Whitehorse author Clea Roberts was the guest speaker at the 2023 Lights of Life opening ceremony and shared these beautiful reflections:

I take great comfort each year in Hospice Yukon’s Lights of Life. This compassionate community event brings us all together to honour our losses, while holding space for each person’s individual and unique grief. We all grieve in our own way and I’m glad Hospice Yukon is here to help with their various programs and services. This year, Hospice Yukon introduced a new offering—the wind telephone.

The idea of the wind telephone came from the village of Otsuchi in Japan. In 2010, Itaru Sasaki installed a vintage phone booth in his garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the time, Mr Sasaki was grieving the recent loss of his cousin. The phone booth was white. It had many windows, a weathered copper roof and sat next to a cherry tree. Inside the booth was a rotary dial phone that was left unconnected to any landline. It became the place where Mr Sasaki would go to speak with his deceased cousin. The wind carried his words, helped him to articulate his grief and to feel a connection with the cousin he had lost.

The following year, when a tsunami struck Japan’s north-east coastline and killed more than 15,000 people, Mr Sasaki made his wind telephone available to whoever needed it. The wind telephone became a place of pilgrimage for people who wanted to talk to their dead relatives and friends. It offered a way to say things left unsaid when loved ones had been taken so suddenly and unexpectedly. Since Mr Sasaki made his private wind telephone public, it has given comfort to tens of thousands of Japanese and international visitors, who felt the deep need to express themselves in conversation with those they had lost.

Today the phenomenon of the wind telephone has spread beyond Japan. Wind telephones have appeared on continents around the world in nature preserves, church yards and even along the sidewalks of residential neighbourhoods. Whether our tragedy is public or private, whether it involves one person or thousands, whether it happens close to home or far away, whether it is sudden or anticipated, the need to find connection with those who have passed is universal. Grief is a human condition that doesn’t differentiate between race, culture, religion, income or gender and I think the growing prevalence of wind telephones speaks to that.

The wind telephone is both a magical and a practical device. When death severs our connection with a loved one, the wind telephone offers a way to reconnect by encouraging our self-expression. Self-expression plumbs our depths to externalize grief. Doing so let us see our grief for what it is—something that is significant, complex, life altering and, hopefully through our mourning, something that will evolve and become easier to bear over time. When someone dies, the need to connect with them still exists and perhaps, even though the power of the wind telephone is imaginary, the need it fulfills is very real.

I wrote to Mr Sasaki, who is now almost 90 years old. I wanted to thank him for the idea of the wind telephone and to ask him why he thought the concept had resonated so widely. To my delight, he responded. He wrote, “When you lose a loved one, the sadness is universal and remains the same in any country or time.” He also noted that loss enables us to embrace the magic realism of the wind telephone—because even if we can’t see or hear our loved one, we can feel them.

As part of my work facilitating grief writing workshops at Hospice, I’ve developed a writing exercise based on the wind telephone. During this exercise, I ask each participant to think about a loved one they have lost, and to write them a letter. It’s a writing exercise that brings up a lot of emotion, perhaps because the wind telephone letters reconnect us, or rather, remind us that we were never disconnected. That someone’s life has touched our own and we live on in relationship to them. That our very life is an ongoing conversation with those we have lost.

As a special part of this year’s Lights of Life, Hospice Yukon has brought a wind telephone to Whitehorse. As I mentioned, Hospice has many programs and services for supporting Yukoners living with loss, but if this offering speaks to you, perhaps it is worth considering how you might use the wind telephone.

Who would you speak to?

What would you say to them?

Has it been a long time or is the loss recent?

Maybe there are important things left unsaid between you.

Maybe you just want to talk about the kid’s report cards, the cost of groceries or the light at midday on your favourite trail.

Maybe there is a lullaby to sing or something you can only speak in a whisper with your eyes closed.

Maybe it would help to tell someone that you are trying your best.

Maybe you’d like someone to know how you’ve made them proud or how you understand things differently now.

Maybe you have no words and just want to hold the receiver to your ear, to enjoy connection in silence.

There is nothing too big or too small to bring to the wind telephone.

You can say hello or you can say goodbye.

You can talk about the past, the present or the future.

The wind will carry what you need to say and I hope that brings you some solace.