The gifts my son left behind

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When her photographer son died at 22, Kathy Eldon thought her grief would never heal. Then she found his pictures and journals.

Dan Eldon was sitting with other journalists on the roof of his hotel in Mogadishu when, on 12 July 1993, UN helicopters attacked a nearby house. The 22-year-old photographer had been working in Somalia for almost a year, for Reuters news agency. His images of clan conflict and famine had helped to draw global attention to a simmering crisis – which would reach a bloody boiling point after the UN intervened in a bid to restore order and make relief operations possible.

Exhausted by the job and dismayed by the suffering he had witnessed, Eldon had had enough. His bags packed, he was joined at the hotel by his replacement, Hos Maina. But as the dust settled on the helicopter attack, Eldon couldn't sit still. He, Maina and two other colleagues raced to the scene, unprepared for the scale of terror that had been unleashed on the villa, where dozens of clan elders now lay dead. An enraged mob gathered and soon turned on the four journalists. They were first chased, then stoned to death.

Kathy Eldon, an American journalist and producer, was waking up at a Los Angeles hotel when the phone rang. "It was my brother-in-law, who told me he had just learned that my son had been killed," she recalls. "I just remember a sense of detached disbelief. You hear the words but they make no sense." Speaking from the home she shares with her partner in Malibu, California (she and Dan's father, Mike, are divorced), she recalls, "Nothing seemed real. Not long after it happened, I remember driving through London and smashing through the barrier in a supermarket car park because I was in such a daze." Dan Eldon's younger sister Amy had just turned 19 when her only brother was killed. Mother and daughter struggled for months with the early stages of grief, but soon Dan's legacy manifested in unexpected ways and places. "I knew Dan kept journals, but I never saw any more than two," Kathy recalls. "After he was killed, we started finding them – two or three tucked away in my flat in London, buried away in a cupboard for him to find later. There were journals in my aunt's garage in California, and several in Nairobi."

The Eldons would discover 20 journals; soon, their contents began to change the way the family remembered Dan. These paper windows onto the world of a remarkable man looked back into the soul of a mother stricken by sorrow – and somehow changed it. "When you put all the journals together, they weigh so much," Kathy says. "When I held one in those early days it was almost like holding a baby, as if these were the grandchildren I would never have."

These were no ordinary diaries. A compulsive doodler, artist and collector of photographs, stamps, newspaper cuttings – anything that interested him – Eldon would paste the pages of blank books with his thoughts and the ephemera of an extra-ordinary life. Born in London in 1970, Dan moved with his family to the Kenyan capital Nairobi at the age of seven. His life "exploded into a Technicolor dream," Kathy says. "It was 1977, the time of nation-building, and we were plunged into a cauldron of excitement and action as people believed they could create a nation that was multicultural and vibrant." Eldon went to an international school, became fluent in Swahili and hung out with journalists, conservationists, and wild beasts in Kenya's national parks. "Our house was just a swirl of people coming through," Eldon recalls. "Rich, poor and every nationality. We were definitely not in the upper echelons of the community, but culturally we were very well-off." In 1982, an attempted coup in Nairobi called Kathy to action. Working as a reporter by then, she took her son on assignments when he was just 12.

The young Eldon was exposed to poverty as well as political upheaval; the family lived a quarter of a mile away from the giant Kibera slum, and even after Eldon left Kenya to study and work in New York and London, he recruited classmates and anyone who would listen to raise money and supply aid for the people he had left behind – albeit temporarily. "Dan was the sum total of every person and experience he encountered," his mother says.

If Dan's was a life built on a puckish adventurism, a precocious awareness of his surroundings and a charm that few who met him could resist, his journals, Kathy says, "were layered like an archaeological dig. They are the explorations of his inner and outer worlds, and would tell you on any given day not only where he was, but what he was experiencing.

"There might be an image of a New York skyscraper with views of African dancers dropped in," from the time he was a homesick 17-year-old working for a magazine in Manhattan. "The hope and promise of a young man, and all his potential, was embedded in those pages, which are like landscapes that take you into an alternate reality. Boys in particular tend not to communicate the multiple levels of feeling they might have about the world and their life.

"And, while Dan and I were close, we had been separated by time and space for much of the last four years of his life. So as a mother, it was also a privilege – almost a miracle – to experience the world through a son's eyes," she says. Eldon's journals have proved fascinating to more people than those who knew him. Now housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, they emerge from time to time in exhibitions including, last month, Dear Diary, put on with anti-poverty youth charity Ctrl.Alt.Shift, at Gallery Seven in east London. In 2008, the actor – and keen photographer – Heath Ledger, who knew Eldon's story, wanted to create an installation based on the journalist's work. Kathy Eldon loaned Ledger six of Dan's diaries, just shortly before the actor died.

She says that, in grief, people don't want to "feel people are gone forever". Her son's journals have prompted countless conversations about Dan's life. "I would urge people who are dealing with other people who have lost someone to allow and encourage them to talk," she says. An outlet for Kathy and her daughter came with Angel Catcher, their own journal of the traumatic two years that followed Dan's death. Kathy says it helped to "transform the grief from shock, disbelief and guilt to acceptance". She adds: "It's important to pour the energy you would have put into that living person into something else."

After Angel Catcher, Kathy and her daughter then launched the Creative Visions Foundation in Dan's memory. Soon to be renamed the Dan Eldon Foundation, it encourages and supports aspiring "creative activists" to use their talents and passions to change the world, at least in some small way.

She says her work means that "Dan is not my life. My life is nurturing his creative spark in others." Among other high-profile admirers, Dan has inspired Julia Roberts, whose production company, Red Om Films, is due to start shooting Journey, a major feature film about Eldon's life, later this year. The horrific circumstances of her son's death, and the extraordinary journals he left behind, have changed Kathy Eldon's life in ways she could never have predicted.

But after all the book deals, charity galas and film productions (if she thought about what it will be like to see Dan reborn on the big screen she might "run screaming from the room," she says), real comfort comes with the memories of a son who was every bit as inspiring in his short life as he has been in death.

"Dan had a seductive charm," Kathy says. "He was a pied piper who captivated children, grandmothers, and was the go-to man for other journalists. He saw beauty in women – a beauty that made them feel beautiful. He saw inside everyone in a way that made them appreciate that they had been seen – that perhaps nobody would see them like that again.

"People ask me if I'm over his death," she says. "A parent who loses a child never gets over it – but, yes, I'm through it. When I look through the journals, yes, I feel really, really sad. But I'm grateful for the gift Dan left behind."

Ctrl.Alt.Shift's 'Dear Diary: Secrets and Struggles from Kenya to the UK' is a limited edition diary featuring extracts from the diaries of Dan Eldon, Courtney Love, Daniel Johnston, Jodie Harsh, Anais Nin and Kenyan teenagers. Available from store.jotta.com, £18. Ctrl.Alt.Shift is an experimental initiative politicising a new generation of activists for social justice and global change.



How to keep the memories alive

Create a memorial

Start a charitable foundation or simply maintain a flowerbed in your town. These are uplifting and lasting ways to commemorate the dead. "It's good to have somewhere or something to visit, it helps draw out happy memories," says Sarah Wakeford from the bereavement charity Cruse.



Do something quirky

The best memorials closely reflect the person remembered. If they had an unusual personality, remember them in an unusual way. "You can even have ashes made into a diamond," says Wakeford, "though that's not for everyone."



Remember online

With the growth of social media, grieving has gone online. Sites such as Gonetoosoon.org offer a way to commemorate a person's memory in perpetuity. "People feel guilty about boring their friends, so if they find a less direct way to assuage their feelings, then that can be helpful," Wakeford says.



Commemorate, but carry on living

Although remembrance aids the healing process, it can become a compulsion that overwhelms day-to-day living. While daily visits to a grave may seem too much for many, for others it proves therapeutic. "However," Wakeford says, "you have to carry on. You can remember and still live."

SAM MUSTON

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