This Month’s Thoughts from Sarah Olsen
It’s 10 pm in New York City, and I sit at a nondescript bar with friends. It’s the bar that you find on every street in a place like New York: the wooden surface of the bar is scarred and the stifling dark atmosphere is somehow comforting; like a heavy blanket when you’re a child. People talk to my friends and me and by people I mostly mean men practicing their seduction with basic pleasantries: “Are you from the City?” “I live here now, but I grew up in upstate New York.” “Is that where your family is from?” “Yes.” “You have brothers and sisters?” “Yes” “How many siblings do you have?” The answer catches itself on the ridges of my teeth. The question is so simple, and yet for me there is no simple way to answer it.
At one point in my life I could clearly answer, “I am the youngest of three girls” and I would probably proceed into any number of stories about my sisters and me. But now these questions divulge the indigestible truth that my identity crisis arrived on a warm March night at 2:30 am when my father called me to say that my sister had been fatally wounded in a motorcycle accident.
When I disclose a summary to the ‘sibling question’ that contextualizes my sisters passing, the response is predictable: cringes of an ‘apology’ mixed with ‘excuse me for a moment’ and they back away. As if trauma and loss are something you can catch. The experience is something I encounter over and over again, in numerous situations. It didn’t take me long to comprehend that what I was experiencing was our society’s complete fear of and lack of knowledge about death and trauma, and how to respond when confronted with it. Though I could comprehend the emotions that took place surrounding my loss (both my own and others), they were a continuous struggle to process. The effect on me was profound. I felt isolated, misunderstood, and at times disrespected and depressed. The breaking point for me was when an acquaintance looked me in the face less than six months after my sister’s passing and said, ‘Your sister was stupid and you need to get over it.’
This was a turning point for me in the loss of my sister. Shortly after that incident, I became a part of COPE. COPE has helped me personally, professionally, and spiritually. It has helped me to listen better, and to become a better support for my family and friends. But furthermore, COPE has also helped me realize the most important way to survive is by taking care of myself. The isolation from my sisters passing that developed into frustration and depression was relieved by my time with COPE, and I have made self-care my priority. In a few short days, I am embarking on a 4 month journey in South America. It became apparent to me earlier this year that taking a step back to truly be with myself would be key to continuing my healing. I am taking this journey as a young woman looking for adventure, but I am also looking for it to be a time to continue to grow and heal. As I head towards this new segment of my life, I thank everyone at COPE. I also hope that during this busy time of year, we can all take the time to do what we need to for ourselves.