NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Nestled in a neighborhood in East Nashville, Tennessee, is a phone booth that no longer rings but offers a bit of respite to those grieving a lost loved one.
“There are things that you have left unsaid that you just really feel like you need to talk to them to say,” said Allison Young, a cancer research nurse at Vanderbilt University and the creator of Tennessee’s first “wind telephone.”
These disconnected phone booths, commonly called “wind phones,” have spread across the U.S. in recent years, popping up in several states and sometimes on peoples’ front lawns. But the origins of the “Phone of the Wind” can be found over 6,000 miles away in Ōtsuchi, Japan, according to MyWindPhone, an online resource for listing and locating wind phones.
Itaru Sasaki, the creator of the concept, purchased an old-fashioned phone booth and set it up in his garden after losing his cousin to cancer. While there were no wires connected to his “earthly system,” Sasaki said he felt a sense of connection to his cousin and found healing amid his grief.
The following year, in 2011, he welcomed other mourners to make “calls” to their deceased friends and relatives after a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused thousands of casualties in the area around Ōtsuchi.
Young had seen the devastation in Japan herself. And after starting a degree in thanatology — the study of death, dying and bereavement — she felt inspired to bring the wind telephone to Tennessee.
“I had been completely focused on the tsunami that happened in Japan in 2011, and the town that had the most losses per capita is actually the town where the original wind telephone is,” Young said.
While wind telephones can now be found across the U.S., there are several states where they are still absent. Many states bordering Tennessee, including Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri, do not have wind telephones of their own.
“I was looking around and trying to see were there any in the Nashville area. Were there any in Tennessee? Were there any in the southern United States? And just kept coming up empty,” Young said.
A months-long search turned up a phone booth for sale in Mississippi. Young and her husband made the trip and brought the booth back to East Nashville, where the project commenced. After a few months of cleaning and tweaks to the design, Young’s wind phone was ready.
Inside, there is an old, wooden seat next to an original ledge, which now holds an old rotary phone. Telephone numbers can still be seen inscribed on the walls from when the booth was fully functional.
The booth also contains a guest book, hand sanitizer, tissues and a plaque dedicated to Young’s paternal grandparents, Dotti and Glen Stillwell.
Young said her grandmother died suddenly in 2016 after she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Her doctors initially gave her about three to six months to live, but she passed away only six weeks after learning of her illness.
“It was very quick. I was expecting to have more time,” Young said. “She continues to be my greatest influence in life. She was an absolutely amazing philanthropist, was a benefactor of the arts, always looking out for women and children.”
Young officially opened the phone booth to the public last weekend on Feb. 4. Her friend, who had also experienced an abrupt loss, was the first to use the booth. She “called” a good friend who died suddenly of a heart attack.
“She actually said she’s going to keep coming back,” Young said. “She wants to update him on things that are happening in her life, and she would normally pick up the phone and talk to him, but he’s not around anymore.”
Her life experiences, profession and studies have made Young intimately familiar with grief. Many times, the people she sees are stage 4 cancer patients who know they are nearing the end of their lives.
“Those are the kinds of losses I end up dealing with because people, when they come to me, generally know that they’re dying,” she said. “I kind of have to ease them into a life with cancer that is going to be cut short by cancer.”
There are many ways for people to deal with grief, including grief support groups or talking with friends and family. But as Young said, “Sometimes you just need something different.”
“You need to have as many options as you can for them so that you’re not losing out on helping a big group of people because you’re assuming that everyone grieves the exact same way,” she said.
Having something tactile, like a phone, particularly helps people who feel like there are things left unsaid, rather than “just speaking into the ether,” Young said.
Next to Young’s wind telephone sits a Free Little Library filled with books on grief and bereavement, as well as hospice resources. Young said she handpicked the books based on her studies and books that helped her deal with her own grief.
“There will always be at least one book for children in there, and it will be on bereavement,” she said. “My kids are super comfortable with death. I really think it would be good if other people had that with their kids where it’s not a secret, it’s something that is openly, healthily discussed.”
The booth, which can be found on Rosebank Avenue, is open 24/7 to the public, with solar lights that keep it lit at night. Young plans to add a metal roof and flowers around the booth as the weather grows warmer.
People can help donate their own bereavement books and leave messages on the guest book, but Young said the best way people can help support the booth is simply by spreading the word.
“Because you never know who you’re going to tell and that is going to be the key for them to really face their grief and get where they need to be before their grief gets out of hand,” she said. “That was my big focus, was really being able to help more people as they deal with their grief.”