Calling lost loved ones in the wind

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Lily Martin and her grandpa Darrell VanPuymbroeck check out the new wind phone at C.M. Wilson Conservation Area. Part of the McKinlay Woodlands Memorial Forest, the phone provides a way for people to grieve by talking to loved ones they have lost, sending their messages on the wind, while enjoying the peace of nature.

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The first call has been made on the McKinlay Woodlands Memorial Forest’s new wind phone.

Lily Martin, 10, who lost her uncle to suicide last year, was the first to pick up the vintage rotary phone’s receiver following its recent installation at C.M. Wilson Conservation Area.

The project – a collaboration that includes McKinlay Funeral Home, the Thamesview Family Health Team’s After; program, and the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority – is modeled after an initiative that got its start a more than a decade ago in Japan.

In 2010, a garden designer who lost his cousin to cancer put up an old telephone booth, which included a disconnected phone, so he could still talk to his loved one and feel connected. The idea caught on and wind phones are now springing up around the globe.

Two families, who are part of the Chatham After; group – that helps families deal with the loss of someone to suicide – were on hand at the ceremony to check out the phone first hand and attach a nameplate of their loved one to the wooden box it’s encased in beneath a leafy maple tree.

The semicolon in “After;” symbolizes a continuation of someone’s life and is used as an affirmation of solidarity against a wide range of mental health disorders.

Leonie VanPuymbroeck, who lost her 26-year-old son Robert Martin to suicide in 2022, attended the gathering, along with her husband Darrell and granddaughter Lily. She said the phone is another tool to help deal with the “rollercoaster” of grief that follows suicide.

She said her family has received a great deal of help navigating their loss by taking part in After;.

“I talk to him (Robert) every day,” Leonie explained. ” I have a spiritual connection to him and that really helps. The After; group has been amazing. It helps you understand that the things you go through are normal.”

Her husband Darrell, stepfather to Robert, said he too has been helped immensely by the participating in After;.

“The group has made me aware other people are going through the same things,” he added. “You can know what to expect to some degree, that’s why it’s important to talk about it. If people don’t talk about it, the struggle will never go away.”

After; members Liz and Nate Nauta, who lost their 15-year-old son Braedon to suicide five years ago, were also on hand to attach a nameplate. Both like the concept of the wind phone, as it provides tangible way for them to connect to Braedon.

Because their son was cremated and his ashes were cast upon a lake in Northern Ontario, Nate said the phone offers the couple “a nice alternative for us to come and connect with our son.”

Thamesview Family Health Team social worker Brenda Stevens, who helps co-ordinate After;, said the wind phone is another tool to assist families impacted by loss.

“We hope other grieving families will come and visit and use it,” Stevens said.

Anyone experiencing the loss of a loved to suicide is invited to contact the After; group at 519-354-0070 ext. 617.

The week of Sept. 11 to 16 is Suicide Awareness Week in Ontario.

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