pain.

"I think we're seeing more and more of it," said Betty Asplund, director of the Bereavement Center of the Hospice of the Chesapeake. "We're going back to giving ourselves permission to feel . . . It's healthy to grieve and get the emotions out."

For three years, Frances Pumphrey Stephens of Millersville has been tending a memorial off Route 97 to try to deal with the loss of her grandson, John Robert Pumphrey, a 17-year-old Old Mill senior who died in a car accident.

"John was my only grandson. He was such a good boy," said Mrs. Stephens. "I don't want him to be forgotten."

Frequently visiting the site of the accident, leaving flowers and a cross she made to mark the spot, has helped her cope with her grief, she said. But she also hopes she is doing something positive by reminding others, who round the exit ramp onto Benfield Boulevard, to be careful.

"I hope it slows a lot of the young ones down," she said, adding that people who know her family say they think of John every time they see the simple cross and flowers.

Years ago, Ms. Asplund said, people openly grieved the dead by marking their doors and wearing black, sometimes for years. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many cultural traditions changed, including the way people displayed grief, she said.

"Things that were the norm, people rebelled against," she said. "They stopped doing a lot of things, like wearing black." But in recent years, actively and openly grieving the dead has again become acceptable to many people.

"These public symbols really do help. It makes it more real," she said. "It helps people accept the reality of the loss."

Constance Read, a grief counselor with a private practice in Severna Park, agreed that publicly expressing grief has become more acceptable. She speculated that it is a trend that will continue.

"We've learned a lot about the process," she said. "We used to think that the first year is the hardest, but now we know the second year of grief is even worse."

In years past, people may have expected to get over their grief quickly and felt something was wrong with them if they didn't. "We had this notion, it's been a couple weeks, get over it," she said.

There is no set amount of time to grieve a death, she added. It differs significantly from person to person. Tending a roadside memorial, even for years, can be a healthy thing, as long as people can get on with other aspects of their lives at the same time.

"People tend to do these things as long as they need to," she said.

Ms. Asplund said relatives of people who die violent deaths are most likely to mourn by marking the place of death.

"Anything sudden like that, they need to do something to help it sink in," she said. "It's a nonviolent way to say, 'This life was important and it was an injustice for this person to die.' "

Many families believe roadside memorials serve as a reminder to others that such a thing could happen to them unless society changes.

"If it was a drunken driver who killed someone, they may be saying, 'This could happen to you if we don't change our laws about drunk driving,' " Ms. Asplund said.

Memorials for murder victims may serve to remind others that in a violent society, anyone can become a victim, she said.

For more information about grief and bereavement services, call Hospice of the Chesapeake, 987-2003.

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