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Teen copes with unimaginable tragedy by helping others

  • JTATeenTragedy
(JTA) When Genevieve Liu was 13, an unimaginable tragedy changed her life.
by SARAH A LEVI | Jan 04, 2019

She was on the Lake Michigan shore on vacation with her family on August 5, 2012, when her father, a celebrated paediatric surgeon, spotted two boys drowning in the lake. He rushed into the water and managed to save the boys, but the doctor was pulled under by the lake’s undertow, and drowned.

In an instant Liu, her mother, and her two younger siblings, were left without the head of their close-knit family.

“It was like the ground was pulled out from under us,” Liu said. “Losing my father suddenly was so surreal.”

In the aftermath, Liu struggled with feelings of loneliness and deep isolation.

“The isolation came from feeling that I was the only one. I was really conscious of my identity as the girl who lost her dad,” she recalled. “It wasn’t until I found other people who had lost a parent that I felt like me again. I met one girl who had lost her mom to cancer a few years before. As soon as I met her, I found hope and a sense of purpose.”

Liu realised she wasn’t the only teen struggling with the loss of a parent. About one out of every 10 Americans has experienced the loss of a parent by age 16. This realisation in the darkness of her despair inspired her to do something about it for herself and others.

Still grieving a year after her father’s death, she threw herself into creating an online community for teens experiencing the loss of a parent. Liu called it SLAP’D – an acronym for Surviving Life After a Parent Dies.

The website offers a space for teens to find each other, memorialise their parents, share their experiences surrounding loss, and find professional bereavement support near them. It has become a safe and confidential place for teens to seek comfort, connection, and community.

“It doesn’t feel so much like a bereavement site, it’s more like a social-media platform,” Liu said. “It’s something useable, and enjoyable in a day-to-day way.”

In just a few years, more than 43 000 teens have used SLAP’D, and Liu recently was awarded a 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her work. The prize is awarded annually to 15 American Jewish teens who demonstrate leadership and commitment to building a better world.

Asher, Liu’s younger brother, helped to build the online community, and found the work therapeutic.

The site “really gave me the confidence to reach out for help, and also to help others around me who were in need of help”, he said.

Liu views the Diller Teen award not just as a celebration of her accomplishments, but as a way to honour her father’s legacy as a Jew, and as someone who was an example of tikkun olam (acts of kindness to repair the world) both during his lifetime, and at the moment of his death.

Liu’s father wasn’t born Jewish. He was a Chinese man raised as a Catholic who went through a lengthy conversion process to join the Jewish faith and his wife’s Jewish family.

“The fact that he converted made me know that it meant a lot not only to him, but to the greater fabric of my family and parents’ relationship,” Liu said. “After my father died, I sought a lot of comfort in Judaism and the Jewish community.

“Winning this award really means a lot to me in terms of the work I do with SLAP’D, and also my relationship with my dad. I think it’s something he’d be really proud of, because he really cared about being Jewish.”

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