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Hyde Park Teen's New Social Media Site Is Just For Kids With Dead Parents

By Mae Rice in News on Jul 26, 2016 8:14PM

SLAP'D founder Genevieve Liu, 17 (photo courtesy of Genevieve Liu)

When Genevieve Liu's dad died, she was 13, and she felt "very, very alone," she told Chicagoist. The 17-year-old grew up in Hyde Park, where she still lives, and she felt “estranged from a community I’d lived in my entire life."

Her father, University of Chicago pediatric surgeon Donald Liu, drowned in August of 2012 while saving two children caught in a strong current in Lake Michigan. He was the surgeon-in-chief at UChicago's Comer Children's Hospital, and his death was all over the news. "There were cameras outside my house," Liu said.

"There were thousands of people at his funeral... it was a very public thing." Liu felt "so truly lucky" to receive the support she did, but it also meant "a lot of unwanted attention" and a lot of sympathy from classmates and friends who, to her knowledge, hadn't lost a parent themselves. "I really felt like I was the only person who’d lost a parent at a young age," Liu said.

Now, she's working on a website that will keep teens in similar situations from feeling quite so alone. SLAP'D—an acronym for Surviving Life After a Parent Dies—is a cross between Facebook and Rookie, but it's only for teens who have lost a parent. As Genevieve pithily puts it: “SLAP’D is the social media for teens who’ve lost a parent to find one another and connect through their shared experience." She laughed, adding, "It took a long time to figure out that sentence.”

The site has a variety of features: tribute pages, "pinboard-type" memorials kids can make to their dead parents; articles, including interviews with adults who lost parents at a young age and an entire section called "Awkward!", stocked with advice on topics like how to ask your dad to buy tampons and how to ask a girl out.

Genevieve (right) with her family, including her father (center) died (photo via Facebook)

The key feature of SLAP'D, though, is a holistic one: a sense of community, a way to connect with other young people grieving for a parent. Liu knows the power of this type of connection firsthand. The first glimmer of hope she saw after her dad's death came when she met another girl who had lost a parent; the girl's mom had died of cancer.

"We were kind of stuck in the same room, and my mom was like, ‘You two talk,’" Liu said.

It's still hard for her to put a finger on what made their connection so important. "I think that it was the fact that we really didn’t have to talk about our dead parents all the time," Liu said. The tone of the conversation was different. There was no head-tilted concern. After that, "I started to really feel like myself again," Liu said.

Through SLAP'D, she hopes to ultimately share that type of connection with anyone who needs it, though the site is still a work in progress. Like any startup worth its salt, it's affiliated with an accelerator: the Polsky Accelerator at Chicago's Booth School of Business. It's also in a midst of a redesign that Liu said should roll out in the next 60 to 90 days. Liu hopes SLAP'D one day have "a parent organization and a full-time staff," but not yet—so far, the six-person team is largely full-time students working on SLAP'D on the side.

Still, SLAP'D is doing solidly in the here and now. It's gotten about 164,000 views in the past six months, Liu said, and gets an average of more than 1,300 new visitors each month. Liu doesn't seem surprised that people are visiting—losing a parent while you're young, as she sees it, is a unique experience that merits a support network all its own.

Though obviously, every death is different—as Liu points out, some kids lose parents to Chicago's high murder rate, others to suicide, still others to illness or accident—she pointed out that losing a parent as a teen means missing out on key family milestones. Liu's dad won't be at her high school graduation; if she gets married, he won't walk her down the aisle.

"These milestones in your life… I feel like I miss out on that all the time," she said. At the same time, though, she feels like her relationship with her dad is still moving forward—just not moving along the traditional path. ‘I definitely feel like I have an ongoing and growing relationship with my dad," she said.