Losing Dad: A teen finds purpose in grief

AP News
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Posted: Oct 05, 2014 5:48 PM
Losing Dad:  A teen finds purpose in grief

CHICAGO (AP) — Genevieve Liu sits back in bed each night, still thinking of her father before she sleeps. He used to sing the same song to his children at bedtime, often before he'd head to surgery to save the life of someone else's child.

"I'm leaving on a jet plane," Don Liu would sing. "Don't know when I'll be back again."

Then, incredibly, he left in a way no one could have anticipated: On a family outing in 2012, he drowned in Lake Michigan. That he died helping two children get to safety on a windy, choppy day did not surprise those who knew him.

His eldest, Genevieve, witnessed the horrid moments when her father was swept under by a rip current. She remembers the shrieks and tears before his body was found, and afterward. She describes sitting quietly, staring into space at a fast food restaurant during the trip from Michigan back home to Chicago.

"My dad was, by far, someone who understood me like no one else. Like, he always knew — everything," says Genevieve, who was 13 at the time.

"You wonder if you are going to be able to live the same life you always felt like you were supposed to."

It seemed inconceivable that she could get through the overwhelming grief. Yet, over the last two years, she has worked at it — helping herself, in part, by helping others like her.

Experts are still learning how children grieve, and how their process may differ from adults'.

Julie Kaplow, director of the Trauma and Grief Center for Youth at the University of Texas Health Science Center, says many of the measures of grief have been based on studies of elderly women. "There's been a taboo about talking to kids about death," Kaplow says, because adults want to shield them.

Initial research has found that kids who experience the drawn-out dying of a parent versus a sudden death tend to have a harder time adjusting, she says. But the grief reactions can become more complicated when the circumstances of the death are tragic or violent — or when the child feels helpless, Kaplow adds.

Behavior can offer clues about which children need intervention, though behavior can be hard to read as even healthy expressions of grief aren't always pretty, Kaplow says. Is the child finding outlets for grief that will eventually help him or her adapt to the parent's loss over the long term? Or is the reaction "maladaptive," making it difficult for the child to function in the world.

Amid her own struggles, Genevieve's mom, Dana Suskind, was determined to help her three children adapt in the best way possible.

"None of us can crawl into a fetal ball, even if that's what we really want," said Suskind, a surgeon and researcher at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital, where her husband had been surgeon-in-chief. "So what do I do to . help take them to the other side of adulthood, so they can be stable and happy adults?"

At first, Genevieve says she spent a lot of time in her room at the family's home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. She listened to music, slept a lot and didn't eat much.

She remembers entering eighth grade, not wanting to be known as "that girl whose dad died." But the label was inevitable, and ultimately isolating, she says.

"I got so much of my support from, like, grief counselors, friends, my parent," Genevieve says, shaking her head at those last two words. "My 'parent' that sounds so weird."

Still, she felt alone. She remembers not wanting to see a lot of friends, not wanting to feel like she had to explain her grief.

And there were family squabbles. Genevieve remembers the fights with her mom as "weekly scream-at-each-other and then 'I love you, I love you, I love you. Let's never fight again'" moments.

What she wanted, she says, was a return to the "unit" that this family had become — one that had begun with the melding of the lives and cultures of two young doctors, one Jewish and the other an American of Chinese descent, raised in Taiwan, who converted to Judaism.

Genevieve remembers her parents as best friends, who walked to work together most mornings.

She says her mother was strong for her and that she regrets not making life easier for her in return. "But I needed her to be the same person that she was with my dad, and that just wasn't possible."

A turning point came when her mom invited a girl from Genevieve's class to come over. The girl had lost her mother to cancer and Suskind thought it might be helpful for them to talk.

Genevieve was hesitant, but agreed and recalls how she and the girl, Isabel, lay on the floor of her room, talking about life — everything and nothing.

"It's almost like you don't have to talk because so much is already understood," Genevieve says.

Nor was there any expectation about how she was supposed to be feeling.

"Is my mom going to get married again?" she remembers asking.

"Are my siblings going to be OK?"

"Am I going to remember my dad in two months?'"

The rest of the time, they talked about the usual teenage topics, boys in their class and favorite teachers.

That experience prompted her to search online for support groups, and other teens who'd lost a parent. But she found nothing.

Genevieve wondered: What if she posted some of her own writing? She envisioned a forum or a blog - "a very simple format" to start a conversation.

Then she briefly met Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court Justice, at a speaking engagement in Chicago. Sotomayor had already been one of Genevieve's longtime heroes, and then she read the justice's memoir and learned that Sotomayor, too, had lost a parent.

"This could be so much more than a blog," Genevieve remembers Sotomayor telling her.

This encouragement — and the realization that there were adults who'd lost a parent and gone on to thrive, and that there might be a way she could help others like her — made her grief feel a little less heavy.

Genevieve began work on her website, which she named SLAP'D — Surviving Life After a Parent Dies.

The site includes a monitored forum, interviews with adults who've lost a parent, advice from experts, and tribute pages with photos, poetry and songs.

"People will share so much, nothing like they would in real life, face to face," says the 15-year-old who takes her role of managing the site so seriously that she has quit her school tennis team to devote more time to it. She hopes it might eventually be taken up by an organization for grieving children.

In one recent post, in which a young woman who lost her father describes arguments with her mother, Genevieve offers advice from her own experience, the young woman says, "I'm glad there's someone who knows how I feel."

In her daily interactions, there've been difficult times, including a school poetry reading when a fellow student recited a piece about drowning, sending Genevieve running into the hallway in tears. A teacher was there to help.

Having lost his own father when he was 4, teacher Chris Freeman also has offered support. Among other things, Freeman told Genevieve how his older sisters had reassured him how much his father loved him.

"I actually don't remember him very well, but I've been told how much he delighted in me and cared about me," Freeman says. And that helped.

Hearing that, Genevieve vowed to be more compassionate toward her brother Asher, 12, and sister Amelie, 9.

Not that the siblings have stopped fighting entirely. "I try," Genevieve says.

"I adore my siblings, to be honest. My sister is one of the strongest people I've ever met. And my brother reminds me so much of my dad."

At home, Genevieve is the "CEO of the house," as her mom likes to say, helping keep things running and her siblings in line, especially when Mom works long hours. But Genevieve has given up trying to fill her dad's role.

"I tried doing that, like playing baseball and stuff. But it doesn't work — and you don't really want it to, either," she says.

In her bedroom, the wall is filled with photos of her dad and some of his numerous awards, taken from boxes that came home from his hospital office.

Genevieve hung them, without her mom's permission — a little act of self-assertion. Finding control, and a voice, is important in the wake of an event that made her feel so helpless, she says.

That's a lot of the appeal of SLAP'D, giving herself and others like her a bit of say over how they grieve.

She says, "I love my dad, and I just hope that when I think about him it's not always about his death, or my grief, but just about him."

On the site, Genevieve's own tribute page includes family photos, and a reference to "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

She sang it with a friend at her father's funeral, and she and her mom also sing it at the cemetery on the anniversary of his death "to return the favor, I guess."

"He had the most beautiful voice," Genevieve says, softly, and smiles.

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On the Internet: http://www.slapd.com

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Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine@ap.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap