Caren: Some days are tough. During this COVID-19 pandemic, our children face plenty of challenges. Loss of playground time. Loss of playdates. Changes in school routines. Changes in home routines. These days, children may need more time alone on a “peace blanket” to grieve their former lives. The rest of us may need the same.
There are many ways to soothe when coping with loss and grief. Stories can help too. One of the most profound picture books about grief I’ve come across is The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith, illustrated by Rachel Wada.
One NPR This American Life podcast inspired Heather Smith to share Mr. Sasaki’s story. Mr. Sasaki was heartbroken when his cousin died. As a way to heal, he bought an old-fashioned telephone booth and placed it on a hill near his Japanese home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In it, he added an old rotary telephone connected to nowhere. He called it his “wind telephone.” Whenever he needed to “talk” with his dead cousin, he would go to the booth, pick up the phone, and let his words of love be carried by the wind.
On March 13, 2011, the largest earthquake recorded in Japan struck, triggering a massive tsunami and causing a frightening nuclear plant accident. Over 19,000 people lost their lives, 2,500 are still missing. Mr. Sasaki’s phone booth survived and soon became a landmark for others grieving for their loved ones. After talking on the “wind telephone,” one woman said, “We were so broken. Talking on the phone today changed something.” That something is the beginning of healing and a search for personal peace.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden fictionalizes this story for a young audience. Young Makio loses his father in the great tsunami. Mr. Hiorta loses his daughter. One day, Makio hears Mr. Hirota hammering away, building, of all things, a phone booth. Hearing Mr. Hirota speak to his lost daughter, Makio finally finds his way to the phone booth. He picks up the phone to nowhere and pours out his heart.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden takes place after the tsunami no one could control. Our children face a viral tsunami. What can we do to comfort our children as we grieve ourselves?
Peace in a rocking chair: In My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, author Resmaa Menakem speaks to the physiology of trauma and the vagus nerve, Menakem calls the “soul nerve.” The vagus nerve is “where you experience a felt sense of love, compassion, fear, grief, dread, sadness, loneliness … (148) Rocking is one of the most instinctively human ways to sooth our bodies. Rocking with a child on our lap is one of the most natural and healing ways to cope with our difficult times.
Time may not heal all wounds, but time, love, listening, understanding — and stories — can help children, and the rest of us, find healing pathways to peace as we grieve.