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Article updated: 2/14/2011 6:22 AM

Grieving father follows heart back to NIU

By Jake Griffin

It was hard enough to go through the death of his daughter once.

But in an effort to help others who suffered a similar tragic loss, Joe Dubowski pulled the scabs off his emotional wounds to write a book about coming to grips with his daughter Gayle's murder and recovering from the pain.

"After Gayle's death there was a lot of soul-searching, and I knew I wanted to get back to something that interested me," Joe Dubowski said. "I had always been interested in writing, but I was very insecure and I had a hard time at first sitting down and writing without going back and rewriting."

It was catharsis at first.

Gayle was killed along with four Northern Illinois University classmates when a gunman burst into her classroom at Cole Hall on the DeKalb campus three years ago today and opened fire indiscriminately. The man later shot himself to death.

In the days and weeks following Gayle's death, Joe Dubowski discovered an outlet to communicate with the daughter he would never see again: He began writing her letters.

"While writing letters to Gayle provided temporary relief for my grief, writing in general helped me to think more clearly about my feelings and my situation at a time when clear thinking was most difficult," he wrote in his book.

Joe Dubowski was at a crossroads in the wake of Gayle's murder. Just before his 20-year-old daughter was killed, he'd been laid off from his job testing software at a Chicago company. His ailing father, who he had been taking care of even before Gayle's death, died four months after the NIU shootings. Joe Dubowski eventually decided to follow an old dream to help people.

"I just didn't feel that the things I valued had been expressed in my work to this point of my life," he explained.

The book he wrote, titled "Cartwheels in the Rain" because of his daughter's penchant for trying to make gloomy days happy ones for those around her, was the first step in that plan. The second was to return to school and earn a degree in counseling. That part of the plan brought him back to NIU, not as a bereaved parent, but as a student.

"There are times when I'm walking down the sidewalk across the commons and I wonder if what I'm seeing was one of her last views," Joe Dubowski said. "But I have a certain affinity for NIU because of the fact that Gayle went there and the positive memories I have of her as a student there."

He hopes to specialize in marriage and family therapy after he earns his degree.

"God has given me the gift of this suffering, and I think it's so I can help others," Joe Dubowski said.

His experiences give him special insight, but he makes no pretense about having all the answers when it comes to dealing with tragedy and loss.

"There's a uniqueness in feeling," he said. "Learning to listen and not judge those feelings were things I learned soon after my daughter's death."

The book, published by Discipleship Publications International, follows the Dubowski family as they learn about Gayle's murder and chronicles her father's emotional journey in the wake of the tragedy. It's available for purchase through the publisher's website, dpibooks.org.

In the book, Joe Dubowski writes about being overwhelmed by sadness but fighting through the grief with the help of his wife and son, Ryan. He writes about acceptance of the circumstances, and even forgiveness.

"A lot of people confuse forgiving with condoning or accepting," he said. "I can forgive the man who shot Gayle because my feelings toward him aren't hurting him at all, he's dead. All I'm hurting is myself. I'm letting what he did affect me and dominate my life otherwise."

His wife, Laurel, said she had reservations about her husband writing the book initially.

"I lived it, so it was very hard to read because it made me live through the pain again," she said. "It does reveal a lot and it feels like everyone knows my inner thoughts and feelings, but I decided it was worth it if it helped other families."

The Dubowskis are grandparents today. Ryan, now 20, met his wife, Brittany, in church, and the couple now have a 5-month-old daughter named Savannah Grace. As with any new grandparents, pictures of Savannah seem to multiply in the Dubowskis' Carol Stream home on a monthly basis.

When it rains, Joe Dubowski still feels a tug at his heart, like his daughter is calling him out to play. But it's doubtful you'll ever catch him doing cartwheels like Gayle.

"I couldn't do them when it's sunny out," he laughed. "I'm not going to try them now, when it's even harder to do."

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