Inspiration is such a wonderful thing! As the holidays approach, we will find ourselves inspired by stories and traditions, the usual comfortable activities that we enjoy year after year and that we look forward to as this year comes to a close.
For Gabriel Byrne, stories are an important aspect of our culture and our history. We’ve heard him discuss this on many occasions and we know that many of his films, which are really “stories,” focus on the emotional journeys of his characters.
Jojanneke van den Bosch is a writer, business owner (Eos Online Comm., focusing on online strategy, social media and e-learning), and public speaker. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She has written a touching, heart-felt, and wonderful book about her experiences growing up as an orphan–an emotional journey of great depth and power.
But more than that: she writes of her personal experience while at the same time providing thoughtful, clear, and honest advice to other orphans, administrators, caregivers, education and health professionals, and anyone who might know or be able to help an orphan or a bereaved child or young person.
I find her book extraordinary. It is thought-provoking, emotional without being sentimental, sometimes starkly dramatic, other times hilariously funny.
I hope you will enjoy this interview with the author of So, you’re an orphan now and that you are as inspired by her and her book as I have been. There is a “Gabriel Inspiration” in her story–read the interview to find it!
introduction by Jojanneke
So, you’re an orphan now is a book of twenty-four stories about what can happen when your parents pass away when you’re a teenager. It happened to me. I was fourteen years of age at the time. All stories in the book are autobiographical. The book is a publication of WesternOrphans, an online initiative that shares information for and about young people who have lost one or both parents. It’s also for the people around children who have lost a loved one. It’s not easy to think of what to say or do when a young person you know loses one or both parents. That is why I share my story: to raise awareness about the issue and to provide friends, family and teachers with practical suggestions. It’s an uneasy topic in Western societies. I want to break that taboo and make it more comfortable to discuss. WesternOrphans wants to connect and collaborate with other initiatives about childhood bereavement. There are several initiatives in different Western countries. I think a lot of topics that orphans deal with are universal. The loss of unconditional love. Taking care of yourself. Coping with everyday life. Practical things. Dealing with the Christmas holiday season-not-to-be-so-jolly. The difference between you and ‘other’ kids in school. Finding your way, while you know and feel your roots have been damaged.
Orphans are everywhere, of all ages. And they are in great numbers. In Western countries, they are not a visible group. But they are there. Trying to make the best of their lives.
We can do so much for them. Sharing information doesn’t have to cost money. And it’s not even really hard. Really, the only thing we truly need is the willingness to do so. It’s time to take it to the next level. And I think the time for that is now. We have expertise, the Internet, people and beating hearts. Let’s use them all wisely.
International Edition Book Cover
Byrneholics: Many of us want to write and we think we have a book inside us, but we never do anything about it. Tell us a bit about the origin of your book. What made you decide to write it? What really inspired you to commit to the process? Did you find it difficult to write? Easy? And how long did it take?
Jojanneke: Actually, I never planned on writing this book. In everyday life, I have a business in online strategy and social media since 2006. I’ve been working with the Internet as a developer and communicator since 1994. As a socially engaged project, I started the Dutch equivalent of WesternOrphans in 2007. I chose a bit of a naive approach. I thought: ‘we have the Internet, we have people with expertise and experience on bereavement. Let’s tie these two factors together on a crowd-sourcing platform, so that today’s bereaved children can benefit from our knowledge, free of charge, anonymously and fast.’ The concept was good (it still is, I think), but there were two issues that I hadn’t thought about. Not many people knew that there are in fact many orphans in Western countries (so it wasn’t considered an issue). The second problem was that not everybody was comfortable with (or aware of) the concept of crowd-sourcing (sharing information online), because social media were not everywhere and incorporated in everyday life yet. It was my job, but I expected other people to jump on the social media train. I guess patience wasn’t one of my strong suits.
To raise awareness about orphans in today’s Western societies and the possibility of sharing practical information online, I decided to share my own story. I strongly believe in the power of stories. True, vivid stories that make essential issues more accessible. It turned into a book. I have only chosen stories that address certain key themes that many orphans and bereaved children encounter. It’s not at all a complete life story. I’ve lived through more than these stories, and hope to stay around for some more years.
To answer your question about starting to write a book: just start. Reserve space in your daily planner. Just do it. If you need an external nudge to get started and keep going, consider participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It might help.
It wasn’t really that difficult to write. It was harder to kill darlings. To keep each chapter as short as possible. Just long enough to make the point. To tell the story. I believe that if you need six hundred pages to make a point, you don’t have a point. So I deleted a lot of copy.
Byrneholics: The book outlines a series of sometimes dramatic, sometimes ordinary, and occasionally traumatic events in your life. You describe these events honestly and clearly. How did you find the courage to speak so freely and openly about your own personal experience?
Jojanneke: I am intensely aware of what I am asking people to do, when I’m asking them to share their knowledge and practical tips with other people online: it’s showing vulnerability. If that’s what I’m asking, I cannot withhold my own story. This topic deserved every ounce of honesty there is. When I was in my late twenties (I am thirty-eight years old now), I ‘worked through’ the situations that are described in this book. I dealt with them emotionally. The clarity and confrontational approach I felt while dealing with them at the time, was the only way for me. It seemed logical and also comfortable to use the same way to describe what happened. Maybe that’s the only way to break uneasiness: just dealing with it. The process of finding, choosing and writing certain words made things a little bit more definitive. I consider that a good thing. If sharing these stories is the way to open up conversations about this topic, and to get people to help one another, I’m all for it. I do not have anything to hide or to be ashamed of. We have been silent long enough about dealing with bereavement. If anybody disagrees with that, it’s okay. But it doesn’t silence me. It was my own decision to share the story.
Fortunately, I have been blessed with a talented editor, who has made corrections to my translation. This has really added value. Not only to the book itself, but also for me personally. Translating the book was almost like writing the book once more: choosing between words to get the nuance just right is like giving meaning to the same story twice. Also, I regained other memories from times long gone, probably because every word carries its own ‘images’ in your head. It was wonderful that my editor has noticed that and offered advice, when needed.
Byrneholics: In your book, you provide concrete ideas, recommendations, and options for readers to consider based on what happened to you. In real life, we might call this “wisdom” and think you are too young to be so wise. Can you talk about how your experiences as a young person forged your understanding and knowledge of the world?
Jojanneke: Perhaps age isn’t the best measure of life experience. Some people start on a rocky road in life. Other people experience life-changing events later in life. I don’t know if I have ‘knowledge of the world’, but I believe that everybody has his or her own responsibility for personal feelings and acts in any given situation. You can’t change the way you feel about what somebody or something does to you, but you always have a choice in how you want to respond to that situation. The biggest problem perhaps is that most people (and I used to do this as well) tend to avoid pain. Avoiding pain while you are experiencing deep bereavement in fact results in more pain. It is not going to disappear on its own. After any attempt to avoid pain (in any form, like avoiding being by yourself, or perhaps a bit more severe, like self-medicating with food, alcohol, going out, shopping or something like that), the pain returns. The way is just to feel what is. And to go from there.
The stories I carry with me have been with me for quite a while now. My father passed away in September 1989, my mother in February 1990. All situations described in the book have been lingering for years in my head. At some point you make conclusions about them. And after a while, it’s a bit easier to see them for what they are and what they represent. That’s what I have been trying to capture in my stories. I couldn’t have done that before my late twenties. And the stories were written down in the last few years. Oh, wisdom. I don’t know. That’s perhaps the freshest idea that I can have about wisdom. The only thing I know for certain is that I do not know everything for certain. The courage to be able to change your mind with new perceptions is a blessing. But I understand that changing one’s mind is considered by many to be a sign of weakness. I think it is just the opposite. I hope to stay open to new insights until my dying day.
Book presentation on Jan 18th 2013, when the Dutch version was published.
Byrneholics: A quote from the chapter “Cabinet,” about a beloved object lost and then found again:
“Thankfully, years ago I found my sense of home in myself and in connection with my friends, my loved ones. They are my chosen family. My feeling of being at home with myself, wherever I go, gives me a feeling of peace. Nevertheless, objects often trigger my memories. They have become symbols. Sometimes to cherish them, to preserve them. Sometimes to let go, to set them free from the meaning I once gave them…so they can get a nice, new sequel in their existence.”
Please talk about “objects” and “ownership” within the context of becoming an adult. Western culture tells us one thing; you are suggesting an alternative, I think. Also, finding a sense of home within yourself is an idea many people would like to be able to understand and achieve in their own lives, but find difficult. Can you elaborate on this idea for us?
I guess there are indeed two perceptions of ‘object’. In the stories, I was talking about a very concrete object: a cabinet. We cannot hold on to things after we pass away. So in fact, everything we own, whatever it may be, is just available to us for a limited amount of time. At the moment somebody acquires, buys or wins something, that thing is truly essential and important. But the truth about objects changes. The meaning of the objects change over time, depending on the person who owns it. To some family members, my Mom’s coat didn’t mean anything. The coat was thrown away when the house was cleared out. I wasn’t present at the time. The meaning of her coat changed at that time for me: when it was just hanging in her wardrobe, it didn’t have any significance for me. But because I didn’t get the opportunity to choose anything from my parental home after I had moved to the other side of my country, the meaning of the coat changed: it meant ‘my mother’s scent’. When a loved one dies, the first things that start to fade are the recollection of their voice and their scent. Voices and scents are very personal and unique. These perhaps are the first communication tools we get when we are born. A baby recognizes its mother by smell, and a voice is even a bonding tool when a baby is still in the womb. It’s personal. When scent and voice fade, it’s harder to feel close to a lost loved one.
In Western societies, we tend to objectify feelings and/or desires. We tend to ‘need’ all kinds of stuff. Things. When you have a lot of stuff, you’re more likely to be regarded as ‘successful’. When you don’t have a lot of stuff, it sometimes can be more challenging to feel confident, if you believe all the commercials. Things are an embodiment of feelings like safety or self-affirmation. Or even ‘fixing’ acute and lingering feelings of bereavement. Or trying to buy the concept of ‘home’. Scroll through a random pin board about ‘home decoration’ on Pinterest and you will find thousands of visual definitions of what ‘home’ means to people. It can be a certain colour, a quote on a stylish wooden board, or just ‘wherever you lay your hat’.
Years ago, when there was a big fire in our garden in our courtyard, my garden behind my house was burnt to the ground. I fled the place, and went to the city where I had been living for over seven years. I went to a thrift store, and found a porcelain dish with the exact same seventies ‘Acapulco’ pattern that my mother used to have in our kitchen. I instantly bought the dish, because the first and only word that popped into my head was ‘home’. It gave me comfort. And it still does. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when we objectify something. But it does become a problem when we’re avoiding the real, true, underlying issue. Whether that issue is bereavement or any other kind of loss and/or pain. But to go back to the example of my mother’s coat: I still miss her scent.
Byrneholics: From the chapter “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which a 16-year-old girl leaves the home she has always known and discovers her dreams:
“In my opinion, there is just one proper answer to the question “Who do you think you are?” “I am, I think, more than the image that you might have of me. I am doing the best I can, trying to make use of the talents and opportunities that are given to me, and I am trying to use them to create a fine and full life for myself and others. In a way that honors who I am and those who have given me life and whom I love. More interestingly: who do you think YOU are? I get the impression that you do not have the confidence that more things are possible than you can imagine.””
Years later, who do you think you are now? How have your dreams changed? I believe your book honors who you are and those you love. Did you ever dream about writing it?
Jojanneke: The words that I wrote in that piece in my book, about ‘who I thought I was’, I formulated when I was about twenty-eight years old. It was a special year for me, a bit symbolic. I was, at that time, twice as old as I was when my parents died. In a strange way, I had felt until that time as if I was living in ‘injury time’, like the last minutes of a soccer game. It was a turning point, although I had known and understood completely that my parents were not ‘more gone’ or ‘less gone’ depending on the time that I lived. Gone is gone. But to me personally, it was a moment of definitive change. I got to choose what my life would be like, from that moment on. What I was going to do with this time I was given. That notion creates space to redefine who you are, or at least rethink your thoughts about things you once took for granted. I think in essence, I am still that person I described in the text excerpt you mentioned in your question. I am still trying to build a nice life for myself and for the people that I love. And still, I sometimes have to remind myself that more things are possible than I imagine. The only difference today is that I take more liberty in imagining things for the future. Strangely enough, those things tend to become reality. It’s like things will happen for you, if you just believe, work on it and discover opportunities. I know it probably sounds like a cliché from the song in The Wizard of Oz (‘If you just believe…’), but I guess clichés are that for a reason. They usually have an essence of truth in them. It is really nice of you to say the book honours who I am and the people that I love. I hadn’t planned on writing the book. I just did what I thought was the necessary thing to do.
Most of us have seen this fragment of The Wizard of Oz, maybe even more than once. But if you listen to the words attentively, you notice that it’s about being at home with yourself. Truly be confident that you will find and must follow your own path. Experiencing that feeling and being comfortable with that, could be considered as being ‘home’.
Byrneholics: And finally, from the chapter “Dial 555-Heaven,” a call to someone no longer with us, an imaginary conversation with Mom, an acceptance of the past and a look to the future…
“Oh my, if I’d known you’d call, I’d have thought of all those questions that have been lingering all those years.
Tomorrow, I will probably think “Shoot, I should have asked this-and-that.” But you’re right: we could probably talk endlessly if given the chance. But we can’t.”
“Well, if we have to. You go first. No, you. No, you. Okay, I will. Remember how it went, every night? You first. No you, haha. Well. Good night, sleep well, until, well, not until tomorrow. You know what? Eternity stinks. It’s way too long. Well, okay. What then? Okay, good. You first, yes.
Good night, sleep well, until someday.”
This chapter made me weep, but it also made me laugh. There is such a roller-coaster of emotion in this book. And yet, you seem to be a very creative person whose feet are on the ground, as we say–stable, steady, assured. Is writing about the past cathartic? Or is it really just a way to communicate the ideas and concepts about being an orphan that you want to convey? Maybe it is both?
Jojanneke: I ‘worked, lived and felt through’ the situations that are described in the book. Every single one of the stories already had a peaceful place in my heart when I started writing them down. That was not at all the case when I was twenty-eight (which is ten years ago now), because at the time, I still needed to ‘pour the stories out’ to find some level of relief and peace. If I wouldn’t have done that ten years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write these stories down the way I did last year. I think that if I had tried to write the book back then, it probably would have turned out as a ‘weepy’ book, with guilt and blame on other people. And because I am truly aware that I (and everybody else, for that matter) carry my own responsibility to a certain extent in any situation, it wouldn’t have been the book it is today. I wanted to use my own story to illustrate key themes in the life of orphans and other bereaved children. Here and there, one might still find some moments in chapters in which I address other people’s behaviour. But it’s not the people I judge at that moments: it’s their behaviour at the time of the story. And behaviour can be changed. Therefore, I feel that this is a constructive, optimistic book. I didn’t write it to free myself of a burden or anything.
But I would still like to call 555-Heaven every once in a while, though. As a matter of fact, something like that has actually happened (no, I haven’t lost my mind, don’t worry): about four months after the publication of the first (Dutch) edition of the book this year, my half-brother gave me a cassette tape. And an old Walkman. He handed over the tape saying: “This is for you. Dad recorded it in 1985 and wanted you, your mother and sister to have it. I have never listened to it. I had totally forgot about it. But here it is. Dad’s voice on a tape. I don’t know what’s on it. Maybe it’s a Biblical sermon, I don’t know. Anyhow, it’s yours.”
My father was still alive in 1985. He recorded himself. Sixty-six minutes of speaking intensely, personally and frankly about our family life. I can tell you this: if you haven’t heard your father’s voice in about twenty-four years time, it’s a bizarre but amazing experience to hear the words ‘I miss you’, in combination with your name. Bruce Springsteen has this amazing song ‘The Streets of Philadelphia’, with these sentences:
‘I walked the avenue until my legs felt like stone,
I heard voices of friends, vanished and gone.’
I heard that song in my car, the day after I had listened to that cassette tape. It was as if 555-Heaven existed after all.
Maybe the reason why I feel somewhat steady, stable and assured, is that I do not run from feelings of uneasiness or pain. It’s not that I enjoy discomfort, don’t get me wrong. But I do think that from the moment that you know you’ve stopped running, you accept what you’re feeling. You start to discover who you truly are. That’s probably a journey that lasts through life. That’s okay with me. The beauty of not running is that more moments of contentment and also happiness can grow more solid in your life. Well, of course I don’t know if that’s the case for everybody. But that’s how it works for me.
I really don’t want to sound like a quote thrower (and yet, here I am, quoting Springsteen and now Leonard Cohen), but the song ‘Anthem’ by Cohen has one striking sentence, which I think is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard:
‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’
Simple. Beautiful. And I believe it to be true.
Look, it’s not like I feel like any kind of guru or anything. One shouldn’t ‘follow’ anybody to begin with. And I have the same doubts, insecurities and feelings of failure like everybody else. I’m just trying to live in a way that makes me feel worthy of myself and other people. Being able to make a difference for young people who are suffering this huge loss today makes me feel profoundly grateful. Even if it is just assembling and providing practical information online, for kids and their friends, family and teachers. I can’t take anything away from them. But if I can change things a little bit so that they can build a better life for themselves, I would consider myself a total idiot if I would fail to do so.
Byrneholics: You note that Gabriel Byrne inspired you to write this book. How did that come about? Can you share this story?
Jojanneke: When I decided that telling the story was the only way to help raise awareness about today’s orphans and their issues, I started writing the first six chapters. They were completed (in concept) after six weeks. That was in 2010, twenty years after my parents passed away. I published the chapters online on Scribd.com, and asked people to respond. I got about five replies, if even that much. Soon, all of my work projects, my online strategy and social media clients, my e-learning classes and speaking jobs on seminars about social media took over my attention. I was busy doing other things. After eighteen months, I was on holiday in Cap d’Ail, my favourite place in the South of France. There I was, lying on the beach, sipping cocktails and swimming in the bluest sea. On holidays, I usually listen to podcasts, interviews, audio books and YouTube videos of interviews. Just to discover how other people perceive the world, their jobs, their lives. At one point, I shuffled through YouTube videos, and heard a man named Gabriel Byrne (whom I didn’t really know, until I discovered he was the actor from The Usual Suspects. I guess in my country, we have other film selections in cinemas). He was speaking about the theatre piece James X, which I hadn’t seen. The theatre piece was about an entirely other (but very vulnerable and shocking) theme than what I had been writing about.
Gabriel Byrne, director, and Gerard Mannix Flynn, author of “James X”
New York City, December 2011
‘Nobody cared, and nobody acted. And by our silence, by our not knowing, we are also, to a certain extent, guilty by collusion. In our silence. (…) Silence breeds shame. Silence is the enemy. We need to speak up, we need to be truthful.’
The theme in the theatre piece James X is completely different from the topic in my book. I am not insinuating in any way that this touches the same experiences (however I do know people who have been through those kinds of experiences in the city I was born in). Gabriel Byrne’s words at that moment hit me like a hammer. Because I had remained silent for over eighteen months, after having started writing the book to raise awareness about today’s bereaved children and the painful key themes in their lives. I had promised to write the book, and had left it for over a year and a half. Because I was busy with my company. I can only say that I felt incredibly, immensely ashamed of what I had neglected to do. Because speaking up, sharing uncomfortable truths and getting rid of the taboo, were exactly the reasons why I had decided to write the book to begin with. So I instantly changed my holiday plans, threw my dress over my bikini, took a train to Nice, bought a paper notebook and a new pen and resumed writing. I wrote over five hours a day during the rest of my holiday. Later, back in the Netherlands, where I live, I blocked four hours a day to complete the book. After two months, it was finished. It was printed and published, and I managed to send a short ‘thank you’ note to Mr. Byrne about the project, with (as a rather useless token of gratitude) a Dutch copy of the then freshly printed book with a promise to send a translated version once that was completed. I think that, if I had not heard that interview, I probably wouldn’t have finished the book even today. It gave me just the nudge I needed. For that, I am grateful to Mr. Byrne. Sometimes you just need to hear certain words, by someone you do not know much about. Those words were my trigger.
The work my project, WesternOrphans.org, has been doing for orphans and bereaved children since 2007 is still ongoing. And growing. But the book is the biggest bridge towards awareness for many people. I am really grateful that the first edition of the book has been covered in all national newspapers, on national and local radio, national and local television and in numerous magazines in my country. Change is visible. And there is so much that still has to be done.
I sincerely hope that initiatives in other countries, such as the websites A Child in Grief in the USA, the German Trauerland.org, the Irish Childhoodbereavement.ie, the British Childbereavement.org.uk and other initiatives are willing to share some of their resources. Direct linking to online articles perhaps could already be enough.
The international edition of the book!
Amazon link USA: coming soon!
Amazon link UK: coming soon!
Flickr: More photos of the book presentation on Jan 18th 2013, when the Dutch version was published. That was a better day than birthday and college graduation combined.
Flickr: More photos of the box with the international edition of the book
Many thanks to Jojanneke for sharing her book and her thoughts with us! Happy Holidays to Byrneholics Everywhere!