British Columbia

How an unconnected telephone in a B.C. park is helping people mourn lost loved ones

Phone of the Wind, an unconnected telephone in a park in Port Moody, B.C., aims to help people grieve lost loved ones and keep their memories alive.

Phone of the Wind allows memories to be 'kept alive,' says sister of overdose victim

Phone of the Wind, an unconnected telephone set up by the Crossroads Hospice Society in Port Moody's Pioneer Memorial Park, acts as an intermediary, offering people a place to channel their grief by letting them speak to loved ones who have died. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When Brooke Robichaud's little brother, Henry Wiens, died of an overdose last year at the age of 23, she says she didn't have a place to channel her grief.

"He didn't have a burial. He doesn't have a plaque. He was cremated. I didn't really have anywhere to go to talk to him," said the 34-year-old, who lives in Port Moody, B.C.

Without a memorial to commemorate Wiens, Robichaud says she would go to the city's Rocky Point Park, which features a totem pole alongside the Burrard Inlet, to reflect and grieve.

"It kind of looks like a grave. The totem pole is lying down and people bring flowers there a lot. It felt like a special place," she said.

But after a year of coming to terms with his death, she says found a way to talk to him directly: through a telephone without a line.

Brooke Robichaud lost her brother, Henry Wiens, to an overdose in Aug. 2020. She now uses Phone of the Wind to talk to him every week. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Robichaud found Phone of the Wind, an unconnected telephone set up by the Crossroads Hospice Society in Port Moody's Pioneer Memorial Park, where she was accessing bereavement services.

The telephone acts as an intermediary, offering people a place to channel their grief by letting them speak to loved ones who have died. 

"The first time I picked up the phone to talk to my brother … was very uncomfortable and awkward," said Robichaud.

"But handing the phone to my daughter, and just seeing her smile and saying, 'Hi, Uncle Henry,' and, you know, connecting with him and getting to keep his memory alive … I honestly was in tears."

Phone to nowhere

Installed in August this year, Phone of the Wind stands next to the park's Labyrinth Healing Garden.

According to the hospice society, the telephone was purchased on Facebook Marketplace, while the wooden lattice frame has a more poignant meaning: it was recycled from a memorial bench.

The first phone of the wind, also called a wind phone or phone to nowhere, was set up in Ōtsuchi, Japan in 2010. Following the 2011 tsunami, thousands visited and used the phone to talk to lost loved ones.

Brittany Borean, youth bereavement co-ordinator with Crossroads Hospice Society, says they got the idea from a similar phone set up in Washington.

"We put it in our park beside our Labyrinth Healing Garden to bring awareness to both grief and death, to things that are universal, but often hidden," she said.

Grief needs to be externalized, says counsellor

Amelie Lambert, adult bereavement coordinator with the society, says grief needs to be externalized as part of the mourning process.

She says some of her clients have told her they felt unexpectedly "touched" when they used the phone.

"Even though they were not sure they would pick up the phone, they finally did," she said. "They really appreciated that connection."

Jaimie Jeon, development officer at the society, says she doesn't know how many people have used the phone, but that she has been heartened by the response — including on social media and from the city, who informs them of traffic at the phone.

"It's those moments from the office that we know that we're impacting way more than just our team," she said.

Wiens was 23 when he became one of 1,733 people in B.C. to die in the province's overdose crisis in 2020. (Submitted by Brooke Robichaud)

'I can feel you around here'

The last time Robichaud saw her brother was a few days before he died, when she was celebrating four years of being sober.

"His eyes were so bright. He was the uncle I always wanted him to be to my kids," she said. "Being able to see him just like with the life back in him, I had so much hope that day … I'm so glad I got to remember him like that."

Robichaud says it may be uncomfortable and easy to isolate when a loved one dies, but expressing her grief through the phone was the "most healing" part of her journey.

She now brings her kids every week to talk to their uncle.

As for what she tells her brother over the phone?

"I think your story is going to save a lot of lives," she said, holding the handset and fighting back tears.

"I'll do everything I can to share your life, your story, and how amazing you are. You still are. I can feel you around here."

The vintage rotary-dial wall phone is in the Labyrinth Healing Garden in Port Moody. It's not connected because words spoken into it are meant to flow into the wind — giving the phone its name. (Ben Nelms/CBC)