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Photo via @alphaomicronpi on Instagram

‘We don’t want Kristen to be forgotten,’ … how a Seton Hall women’s fraternity came together to turn the sudden death of their sister into a legacy

There has never been a good way to find out a friend, let alone someone you called a sister, had died suddenly. For the thought of this tragedy to fester for an entire day, though, is borderline torturous. However, for sisters of the Alpha Omicron Pi women’s fraternity at Seton Hall, Monday, Sept 20 was a day they will never forget.

Seton Hall’s University Relations office sent an email that afternoon notifying students that an individual had experienced a medical emergency in Neumann Hall. Though no other details were revealed in the message, some sisters feared the worst having not heard from Kristen McCartney, a sophomore at Seton Hall and sister of Alpha Omicron Pi, while she was quarantining in Neumann Hall.

McCartney’s “big sister,” Kelly Barba, was one of those who was concerned about McCartney’s well-being. Barba and the sisters she shared a house with off campus gathered to comfort one another and hoped McCartney had simply forgotten to reply to the text messages her sisters sent that day. Barba eventually returned to her room to rest for the night, but minutes later the sisters in her house received word of what they had feared most.

McCartney died during the reported medical emergency.

Blinded by a flurry of emotions, tears streamed down the girls’ faces as they attempted to process the sudden loss of their sister. For Amanda Szeles, a senior and the philanthropy chairman of Alpha Omicron Pi, the pain of McCartney’s passing was only amplified as she was the one to take the long walk downstairs to inform Barba.

“I went downstairs to tell her big, and that was very rough,” Szeles said. “Initially, I was very upset, and we were all crying, but I was mostly just in shock. I thought ‘there’s no way, it couldn’t have been her. It couldn’t have been Kristen.’”

Christine Connelly, a senior and the president of Alpha Omicron Pi, shared Szeles’ disbelief of their sister’s death. As the two processed their grief while also providing their support to their sisters, the overwhelming feeling of not knowing loomed over how they would inform the rest of their chapter members.

“As any sorority sister, you just want your sisters to stay safe, you want them to be happy,” Connelly said. “There’s no handbook on how to handle this type of situation. It definitely took me time to gain my footing, and then it’s just a matter of balancing my own personal grieving with being there for the chapter to guide them through this completely unimaginable situation.”

That night, Connelly, Szeles, and the rest of their leadership council drafted a message to send to the rest of their sisters. Despite their own right in mourning their sister’s death, they were forced to be the ones to deliver the same gut-wrenching news that had just brought them to tears. Without a handbook or example of a “good way” to tell everyone, they could only load the message with sincerity and prepare themselves for the next day’s mourning.

Szeles said the following day was difficult to get through. Alyssa Morgan, the advisor for Alpha Omicron Pi’s Seton Hall chapter, assisted the sorority in communicating McCartney’s death with their headquarters and relieving them of the logistical duties that came with the passing of a sister. Yet, the pain of dealing with this loss did not weaken.

Connelly and Szeles said that sisters gathered in one another’s homes to keep each other company. Some spent the day in tears and mourning, others spent the day helping with chores or cooking meals for sisters having an especially difficult time, but all of them were feeling the pain of losing a sister regardless of how they coped with it that Tuesday.

On Wednesday, at the request of McCartney’s parents, President Nyre announced that McCartney was the individual involved in the medical emergency, and Campus Ministry soon followed up with an announcement that they would host a vigil that night for her. McCartney’s parents, Donna and Sean, and her brother, Colin, traveled from their home state of North Carolina to South Orange to attend the vigil and meet McCartney’s sisters.

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“They said they were willing to give some of our sisters who traveled down for Kristen’s funeral a place to stay or rides from the airport,” Connelly said. “The fact that in their time of need they’re still giving to others is extremely admirable.”

In what was their darkest moment, McCartney’s biological and Greek life family were brought together in the Main Lounge to comfort one another with stories of her life. Szeles said McCartney’s parents were happy to hear about all the times their daughter spontaneously broke out into dance and actively participated in Alpha Omicron Pi’s philanthropic events. Connelly said they just wanted to hear about their daughter’s life at Seton Hall, to remember the joy she brought others, and to provide comfort where they could for her grieving sisters.

Connelly and Szeles were also met by a tremendous amount of support from the Seton Hall Greek life community, Campus Ministry, and the Counseling and Psychology Services (CAPS) department before the vigil. During a chapter meeting held before McCartney’s vigil. Associate Dean of Student Engagement Colleen Dallavalle and Jessica Snell, the Seton Hall Greek Liaison, were also in attendance to assure the chapter that they would receive all the help they needed.

The unity that had been shown throughout that Wednesday by McCartney’s family and the Seton Hall community culminated in a massive turnout at that night’s vigil. Overwhelmed with emotion at that moment, none of the Alpha Omicron Pi sisters initially realized just how big the crowd was on Wednesday, but they were overjoyed with the support they received that night looking back on photos taken by the University.

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“The vigil was beautiful,” Szeles said. “It was difficult, but it was comforting to see how many people attended and to hear all the speeches about Kristen. That was a testament to who Kristen was, and it gave our chapter a bit of peace to hear them.”

A further testament to who Kristen was came that Friday as well. Alpha Omicron Pi’s annual Spike Out Arthritis volleyball tournament had been scheduled for that, but there was a decision to be made on whether to go through with it or postpone it to another date.

As philanthropy chairman of the chapter, Szeles mulled over the idea of having the event in honor of McCartney’s love for sports and the organization’s philanthropy. She also sought out Barba’s opinion on what she thought McCartney would want the chapter to do with the event after what had happened earlier in the week, but they both agreed to go through with it.

“We knew that Kristen would not want us to postpone or move Spike Out, we knew that she would want us to have it,” Szeles said.

In another day of unity and remembrance, Greek organizations, groups of students, and other organizations and clubs put together teams of six to enter the tournament and donate money to the event for The Arthritis Foundation. A moment of silence was held for McCartney prior to the start of the tournament, and purple ribbons for epilepsy awareness were handed out in recognition of the preexisting condition McCartney battled with before her passing.

Szeles said they raised a record-breaking amount of money for that event – more than $3,000 – that would be donated in Kristen’s name. She also announced at the event that the chapter would adopt an epilepsy awareness philanthropy as the chapter’s third local philanthropy to ensure McCartney’s memory lived on through the philanthropic events she loved while in Alpha Omicron Pi.

“Kristen’s mom emailed me after Spike Out because we told them we’d donate this record-breaking amount of money to The Arthritis Foundation in Kristen’s name, and she was so appreciative and said Kristen would have loved the volleyball tournament,” Szeles said.

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Photo courtesy of Alpha Omicron Pi

In a week shrouded in misery, Spike Out Arthritis provided the same celebratory and joyous atmosphere that McCartney sought to bring in her everyday life. A fitting combination of two of her favorite activities – sport and philanthropy – provided a light at the end of a miserably dark tunnel for her family, sisters, and friends. She left behind a legacy bigger than herself that brought the Seton Hall community together and defined the meaning of sisterhood for her Alpha Omicron Pi sisters.

“We don’t want Kristen to be forgotten,” Connelly said. “We want to make sure we remember her and memorialize her in everything that we do. Everyone processes grief differently, and there will be a lot of officers checking in on sisters even if it’s little things like whether they have eaten yet or grabbing Dunkin’ together. It’ll be hard to move forward, but this has reminded us about the importance of sisterhood and that we have each other as sisters and friends.”

Justin Sousa can be reached at justin.sousa@student.shu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.

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