Remembering the Missing

Recently, on an episode of podcast, This American Life, producer Miki Meek told the story of the Japanese wind phone.

The wind phone sits on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The man who put it there, Itaru Sasaki, installed it in order to cope with the grief of his cousin’s death. He wanted to talk to him. And, at he told Meek:

Because my thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind.

After the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, many people went missing. 2500 people remain missing to this day. And after the disaster, Sasaki found that people were randomly coming to his wind phone.

He set up the phone booth up on a hill that overlooks the ocean. The telephone is not connected to any lines. It doesn’t work, there’s not even a dial tone. But something about it resonated with people after the disaster. They started using it to talk to their own loved ones.

People dial their loved one’s old number and talk about their daily lives, and how much they miss them, They continue to commune with the missing. Some of the conversations were featured on the podcast episode, here’s a tiny excerpt of one of them:

It’s a moving story, and well worth the listen. It’s a reminder of how someone’s absence doesn’t necessarily sever the ties you have with that person. They can still be a powerful part of your life.

Honouring a missing person and the role they played in your life has its own set of challenges. Without a body, families don’t necessarily get the familiar – if very sad – ritual of a funeral to celebrate the person’s life and communally talk about what they meant. This is troubling because funerals are a major way that we recognise the extent of others’ loss and grief and are times in which we are attuned to their need for support. It’s social function is crucial to processing loss, and yet so many who experience more ambiguous forms of loss – such as if a loved one is missing – may not get access to it.

But there are ways in which the missing can be remembered.

For instance, there are a number of memorial sites in gardens, cemeteries, and parks which have been specifically designated as spaces to reflect on missing persons. Worona Memorial Park in New South Wales, Australia, says on their website:

when someone you love is declared missing, you need a place to grieve and honour their life.

The park features a “Doorway of Hope” in the midst of a landscaped garden where visitors are encouraged to reflect on those they love who are missing. Families of missing persons do sometimes hold memorial services for their missing loved ones. But they come with their own set of complexities too. Is it appropriate to hold a memorial service for someone you believe to be alive, or you think could be?

In her book chapter, “The Unique Grief of Families of Missing People”, social worker Elizabeth Davies writes that for some, anything less than maintaining hope that a person is still out there and maintaining the search would constitute a “betrayal” of the missing person. Ultimately, she says, it’s up to the family and friends to decide for themselves what they need to live with this kind of loss.

But while there are telephones and gardens, there are no road maps.

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