Finding Sustenance, and Moving Forward, in a Time of Grief

You sustain me.

Whether it’s macadamia nuts and honey from Hawaii; cranberry skin care from Maine; gift cards from Texas, Maryland, and beyond; or a homemade meal and a handwritten card, your love lifts me up and gives me strength.

The loss of a loved one, in my case a spouse, is one of life’s most challenging curve balls. But when you factor in a missing daughter, too, the grief can become unbearable. I’ve known since the day she was born that Jocelyn was different, just as a mother recognizes every facet of each child’s individuality. It was that uniqueness that led her to participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, to enroll in theatre, and later, to forge her own path as a healer, going into inner city neighborhoods to help everyone she met. My grief for my daughter has been unfolding for years now. It’s like that familiar, albeit somewhat scratchy, sweater you grab to stave off an early morning chill.

But the grief for a spouse is different than that of a child, especially when you don’t get to say goodbye. When time and distance and life separate you in ways you simply cannot overcome. People say the happy memories will sustain you. But what if the unhappy ones more readily come to the fore, threatening to suffocate you with anger and sadness?

Quite simply, it’s a choice. You can choose—I can choose—what I think about, what I ponder and pray about, what memories will hold a place in my heart. Whether for my husband or my daughter. And it took a greeting card with a quote from Oliver Wendall Holmes to remind me of that.

“I find that the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving,” Holmes said.

I’m standing in this moment of grief, wearing widow’s weeds, but moving only forward. Never back. I know I was a good wife, who saved her husband’s life at least four times: when I paid for his quadruple bypass surgery; when I ordered his orthopedic team off his case, for refusing to acknowledge that a beet-red foot with an open wound was the cause of his raging bone infection and demanded they treat him immediately; and when I insisted he let me drive him to hospital, because I suspected he’d had a stroke. (He had.)

But the most recent incident was in 2015, while I was still recuperating from bilateral knee surgery, and my surgeon had not even released me to drive yet. When Butch didn’t come home from taking our beloved Labradoodle for a drive, I called him—and heard the strain in his voice. I had tried to convince him to go to the doctor throughout the weekend, but he refused. So on that Monday I was worried, and while working on another book deadline, I waited 15 minutes, then 20. When he failed to answer my repeated calls or return my texts, at the 30-minute mark I grabbed my car keys and drove around town looking for him.

I found him in the Dunkin Donuts’ parking lot, hands gripping the wheel so tightly he couldn’t let go. One side of his face drooped, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. I yelled for someone to call 911, and then finger fed him sugar, placing it on his tongue. By the time the ambulance arrived, his blood sugar was 28. People have died with higher levels than that—and he nearly did. Would have, had I not gone looking for him.

The bone infection happened in February 2014, after he fell and broke his leg. I was in the middle of filming an episode for the Dr. Phil Show and facing a major deadline for Pretty Little Killers. Butch was hospitalized for the better part of a month, so I set up camp just outside his room, where I could keep an eye on him through the connecting window. Armed with my laptop and several notebooks full of materials, I interviewed people from there, and took care of him, too, all while meeting my deadline. There’s a reason they say you never leave someone you love alone in a hospital. And I didn’t, wouldn’t.

You haven’t left me alone since Butch died, during the last 50 days. You have given me cinnamon cake and carried homemade cavatini to my door, pruned my flower garden, taken my calls and taken me to lunch, or just bought me a cup of coffee. Many cups of coffee. You chauffeured me when I couldn’t drive, opened your homes to me, and in one case you drove four hours round-trip, just to loan me some money—showing the kind of self-sacrifice that is crucial to surviving grief.

Your personal gifts, your written expressions of love, sympathy, and encouragement, continue to buoy me, and will in the days to come. Yet I know I can never repay you. Not entirely. So I will do what I can, and thank you—from the bottom of my heart.

Editor’s Note: My website is being revamped, and more changes are in the works. So I hope you’ll pardon the mess and be patient, as I iron out all the kinks.

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My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

“I am those things because my mother . . . helped me to become them.”

NOTE: This originally appeared as “Cassandra’s statement: July 15, 2008” and was first published several years ago. –Daleen

I know some visitors to this site will be friends or even family members. Some of you will doubt the validity of my mother’s book; however, I can assure you, as one of the four innocents hurt most by the domestic violence that took place in our home on a regular basis, we lived this sad but true story.

My parents divorced in 1990 when I was 10, the oldest of four children. My mother claimed she was a victim of abuse but I was too young to understand or process that. Everything was so confusing to me. It seemed she was doing everything in her power to keep me and my siblings from seeing our dad.

Even though my father dated other women during the next nine years and eventually remarried, he always said that he would return to my mother in a heartbeat if she would take him. She wouldn’t and soon after the divorce, I grew to hate her for it.

During my teenage years, I came to realize that my father was an abusive person. Still, when my mother chose to move to California in 1997, in the midst of a bitter custody battle, my siblings and I chose to stay in West Virginia with our father.

Over the next two years, one by one, my siblings finally got fed up and moved to California to be with our mother. I stayed. It took me until 1999, shortly after my 18th birthday, to admit to myself that my father was a monster.

I remember it vividly. My sister, Courtney, 15, said something that upset my dad as we were getting ready for school. He began to swing at her wildly, hitting her repeatedly before I intervened—begging him to stop. At that point, he grabbed me and held me up by my throat; strangling me until my sister finally managed to hit him so many times that he released me.

We grabbed our things and ran to the waiting school bus downtown. There had been numerous other episodes of abuse but that was the point of no return for me. I realized he could have easily killed me. I moved out that night and finished my senior year living with a friend. Courtney was made a ward of the state, with temporary custody being granted to our grandmother.

I had refused to speak with my mother from August of 1997 until the fall of 1998. My relationship with her was almost nonexistent and severely damaged. Even so, she immediately made arrangements to return to West Virginia to care for Courtney and me. Our baby brother, Zachary, came home with her. My sister, Jocelyn, 17, refused to return to West Virginia. She had already cut off all contact with our father and was determined that her dreams of becoming an actress could only be fulfilled on the West Coast.

My mother and I began the long, slow process of repairing and rebuilding our relationship. We are two individuals with very different personalities and philosophies on life, so it was not easy. In December 2003, my husband and I had our first child, a baby boy. Only then could I understand just how strong a mother’s love for her children is. It took me that long to realize that everything my mom did for us was out of love, in an attempt to protect us.

Yes, she made mistakes along the way but no one is perfect. If she erred, it was always on the side of caution to her children’s benefit. I strive to follow her example. Though I am not in an abusive relationship, I will protect my son at all costs. It is for this reason that I refuse to allow him to visit his grandfather, my father, unless he is under the direct supervision of my husband or me, because my dad was abusive and neglected my siblings and me.

He had another daughter in November 1999. While I do not know if he physically abuses her, I witnessed physical abuse between both adults in the home that took place in front of my little sister, as well as verbal abuse to both my sister and stepmother.

Though I left my father’s abusive home early in 1999, I was still on the wrong track concerning relationships. These factors, combined with the lack of a positive father figure in my life, caused me to crave male attention. Do not misunderstand—I was not promiscuous. However, I wanted and needed someone to love me. I was dating an older man at the time. He was not physically abusive but he was not a “good” or nice guy. He would talk to me about the other women he was interested in and he was an alcoholic. I could not see that I was headed down a very dangerous path.
Fortunately, he broke up with me shortly after I moved from my father’s home.

While I was heartbroken at the time, I can look back and see it was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. In May 1999, a friend of a friend accompanied me to my senior prom, with only a week’s notice, because I couldn’t bear the thought of going alone, as I had for my junior prom. Never before did a man treat me so well. He opened doors for me, helped me in and out of the vehicle and refused to let me pay for anything—the perfect gentleman.

Our friendship grew and we began dating shortly after my graduation in June. Our whirlwind romance swept me off my feet. In October 1999, Wade proposed to me and we were married in July 2000. We have been happily married for almost six years. Wade is still a perfect gentleman and treats me with nothing but tender compassion, love and respect. He has never even raised his voice to me and he always considers my opinions and suggestions before making a decision. He has been my number one supporter these last seven years.

I am a domestic violence survivor. I am a sexual abuse survivor. I am a strong woman. I am those things because my mother, Daleen Berry, helped me to become them. Thanks Mom, I love you!

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I have four books and am currently in Aspen, Colorado, working on my fifth. Guilt by Matrimony, about the Nancy Pfister murder, will be published by BenBella Books sometime this fall, in 2015. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”