If it weren’t for the loss of my sister, Kristin, I wouldn’t be the counselor and professor of counseling I am today. My life’s work is how I choose to love every day through loss.
On that summer day years ago, I lost not only my sister but also a piece of my family. We would never be the same. Some days I find myself grieving that family and what could have been — memories that never were, conversations and laughter lost, and this heaviness I feel in my heart at milestones and significant life events.
In the years since she died, I’ve continued to experience loss, from the death of my former partner in a tragic motorcycle accident, to friends, family members and a former student. Despite this sadness and pain, I learned to shift my story from blame and fear to one of love and connection.
This love was modeled to me at a young age by my parents. From the day my sister died of a brain aneurism driving home from vacation, they donated her organs. They donated playground equipment in her honor at the local parks in my hometown of Athens, Ohio. My parents set up a scholarship in her name.
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They took my siblings and I to play bingo at the Athens County home with people who often did not have families visit them. My mom supports grieving mothers who have also lost their children and volunteers to do art projects with kids in our schools and community. My dad helped create a foundation to support families to live healthier lives in rural Appalachia.
My family donated money to the CEDAR Clinic, where I work, to provide rugs, lamps and decorations in our counseling rooms to make clients feel more comfortable as they share their own pain and suffering as well as their hopes and dreams. And this is only a part of the story and their love.
My parents also taught us to be humble so they won’t like me saying all this, but I don’t know if they realize the significance of what they modeled to us at such a young age. You see, I had no choice but to be in the helping profession; I knew no other way.
Maybe my family didn’t always know how to communicate our pain and loss to one another, but as my yoga teacher often says, we were up to something bigger. My parents showed us by their actions how to love through grief and the importance of giving back to the communities we love.
The grief never stops but that means the loving doesn’t either.
Feb. 11 is the birthday of my sister, Kristin, and so I write this in her honor.
Katie Kostohryz is an assistant professor of counselor education at Penn State and coordinator of counseling services at CEDAR Clinic and a member of the Learning to Live: What’s Your Story? This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.