By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Genevieve Liu and her late father, Dr. Donald Liu, were cut from the same cloth.
Genetics, to be sure. But another factor just as important is at play here. They both were committed to tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, one deed or person at a time.
The elder Liu did it daily as chief of pediatric surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine’s Comer Children’s Hospital. One couldn’t avoid passion and emotion from saving, and occasionally losing, desperately ill kids.
“You couldn’t stop him,” Dr. Dana Suskind, Liu’s wife and Genevieve’s mother, told ABCNews.com.
“He always did the right thing.”
So much so that Liu dived into Lake Michigan off Cherry Beach in Chikaming Township, Mich., on Aug. 5, 2012 to save two boys – friends of his family – who were caught up in rip currents. The boys were rescued, but Liu drowned due to the currents, despite the resuscitation efforts of his wife.
Oldest child Genevieve, then just 13, was a witness. Genevieve and her two siblings had called out to her father not to plunge into the roiling waters. The sorrow will never go away, as with any child who loses a parent so young. She considered Donald Liu her best friend. But like her father, she is committed to making life better amid the intense pain felt by afflicted kids.
The Hyde Park resident is now in college and working at a Los Angeles law firm during the summer. But within a year of her father’s death, she created SLAPD: Surviving Life After a Parent Dies, a website where youths who have lost a parent can find solace and more importantly, community. They do not have to face their grief alone.
At the hospital and at home, Donald Liu’s commitment to life rubbed off on his daughter.
“As a young child, I shadowed my dad when he made the hospital rounds. I revere what they did,” she said of the angels of medicine. Her father lived long enough to practice some surgical techniques to save children that were not perfected when Liu met Suskind when both were residents at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992.
Liu by necessity, and certainly by personality, practiced a good bedside manner with his patients. Videos show his smile lighting up the room when he talked to the kids, many of whom no doubt where scared through the surgical process. Genevieve has a similar positive and comforting manner through SLAPD.
She has made an impact over a half decade with more than 43,000 users across all 50 states. As a result, Genevieve Liu has been named one of 15 recipients of the 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
Given out by the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Foundation, the awards recognize Jewish teen-agers for their volunteer and civic service. A $36,000 grant is given to each winner. Since the program began in 2007, the foundation has awarded more than $4 million to 114 honorees.
The recipients are the creators of non-profit organizations, student-led volunteer organizations and other programs that address the likes of school bullying, sexual harassment, homelessness and discrimination.
“The 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipients are confronting some of the most complex and divisive issues of our time with a passion, determination and courageousness that we can all admire and hope to emulate,” said Jackie Safier, president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation. “These teens continue to remind us that individuals of any age can be leaders and advocates who seek to positively impact the world in a significant way.”
Liu’s recognition has not stopped with the Diller honors. She has received Chicago Innovation’s Up and Comer Award.
SLAP’D reaches an underserved group. Some 7.4 million adolescents lose a parent before the age of 16. SLAP’D offers a space for teen-agers to find each other, memorialize their parents, share their experiences surrounding loss and seek professional bereavement support. She manages the site’s operations and speaks at bereavement centers and conferences, camps, entrepreneurial conferences, and schools to raise awareness about childhood grief.
“One important thing about receiving such an award is that the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam is not only to repair the world, but to inspire other to make a difference, to make things better,” Liu said. “The idea of tikkun olam means (being) a good person, and constructively problem-solve.”
And that defined Donald Liu, now in many ways channeled through his daughter.
A Chinese-American, he grew up Catholic. “My dad converted to Judaism when he married my mom,” Liu said. “The way he really felt Jewish was through the idea of tikkun olam, and the traditions of raising children. He’d teach us the ideas of tikkun olam, to be active in repairing the world. That’s what made him a great Jew. That’s what being Jewish means to me.
“He was there for every family dinner. He coached my brother in Little League. He was there for everything. He really took seriously his role as a parent.”
Liu’s burden in dealing with her father’s death was heightened by having witnessed the accident. But she doesn’t see it as his being a hero in his final moments.
“I don’t think about it that way,” she said. “I don’t think he ran through the calculations and had time. He saw two boys who were struggling. What happened is he saved those two boys. I know he died the way he lived.”
Even before Liu created the SLAP’D community, she took solace in her close-knit family. “My favorite part of myself is being the older sister and trying to be a good sister,” she said. Brother Asher, 15, and sister Amelie, 13, “have helped me through their friendship.” Asher also has been actively involved in SLAP’D. Liu is especially proud of an essay he wrote for the website, entitled “Lean in to the Suck.”
“Terrible chapter heading, right? Not sweet and syrupy and ‘Oh, let me hold your hand while you cry.’ You already get a lot of that, don’t you? Why, then, do we say ‘lean in to the suck,’ if we can say such nice, sweet things? Because sometimes, in the midst of our grief, we have no words for how we feel, and all we know how to say is ‘this sucks.’ Because, we, you and I together, are going to be honest with each other. So we can really help each other and deal with this head on, together.
“What does ‘lean in to the suck’ really mean? That, while what’s happened to us can be really hard, and really terrible, and really, really hard to deal with, we’re going to deal with it. Together. And, in the end, we’re going to come out stronger. All of us.
“Having resilience is always important, no question about that. But it’s an especially important component of grieving because, while we do grieve, we cannot let that grieving destroy our core strength. And, while resilience is an important characteristic to have, there are also characteristics we have to say ‘go away’ to.
“We call them the Three P’s: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence. Are you battered by the thought that it’s all your fault? That’s Personalization battering your brain. Are you haunted by the thought that what happened will affect every aspect of your life forever? That’s Pervasiveness dictating your thoughts. And do you think that this is the way your life will be, forever and ever, and it will never get any better? That’s Permanence setting up shop and refusing to budge. Want to see someone who was a victim of the three P’s? Just take a good look at me.”
Asher wound the clock back to the day of his father’s death:
“I was lying in bed, sobbing. My mom sat next to me, trying to console me, as I soaked my bed with unstoppable tears. The realization that I was never going to see my dad again was crushing me. I could hardly breathe. And I knew, without question, that my life was destroyed, never to recover. I loved my dad more than I could ever say and losing him was as if I had lost a part of my being.
“I was sure that my life was never going to be the same. And, I also felt strongly that it was my fault. Why hadn’t I done more to stop him from jumping into the lake to rescue those boys? I had tried, but why hadn’t I tried harder? The question was relentless in my brain. And that thought, meshed with all the other feelings of sorrow and anger and helplessness affected my entire life, including my relationships with friends and family and school.
“And then I changed. Not suddenly, but eventually. Because, over time, I began to think more clearly about my dad. I realized, finally, that nothing I could have said would have changed what he did. Because he would never have stood back while two boys’ lives were in jeopardy just to save his own. I could never have stopped him. And something else about my dad helped me to pull through. Remembering what he would have wanted for me. To be a happy and productive and positive person. I’ll always miss him. There’s no question about that. But there’s also no question that he’s not really gone. He stays in my mind and, when I question him, he gives me exactly the answer I expect him to. I can even, to tell you the truth, debate with him! Because he’s not really gone from me and never will be.
“Another thing helped, as well. And I hope that what I’m going to tell you now doesn’t seem cliché. There is a recurring theme when his colleagues and friends talk about him. That he was a man whose life was spent overcoming obstacles and, most importantly, overcoming obstacles in positive, productive ways. I inhale these stories and make them a part of my own being. I am my own person but, from his memory, I have remembered how to be a productive, positive person, consciously supportive of the world around me.
“Let me end with advice from someone who, as the saying goes, has been there and done that. Treat yourself kindly. Listen to your problems and then give yourself the kind of positive advice you’d give someone you love. To grow, analyze people who are positive and constructive and learn from them how to be positive and constructive, as well.”
“There’s no way to know” the true impact of SLAP’D, Liu said. “The best thing we hear is the meeting of people in person who used the site. Those posting on the site have ranged from kids who lost a parent to experts in the bereavement field.
“What’s really important is that other people have experienced what you have, and gone on to do great things. It helps you to realize that you are not alone.”
SLAP’D began in 2013. But Liu is far from finished in fashioning its final form.
“What I want to do with this site is to make it the social media for any kid who has lost a parent,” she said. “I just started my first year in college. I really see it (long-term) in the hands of my little brother and little sister. Let them take their own spin on it. That’s really my vision. To not only reach more teens, but also have siblings get the opportunity to contribute.
“Social media is great, especially for teens living in areas where they are afraid to ask for grief services. It can be used as a gateway to find resources. It’s really a first step. It’s helped teens meet others in person. “
As she gains renown, Liu will be asked for advice away from the site as if she is a grief counselor without portfolio. All she can do is provide direction.
“There’s not one way to handle losing a parent,” she said. “If I give advice, when I see kids individually, what’s important is to find a sense of community or support: a coach, teacher, family member, friend. What is extremely important is not only to find a community, but also a sense of purpose. To find something that gives you that sense of purpose is the best remedy to handle grief.”
Tikkun olam is one age-old precept of Judaism. Another is the concept that if you continue to talk about a lost loved one, he or she is never really gone. Count Liu in as a subscriber.
“I know a lot of people who don’t talk about their parents who are gone,” she said. “But it gives me a lot of comfort and strength to mention my father. The most important people I share stories and memories with are my siblings, talking about how much he meant to us.”