The Orphan Tale Storytellers and their Bereavement

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“Losing both parents at a young age gave me a sense that you can’t really control life – so you’d better live it while it’s here. I stopped believing in a storybook existence a long time ago. All you can do is push in a direction and see what comes of it.”

Jon Hamm

Early Loss Casts its Shadow

Often when you look into the early history of writers of fiction and creators of drama you’ll find a childhood trauma of some sort. Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens both had difficult upbringings. Roald’s father died when he was just three years old and although his family were wealthy, Dahl hated his lonely life at boarding school at St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare. Charles Dickens’ childhood was even more bleak. There was a time child when his spendthrift father was particularly hard up that he was forced by his own parent to work in a blacking factory to bring in some money. And this was something he forgot and, some say, never forgave.

Another child who suffered in childhood was Oscar Hammerstein from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theatre partnership. Hammerstein experienced terrible grief when his mother died when he was a young teenager. It’s perhaps then no surprise that several Rodgers and Hammerstein shows have stories with absent mothers, notably THE SOUND OF MUSIC and SOUTH PACIFIC. In THE KING AND I, the children do have mothers, and many of them, but it is Mrs Anna who becomes a maternal figure who is also teacher and guide.

A movie that should not be overlooked in this context of childhood trauma is Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID, where The Tramp character cares for an abandoned child, but events and the authorities put that loving relationship in jeopardy. THE KID is Chaplin’s most autobiographical film. Charlie was brought up in poverty in Fitzalan Street, Kennington, London. His parents were in variety but his father ran off with a chorus girl when Charlie was a boy. The Chaplin family such as it was lived in a small attic room, but in 1896, his mother and brother had to present themselves at the door of the Lambeth Workhouse in south London because without Charlie’s father’s income, they had no money and no means of support and so were destitute. Chapin’s mother was in fact later taken to an asylum. Curiously, the attic in THE KID is very similar to the attic that the family would have lived in Fitzalan Street. And the cobbled streets in THE KID are strikingly similar to the narrow lanes of Victorian Kennington. It is often said that silent movies gave people new ways to dream, but sometimes those dreams were born of real and painful memories.

“A fatherless girl thinks all things are possible and nothing safe.”

Mary Gordon

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“The women laughed and wept; the crowd stamped their feet enthusiastically, for at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. He was handsome — this orphan, this foundling, this outcast.”

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, written by Victor Hugo

Walt Disney and his Movies

Disney animation movies are often about growing up and in a practical way not having parents means you are forced to grow up quicker than those who do have a mum and dad. But growing up means taking on responsibilities. Simba in THE LION KING avoids these for a while – hakuna matata – but eventually he must face up to his destiny and duty by returning to his pride.

Bambi is another character in a Disney animation movie who is told that he needs to learn to accept what life throws at him, including the loss of his mother when she is killed by Man. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that Walt Disney’s own mother died in 1938 just as he was beginning to become successful. The circumstances of her death are very odd. Walt Disney, able by then to buy a house for his parents, had some studio guys come over and fix the furnace but when his parents moved into their new home, the furnace leaked and as a result his mother died. Walt Disney rarely spoke about any of this but some have believed that he always had a sense of guilt that his success led, albeit indirectly, to the death of his beloved mother.

Aside from the classic adaptations of tales such as Cinderella and Snow White, motherless characters in Disney films include Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991), Pinocchio in PINOCCHIO (1940), Todd in THE FOX AND THE HOUND (1981), Peter Pan in PETER PAN (1953), Arthur in THE SWORD AND THE STONE (1963), Penny in THE RESCUERS (1977) Olivia Flaversham in THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986), Ariel in THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989), both Jasmine and Aladdin in ALADDIN (1992), Pocahontas in POCAHONTAS (1995), Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996), Emperor Kuzco in THE EMPORER’S NEW CLOTHES (2000), Lilo and Nani in LILO AND STITCH (2002), Nemo in FINDING NEMO (2003), Linguine in RATATOUILLE (2007) and Elsa and Anna in FROZEN (2013). Or is all this just a coincidence?

“Mother was anchor. Mother was comfort. Mother was home. A girl who lost her mother was suddenly a tiny boat on an angry ocean. Some boats eventually floated ashore. And some boats, like me, seemed to float farther and farther from land.”

Ruta Sepetys

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“‘Sometimes, on a very clear night,’ the BFG said, ‘and if I is swiggling my ears in the right direction’ – and here he swivelled his great ears upwards so they were facing the ceiling – ‘if I is swiggling them like this and the night is very clear, I is sometimes hearing faraway music coming from the stars in the sky.’ A queer little shiver passed through Sophie’s body. She sat very quiet, waiting for more.”

From BFG, by Roald Dahl

Who is the Big Friendly Giant?

The BFG (short for The Big Friendly Giant) is the 1982 children’s book written by Roald Dahl, which has proven to be one of his most loved and most popular. And, perhaps, his most personal.

The book begins with an eight-year-old orphan girl, Sophie, sleeplessly lying in bed in the orphanage run by Mrs. Clonkers. The restless Sophie suddenly sees a giant man walking outside carrying a bag and an odd trumpet. This giant man spots her too, and though Sophie tries to hide under the sheets, the giant picks her up through the window and takes her with him to a large cave.

Sophie thinks the giant is going to eat her, but no, he says, he won’t, because he is the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG for short. But BFG goes on to tell Sophie that she must now stay with him forever, for no ‘human beans’, as he calls them, can know of his existence. His job, he explains, is to catch dreams by going into Dream Country. His big ears allow him to listen for dream and then capture them withb is butterfly net and then transfer them into jars which he stores in his cave. Here BFG destroys the nightmares and gives the happy dreams to children all over the world.

Following a complicated adventure that includes the Queen of England, snozzcumbers and the imprisonment of man-eating giants, a huge castle is built in honour of the BFG, with a little cottage next door for Sophie to live in. Here Sophie teaches the BFG how to read and write proper English. And once the BFG has learnt how to do this, he pens a book of their adventures under the name ‘Roald Dahl’, which is indentified as the novel itself.

The BFG is dedicated to Roald Dahl’s late daughter, Olivia, who died of measles encephalitis at the age of seven in 1962. BFG is arguably Dahl’s most personal book for it’s not that difficult to see that Roald Dahl is the BFG and Dahl’s world of books – the ‘faraway music coming from the stars in the sky’ – are in a way the good dreams that he has gifted children all over the world. Joy from loss is perhaps the true but sad tale of all great writers for children.

“The witching hour, somebody had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world all to themselves.”

From BFG, by Roald Dahl

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A wife who loses a husband is called a widow.
A husband who loses a wife is called a widower.
A child who loses his parents is called an orphan.
There is no word for a parent who loses a child.
That’s how awful the loss is.

An Orphan’s Tale, by Jay Neugeboren


Why has there never been a word for a parent who loses their child? Perhaps because the pain is so deep any word would fail us? Or perhaps because the loss of a child is the ultimate ‘invisible grief’? However, when Karla Holloway, a professor of English at Duke University in North Carolina, suffered the loss of her child and discovered there was no name to give herself, after much thought and research, she decided to coin one. Vilomah.

Vilomah is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘against the natural order’, and may be pronounced vee-ah-lo-mah or simply vee-lo-mah. “It’s the wrong way round. I’m meant to go first,” are the tearful words you often hear at a funeral when a parent has to face the loss of their child. And it’s for this reason that vilomah so powerfully, and yet succinctly, embodies the complex feelings that must be found in the heart of any grieving mother or father.

Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world, dating back to about 400 BC. Avatar, pundit, yoga, candy, jackal, panther, lilac, nark, loot and crocus are all words that can find their roots in Sanskrit. Sanskrit has always been the sacred language of Hinduism and is one of the official languages in India, but it is only used for religious purposes.

Of course every bereavement is different, but that doesn’t stop those who have suffered loss feeling the need to identify with others who have had similar experiences and emotions. And now parent mourners have a name for themselves and their unique situation. Finding purpose and honouring the life of your child are essential steps on the path of emotional healing and now there are a growing number of support groups using the word Vilomah to help those who have experienced loss along the way. The word is now slowly being picked up by dictionaries and perhaps one day with find itself used as often as the word widow, which itself comes from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘empty’.


‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.’

The Gospel According to St Matthew, chapter five, verse four

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Young Adult Reader Reviews

"One of the things that makes the book so original is the mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and comedy, so you never know what to expect next… I found the book exciting, entertaining and very, very funny and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my friends." Year 10

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