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  • Olivia Carner

How I Honor my Brother

My name is Olivia Carner. I am a Senior on the Duke Women’s Lacrosse team. I am here to tell my story about how the sport of lacrosse has helped me persevere through my toughest times.

I grew up in Northport, NY, a very close-knit village on the North Shore of Long Island. I have two brothers, Brandon (23) and Rafe (19), and was raised by my loving parents Lisa and Michael. My family and community values have forged my identity and shaped me into who I am today.

I’ve always had a passion for sports and a drive to compete. I am the only girl out of two brothers and six male cousins on my mom’s side: Frankie, Ben, Rocco, Devin, Drew and Dean. Some of my fondest childhood memories were the days spent in my backyard with them. Whether it was mini stick lacrosse games, capture the flag, assassin, water polo, nerf gun wars, or buffalo stampede, we were always having the best time together. Family was, and still is, the biggest priority for me, to the point where when I was 8 years old, I quit gymnastics because I wanted to spend more time with my brothers.

As I got older, I competed in lacrosse, soccer, basketball, volleyball and cross country. Lacrosse was by far my favorite sport to play. I remember the day my mom came home with three lacrosse sticks, for me and each of my brothers. Together, the three of us fell in love with the game, throwing the ball around in the backyard and even forcing someone to hop in the cage so we could shoot on each other (this never ended well). The three of us would each go on to compete at the Varsity level in high school. The emotions of pride and joy I would get watching my brothers play lacrosse is a feeling I hold close to my heart.

When it was time to decide where I wanted to go to college, Duke was a no-brainer. I wanted to be playing with the best, while also competing in the ACC Conference, the toughest collegiate lacrosse competition in the country. I remember the excitement and pride on my brothers’ faces when I received my official offer. We were all sitting together on the couch when I got off the phone with my Coach Kerstin Kimel; I’ll never forget my family erupting in excitement for me. My brothers were such an integral part of the time and commitment I had put into the game.

"A lot of athletes lose sight of why they play and what their purpose is. For me, I am playing because I love the thrill of competing, and I am playing to make my family proud."

I knew at an early age that lacrosse, just like any other sport, isn’t just a game; it’s so much more. From playing on my Northport PAL team, to the Long Island Yellow Jackets, to Northport Varsity High School, and now Duke, people would always tell me they loved watching me play because there was always a smile on my face. When I’m running up and down the field with my teammates, I’m often brought back to the feeling of first falling in love with the game, the pure joy from playing in my backyard with Brandon and Rafe.

After my freshman season at Duke was cut short due to Covid, I spent the next several months back in my hometown, Northport. While Covid had a devastating impact on the world, one positive takeaway was the time shared with my family. I will always remember the months we spent in quarantine because it was the last time my entire family would ever be together. I will forever cherish the months in spring of 2020.

On July 5th, 2020, my older brother Brandon tragically passed away. Brandon’s death was a shock and a loss not only to our family, but to the whole community of Northport and beyond. The devastating loss of a family member, especially one who is only 21 years old, just starting to enter adulthood, is something no family should ever have to experience.

"In my mind, my life is broken into two parts: my life with Brandon, and my life without him. From that day on, my family and I have never been the same."

Brandon was someone you could always count on; he was the partner you wanted, the man you chose in your corner, the teammate you wanted on your side, and the best brother and friend a sister could ask for. Brandon loved the thrill of competing and being a part of a team. While many people admired him for his athleticism, as captain of both the lacrosse and football teams, more importantly he is remembered for the meaningful connections he made with those around him.

"Brandon’s legacy continues to live on through his family and all the people he touched during his lifetime."

My family received countless letters filled with the ways my brother had touched everyone around him. Brandon had a way of making people feel special and showing that he genuinely cared about them. His favorite times were spent connecting with people, learning more about where they came from and grasping a deeper understanding of who they were. He had an ability to listen to people without judging them, and to accept people for who they are. Brandon left hundreds of friends, family and peers with meaningful, deep bonds.

For me, I had no idea how I would continue living my everyday life without him. For those who have grieved a family member, it is easy to describe everyday life to be colorless: I felt as though I was living in black and white. I would spend the next several months thinking over and over “why me?”, “why my family?”, “how could this happen to us?”.

"It seemed impossible to continue playing the sport that I grew to love without my brother."

These few months were by far the hardest of my life. I felt like it was a struggle to just get out of bed each day. I remember not being able to imagine how I would ever return to Duke. Brandon had been such an integral part of lacrosse for me, and playing without him cheering me on didn’t feel right.

With the help of my coaches, teammates and psychologist Dr. Zeplin, I was able to eventually return to Duke. I had never fully understood or appreciated how special the Duke community is until that fall. The women’s lacrosse team is truly a family, one that comes together more than ever when you need them the most. Brooke Griffin, my offensive coach, had a crucial impact on my return. I spent hours on the phone and in her office speaking with her. Brooke went out of her way to make sure I had someone to lean on. I certainly would not have been able to return to Duke without the help of these extraordinary people and the love and support from the entire Duke community.

I have learned through years of therapy that I can choose to continue living my life stuck in the day that I lost my brother. I could spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself and my family. It took me a long time, but eventually I was able to shift my mindset and turn my emotions into a hopeful outlook.

"Losing my brother has taught me the truest form of empathy; having the ability to understand and feel the emotions that another person is experiencing is probably the best quality you can inherit throughout your life."

I now think of Brandon and I am filled with immense gratitude for the memories we shared and the childhood that I spent with him. I am constantly thinking of ways I can honor him and live through him. I strive to make him proud and to make the world a better place – for him. Whether it is in school, lacrosse, or the outside world, I am often reminding myself that you never know what someone else is going through.

The summer after Brandon passed away, my younger brother Rafe won the Long Island championship for the first time in nearly two decades. I felt so proud to be able to cheer Rafe on, as he excels in the sport we cherished so dearly together. I know Brandon was watching, smiling down on him and my family cheering him on in the stands.

He always is.

Sports have the ability to truly let you escape from anything going on in the outside world. Instead of using the sport I love to block out my family’s tragedy, I choose to play for Brandon and to honor him as I compete. My family is by far the most important influence on my life, and their strength empowers me each and every day. I could not be more grateful for the unconditional love and support my family and the Duke community have provided me. Every game that I play, I write my brother's initials BC for Brandon Carner on my wrist.

"Lacrosse has given me the opportunity to honor him in a way that feels right, by competing in a sport we fell in love with together."

- Olivia Carner

Photo Credits: Duke Athletics and Olivia Carner


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