Tomorrow it will be 30 years since my son Dan was killed in Somalia at the age of 22. Dan was a Reuters photojournalist there and he, along with Hos Maina, Anthony Macharia and Hansi Kraus, was attacked with sticks and stones by an angry mob infuriated by the bombing from an American helicopter of a house in Mogadishu where a number of Somali leaders were meeting.
Yes, we knew Dan was operating in dangerous territory, but just as he was confident of his ability to thrive there, we too were hopeful that he would come to no harm.
He was having the time of his life, not only seeing his photos featured prominently in leading global newspapers and magazines — including a double-page spread in Newsweek — but also enjoying selling his T-shirts and postcards, and later a whole book of his photos to diplomats, American soldiers and others.
Dan also ventured into parts of Mogadishu where no one else dared go, including having fun with children, earning the nickname “The Mayor of Mogadishu”.
Dan was one of the media people on the beach who witnessed the cautious landing of the American troops, which became a source of ridicule.
Then, suddenly, this wonderful young man was gone. Who knows how his life would have unfolded had he remained with us?
What would he be up to now in his early 50s? I sometimes idly speculate about that, but mainly I keep focused on how he had been living and hardly on the tragic circumstances of his death.
These days it is not uncommon for funerals to be the “celebration of life” of the person who passed away, and this is how we remembered Dan at his service – which we held at Corner Baridi behind the Ngong Hills, on the land of the Maasai family whom Dan had been helping.
From then I have continued celebrating my son’s life, and the great influence he has had on me — and others — through his vibrant and positive inspiration.
After Dan died, I sought a way to immortalise the essence of Dan by developing the character of young people — something both he and I were active in our own ways.
What emerged was The Dan Eldon Place Of Tomorrow, The DEPOT, which we launched in 1994 as a centre for outdoor experiential learning for youth and evolved into broader management consulting.
Our ethos at The DEPOT reflects how Dan expected his life to unfold and also how I live mine. It is to “have a good time doing good things”, and looking back on our years together I know we reinforced each other in this regard.
There are two thoughts I, therefore, wish to leave you with. The first is that when a close relative passes away, yes it is a time to grieve, to feel sad about the loss of a wonderful person whom you loved dearly.
After my son was killed in Mogadishu, my mind naturally brooded on what happened then — and not least on the American helicopter that I learned hovered above the scene where he was being beaten to death and only landed to pick up his body.
But it turned out that I found it possible to instruct myself to switch away from all that and to focus on his wonderful life rather than on his awful death: on his delightful sense of humour, his artistic talent, his great sense of curiosity and adventure, his spirit of helping others.
From time to time when I talk with someone who has recently lost a close relative, I encourage them to write about the person, perhaps including through poetry, to celebrate their life and the relationship they enjoyed with them.
But also so the memories of the person and what they shared with them can be preserved. And finally, to act as therapy.
My second thought is to encourage all to assume that having a good time is absolutely compatible with doing good things.
Too many believe that doing good things in one’s work, important things, cannot be with a light touch. Not true, as Dan and I have found.
On the contrary, if you are enjoying what you are doing, and helping others to do so, much better outcomes will prevail.
All of us lose loved ones, and at whatever age they pass away we grieve. But pause to also celebrate their lives, and to reflect on how they have uplifted you.