Through a different kind of talking therapy, the burden of grief is lifted

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 12 Sep 2023

Dembeck made Telephone of the Wind in 2020. — Photos: LUKE JOHNSON/The Seattle Times/TNS

BRITTANY Bacinski prepared to connect with her first love, putting into words what she should have told him years ago. She had travelled more than 3,218km from her home in Michigan to speak with him in an Olympia park.

The one-sided conversation would be through a vintage rotary phone. She picked up the receiver, the dense weight matching the heaviness she felt. She stuck her finger into the clear holes, dialled a number and began talking.

The phone wasn’t connected to anything, her words didn’t go anywhere. And that was the point. The man she called in 2022 – whom she didn’t want to break up with all those years ago, whose missed call before her wedding day stayed in her mind during and after her ill-fated marriage – died in 2019.

But with the 10-minute call in the forest, she finally said all she needed to say.

“Hello. You were right all along. I should have chosen you.”

Bacinski used the Telephone of the Wind in Olympia’s Squaxin Park, where users speak to the dead through an unconnected telephone. Known as “wind phones,” they are meant to carry the griever’s words to the wind in phone booths or isolated swaths of forests.

The phones provide dedicated spaces to address grief in a tangible way in a culture that’s increasingly focused on “moving on” from loss. The phones, coordinators and users say, are especially important now as society grapples with lingering trauma from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The concept is modelled after a wind phone in Japan that, in the years after the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami, has had thousands of visitors. Dozens of wind phones have popped up throughout the US over the past few years, including in Olympia, Tacoma and Battle Ground, Clark County.

The phone allows users to connect with loved ones who have died.The phone allows users to connect with loved ones who have died.

Memories and saying goodbyes

The day in 2020 that Corey Dembeck found out his family friends’ four-year-old daughter, Joelle, had died, Dembeck ran to a thrift store to find a rotary phone. He took some plywood, attached the phone and sneaked it into Squaxin Park, then known as Priest Point Park.

“I was in shock,” he recalled. “How many families are ready to bury their four-year-old daughter?”

He wrote a blog post about the phone to point readers to the family’s GoFundMe. A few weeks later, he received a call asking for the phone’s exact location. Then another, and another. More people began showing up, to the point where parkgoers formed lines to use the phone connected to nowhere.

The city of Olympia asked if he would be willing to replace what he admits was a rush job when he screwed the phone to a tree. The original Japanese wind phone has an English-style phone booth, but that was too large, so Dembeck decided to pay homage instead by using Japanese construction techniques. He watched countless hours of YouTube videos, mostly in Japanese, to teach himself how to carve by hand and copy the marks for the joints from a big tree stump.

“I felt like if I carved them, it should be done with thought and intent and care, and maybe more sweat than just screwing something together,” he said.

“Telephone of the Wind” is carved into the display that holds the phone, as is a dedication:

“This phone is for everyone who has lost a loved one. The phone is an outlet for those who have messages they wish to share with their friends and family. It is a phone for memories and saying the goodbyes you never got to say.”

The phone is in an isolated area of the park, where visitors tend to take a few wrong turns along the trails before finding the spot. Even on hot days, temperatures seem to fall a few degrees in the lush forest. Only birdsong or nearby hikers break the silence.

You might feel stupid at first, Dembeck says, but just start talking, about your life now or what you miss about them or what you wish you had said.

“You feel mentally better,” he said. “You feel a weight lifted off your shoulder.”

The canopy above The Telephone of the Wind, a phone created by Dembeck, that has been in Squaxin Park for three years.The canopy above The Telephone of the Wind, a phone created by Dembeck, that has been in Squaxin Park for three years.

A phone for release

Over decades as a grief counsellor, Taryn Lindhorst has often heard from clients that death feels like someone is out of town, but they don’t have their phone. Talking directly to someone, rather than talking about them, is a different process for brains and hearts.

“We are in this constant state of trying to continue the relationship, whether the person is here or not,” said Lindhorst, University of Washington’s Behar professor of oncology and palliative social work. “The wind phones are a very interesting artistic expression for that longing to be in a relationship.”

Death practices and grief rituals have shifted over the decades – more people opt for cremation and might not have a gravestone for someone to visit. Or a loved one might be buried in another part of the country. The pandemic stole countless last visits.

“There are these ways we have shifted our death practices that leave people feeling a little bit lost about ‘Where do I go? When do I do something?’ “ said Lindhorst, who is also director of the Center for Integrative Oncology and Palliative Care Social Work. “We don’t have great grieving rituals in this country.”

Bacinski didn’t know what to expect when she travelled to the Pacific Northwest to use the phone. She picked up the receiver and began talking to her first love. She had so much regret. She had missed his call before her wedding; she had gone into labour after his death and wasn’t able to attend his funeral. She has a video of everything she said but hasn’t had the strength to listen to it.

She travelled so far to reach the quiet spot in the woods that she wanted to make it worthwhile. She called her grandparents and her friends’ parents. Someone else showed up for the phone, gave her a nod and moseyed away. It was like “10 years of therapy in 10 minutes.” She later wrote about it in a novel based on her experience.

“I didn’t think engaging in it and using it would be as therapeutic as it was,” she said. “I didn’t expect that cathartic release.”

When the heart hurts

Soon after her son died, Merlinda Sain learned about the Japanese wind phone.

“I did a little bit research and thought ‘You know what, I need to get one of those,’ “ she said.

The Battle Ground resident called her son Bryce, her “three-steps forward, two steps back” boy. He had learning disabilities and some days were a challenge. But it was just Sain and him together. On his birthday, she would thank him for picking her as his mum. She believed she was the right mum for him.

A “hippie” who loved wearing sarongs and going to raves, Bryce was just starting to find his way in the world. He had been with his fiancée for four years and they were talking about getting married. He was finally finding work.

He died unexpectedly in 2020. He was 25.

“I would just want to talk to him one more time, two more times,” she said. She apologised for getting emotional and noted the timing – his birthday was approaching. He would have been 28.

Sain’s wind phone sits on her property, in a spot where she can’t see it from her home. The small teal-doored booth houses a rotary phone and stool, tissues and a journal for notes. It opened in 2021 and is available for anyone who needs it. It has a range of users – some locals come by regularly, one woman from Connecticut took a detour to the wind phone on her way to Eugene, Oregon.

Sain goes to speak with her son when her heart hurts. Whenever there’s a change in her life, like when she got the house re-sided and repainted, she wants to tell him.

“Grief is probably the most powerful emotion on the planet,” she said. “When we lose someone who has been significant to us, there is a desperation to reconnect with them in any way you possibly can.”

A few times, she’s been outside when someone emerged from the booth with tear-stained cheeks.

She’ll ask if they want a hug. They always say yes. – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service/Paige Cornwell

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