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Grieving in Private, Yet Communally

October 25, 2019

By Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC
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Have you ever wished you could pick up the phone and call someone you’ve lost and leave them a message?

This summer, I helped build a project at the Burning Man Festival in the northern Nevada desert. For those of you unfamiliar with this 33-year-old cultural phenomenon, Burning Man is a weeklong temporary city of 70,000 people who gather to create art and community. A core ethos of the event is self-reliance: one must bring everything needed to survive a week camping in a harsh environment. Nothing is for sale other than ice and coffee.

Another core ethos of the event is participation. Everything built at Burning Man is built by participants. Art installations large and small, from the profound to the whimsical, are built by “burners” (as participants are known) as a gift to the community. Art is built to be interacted with by participants.

Some of these installations are playful (a ring of 1000-lb boulders suspended as wobbly circular stepping stones 15 feet off the ground provided me with an exhilarating, if not terrifying experience), and others are more contemplative. A reflective tradition going back 20 years is the construction of a large wooden structure, known simply as “the temple.” Inside this ornate building, participants leave tributes to that which they have lost. The walls are filled with photographs, mementos, and words to those who have died or been otherwise lost. At the end of the week, in a quiet, reverential ceremony, the entire building is burned and rendered to ash.

dust phoneA few hundred feet from the temple this year, an elegant, simple structure, resembling a Japanese paper lantern about the size of a phone booth, stood alone on the dry desert lakebed. Conceived of by my friends, artists Marissa Bauman, a marriage and family therapist, and her partner Rob Damphousse, a skilled woodworker and designer, “the Dust Phone contained nothing but a simple old-fashioned telephone and a wooden bench. The shoji-like screen and an indigo cloth hanging in the doorway provided shelter from the wind and desert sun. I had spent a few weekends helping them transform a pile of salvaged redwood lumber, saved from a trip to the dump, into an elegant, handcrafted piece of beauty.

Marissa and Rob were inspired to create the installation by a story on the National Public Radio program “This American Life” about a disused telephone booth in Otsuchi, Japan that Itaru Sasaki left in his front yard after the death of a cousin and the Fukishima earthquake and tsunami . Neighbors would come and pick up the disconnected phone to speak with their deceased loved ones. He called it or kaze no denwa  or “The Wind Telephone.”

When the dust phone was picked up, a gentle recorded voice welcomed you to leave a message to someone or something you’ve lost, or to push a button to listen to the messages that others had left. Over the course of the week, they collected dozens of messages, a repository of grief that was both delicately private, yet collectively shared.

As clinicians, we are often privy to the grief of our patients. Sadly, there are few areas of contemporary culture where grief is permitted and openly encouraged. Francis Weller has written extensively about the need for grief to be shared in community, saying we cannot navigate grief alone. However, as I spoke about in my 2018 presentation to Psych Congress  on grief, we have lost many of the venues that we need to grieve collectively when we lose someone or something we’ve loved, leaving us unmoored in our grief, even mistaking it for psychopathology when it is merely a most common aspect of being human.

The dust phone booth sat a quiet sentinel to the desert for a week, gently allowing a place for the private unburdening of sorrows. Along with hundreds of others, I stopped to leave a few messages when I was so moved. I also listened to a few of the messages that others had left. While I felt a moment of voyeuristic guilt at listening, I also felt the comfort of our shared humanity, remembering that while the details of our losses may be unique to our lives, that grief is a universal.

At the end of the week, the microchip that held the messages was taken from the phone and left in the temple to be burned, the smoke carrying the tears and the sorrows of a city of 70,000 people into the desert night.


Andrew Penn was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. He has completed extensive training in Psychedelic Assisted Psychotherapy at the California Institute for Integral Studies and recently published a book chapter on this modality in The Casebook of Positive Psychiatry, published by American Psychiatric Association Press. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing, where he teaches psychopharmacology, and is an Attending Nurse Practitioner at the San Francisco Veterans Administration. He has expertise in psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. As a steering committee member for Psych Congress, he has been invited to present internationally on improving medication adherence, cannabis pharmacology, psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, grief psychotherapy,  treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice.

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