“Dear Marieke,

Tomorrow we might see them, the big five! The weather was beautiful today, 30 degrees Celsius. Hopefully it will be the same tomorrow. We are going to take a game drive all day in the Krugerpark. We leave at 5.45 in the morning. The group that we’re traveling with is very nice. Lots of love and greetings,

Mom and Dad

This postcard fell into my mailbox three days after I heard my parents were dead. They died in an airplane crash, in Tripoli, Libya, almost six years ago. They were on their way home from a vacation in South Africa.

Now, maybe you’ve looked me up beforehand. Or maybe you’ve read in the TEDx announcements what my story is about. You might be thinking: whew, this is gonna be a heavy one: a sad story about the aftermath of a disaster.

Sure, I could tell you about it.

I could tell you how my brother called me when he heard about an airplane crash on the radio, the morning my parents were supposed to come home.

About the identification process, and how the forensics swabbed my cheek with a cotton tip for DNA, so they could identify my parents’ bodies.

Or I could tell you how I flew to Libya, saw the wreckage of the plane and found the inside of my mom’s purse in the sand.

But that’s not why I came here today. If it was, you might as well read the book I wrote about all of this. So I’m going to tell you something else, something different from what I’ve been talking about for the past years. Today, it’s about what it meant for me to loose my parents, and what I’ve learned.

I took three things to help me structure what I’m going to say. And maybe those are helpful to you too. I brought:

A picture of a tiny plant in my kitchen sink, a flight safety card And my book.

I’m gonna start with the plant.

I was 22 when my parents died. Technically, I was an adult but in reality I’m not sure how mature I was. Let’s just say it was still pretty comfortable coming home on weekends where my mom did my laundry and my dad helped me study. What was I going to do without them?

In the beginning, I felt condemned, maybe even cursed. I thought somehow I was predestined for misery. There were many reasons for me to blame life. I had been bullied in school for ten years, long before my parents died. My brother had a brain tumor when he was 11 and became handicapped when I was 6, which put a heavy strain on our family. I was battling depression already, and then this happened.

Apart from the sadness though, strangely enough I also felt this huge power. This feeling of responsibility towards my parents: I couldn’t give up, I had never seen them give up when things got difficult either.

So, I did what I had to do. I finished my thesis a few days after the crash so I could graduate. Together with the people close to us, my brothers and I organized the funeral. After that, I dealt with banks, lawyers, media, brokers and sold my parent’s house.

I did all of these things I never imagined I could do. I found out that I was a lot stronger than I thought. I turned out to be resilient. Which brings me to this picture of a plant in a sink. About a month ago, I found this tiny plant in my kitchen. And before you start thinking that my house is a mess, I’d like to set that straight: I keep my kitchen pretty clean. This little plant grew out of nowhere though, in a place where all odds seemed against it. It had a strong will to live. It reminded me of the time after the crash. In the beginning, I felt just as lost, but somehow I found my own will to live.

For me, that had a lot to do with finding out who I was. Without my parents. This shifted my sense of responsibility: it was up to me now. I wasn’t condemned anymore; I chose to live – my own life.

Which brings me to the second object: the flight safety card. I took it from the Libyan Desert, as you may see, it’s damaged from the crash. People ask me a lot if I still fly. I do, but whenever I board of a plane, these instructions remind me not to hold on to plans and expectations too much. Even if you’ve rehearsed the safety instructions over and over, things can turn out very differently.

Before the accident, I thought I had it all figured out. I had carefully planned out all the steps I needed to take to become what I wanted to be: a news anchor or a reporter. I always aimed for high grades in school and the most renowned institutions for internships and job applications. But after my Masters, I couldn’t get a job. Nobody hired me. I kept trying and trying, I worked for free to build my resume and did one-too-many internships. Still: no job. The plan didn’t work out.

Another expectation I had, has to do with my family. Right after my parents died, I expected everyone around my brothers and me to move closer together. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. The family fell apart in a big conflict that could not be resolved, which made things even sadder than they already were. It was complicated. I discovered that in radical situations, everything is put on edge. In my case, it revealed old patterns that weren’t right.

But not being able to hold on to plans or expectations, can somehow turn out to be a good thing. These were hard and lonely times, but in a way, they set me free. Free from a career path that lead me nowhere, and free from social circumstances that might never have been good for me in the first place. I try to think of it as a very violent, but useful reset.

And that brings me to my third object: my book. The crash gave me ruthlessness as well as a sense of urgency. Those may sound contradictory, but they go pretty well together if you think about it. I thought: if everything I used to know is broken, it doesn’t matter anymore, I might as well do what I want. It changed my focus. Why waste time on things that don’t feel right? Things that don’t make you happy? I learned that you don’t have to follow through with something, if it’s not what you want or what you expected. It feels so much better to let it go and focus on what you would rather do.

After the crash, people kept saying: there are no words to describe what you’re going through right now. But at a certain point I thought: what if those words áre there? What if I start writing those words down? I did just that, and discovered that in writing, I found something that always been there, I just never noticed it. Somehow it all worked out: my memoirs were turned into a book, which was published last May. It’s called: ‘Everything around them is still there’.

Today, I’m a writer and a freelance journalist. I’ve signed a deal for my second book, a fiction novel that I’m working on right now. And every day, I get to do what I love.

Now, what I experienced may sound exceptional, but at the end of the day we are all going to experience loss. Everybody is going to lose his or her parents someday. For me, it just happened very violently, and way too soon. Because of that, there are a few things I had to learn the hard way. I was fast-forwarded into adulthood, and into letting go of old certainties.

Looking back on the past few years, I think that what I’ve learned comes down to three things:

The first is that you are so much stronger than you think. Even if it feels hopeless at first, somehow you find a way to live. Just like that little plant in the sink. For me, life took over, and I strongly believe that life will always take over.

The second: don’t cling to the safety instructions. Don’t rely on plans and expectations too much. That may sound scary, but the outcome might surprise you – it could set you free.

And finally: bad things in life don’t define you, you define yourself. Maybe you can try to turn the things that seem to set you back, into things that help you move forward. For me, that’s what my book represents.

My beloved parents, who I still miss every day, may have died in an airplane crash, but I didn’t.

I’m still here.