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Balancing Act

Teen creating community to turn her grief into good

Pediatric surgeon Donald Liu's daughter creates SLAPD, a website for kids who've lost a parent

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

December 8, 2013

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You only have to spend a minute or two with Genevieve Liu, the 14-year-old University of Chicago Lab School freshman, to know, in your heart of hearts, this kid is going places.

I lucked into meeting her this year through her mom, Dana Suskind, director of the pediatric cochlear implant program at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, who I was profiling for the Tribune. Liu was 13 at the time and had just finished reading "My Beloved World" by Sonia Sotomayor, which she was ready to discuss at length.

"I've wanted to be a Supreme Court justice for the longest time," she told me when we met again the other day.

This time we sat on her living room couch chatting about her goals and how they changed, dramatically and forever, on Aug. 5, 2012, when her dad, Donald Liu, drowned while pulling two boys from the undertow in Lake Michigan; both boys survived.

"He was my closest friend," Liu says of her dad, a celebrated pediatric surgeon who spent a good portion of his 50 years saving children's lives, including the two on the day he died. "He understood me like no one else does.

"After losing my dad, I questioned whether I was still going to be able to live the life I felt like I was supposed to live, whether I could accomplish the same things. I felt all of these new responsibilities."

Almost immediately, she knew she wanted to help other kids who've lost a parent. Inspired by her friendship with a classmate whose mom died, she decided to create SLAPD: Surviving Life After a Parent Dies, a website where young people can find community and, hopefully, some solace.

"The mission is to let a lot of people who've lost a parent know they're not alone and to gain strength from each other," Liu says. "I think there's huge power through community."

Forums, such as "your future" and "your daily life," will populate the page, as will an ask-the-expert feature with a rotating cast of five experts that Liu is tracking down with the help of the University of Chicago.

An interactive page will allow users to post photos, video, poems and other tributes to their parents.

"When I'm around my dad's friends, and they tell stories about him or say funny things he would say, I can just imagine him so well," Liu says. "That's one of my favorite things."

She's also finding and interviewing, through social media channels and support groups, people of all ages who lost a parent when they were young.

"That's been a healing experience in some ways," she says. "Seeing these people who've been through the same thing and are successful. It's sort of this hopeful burden."

The site is in the final stages and should be up and running in the next two months. The U. of C.'s Institute of Politics has assigned two interns to help Liu develop content and manage social media. She just launched a SLAPD Facebook page and garnered more than 500 likes in just a few hours.

Liu shakes her head, though, at suggestions that the site, like its founder, seems bound for greatness. Her definition of success has changed since her dad's death.

"The way I think about it now is in the broader scheme of things," she says. "I hope I see my mom and my brother and sister happy. I want to get to a point where when I think about my dad, I feel more happy than sad. I just want to turn out OK."

Her brother is 11 and her sister is 8.

"In a lot of ways, this website is for them," she says. "The hardest part is knowing my siblings went through this. That's what kills me the most.

"I want to make my dad proud," she continues. "Everyone says, 'He's going to be proud of you no matter what.' I want to make him proud in a way that also makes me proud of myself. I want to figure out how to move forward."

And she's bringing a community with her.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13