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.
Genevieve’s mom, Dana Suskind, was determined to help her three children through this, somehow.
“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?”
Finding ways to help a child adapt to a parent’s absence is key, says Julie Kaplow, director of the Trauma and Grief Center for Youth at the University of Texas Health Science Center — though not always easy, since even healthy grief isn’t always pretty.
At first, Genevieve spent a lot of time in her room at the family’s Chicago home — 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.
“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.
There also were fights with her mom, and brother Asher, now 12, and sister Amelie, now 9.
What she wanted, she says, was a return to the “unit” that this family was — 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.
She says her mother was strong for her and that she regrets not making life easier for her. “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 asked a girl from Genevieve’s class who’d lost her mother to cancer to come over.
Genevieve was hesitant, but recalls how they 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.
That experience prompted her to search online for support groups, and other teens who’d lost parents. But she found nothing.
That’s when she decided to start a website, which she calls 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 hopes the site 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, and the young woman responds, “I’m glad there’s someone who knows how I feel.”
Face-to-face interactions have been equally helpful.
Having lost his own father when he was 4, Chris Freeman, her former teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, also offered his support and told Genevieve how his older sisters had reassured him how much his father loved him — and how much that helped him.
Hearing that, Genevieve vowed to be more compassionate toward her siblings.
Not that they have stopped fighting entirely, but “I try,” Genevieve says.
In her bedroom, the wall is filled with photos of her dad and some of his numerous awards from his old office.
Genevieve hung them, without her mom’s permission — a little act of self-assertion.
That’s a lot of the appeal of SLAP’D, too, giving herself and others a bit of say over how they grieve, she says.
On the site, Genevieve’s own tribute page includes family photos, and a reference to “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
“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,” she says.
She sang the song with a friend at his 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.
Martha Irvine is an AP national writer.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.