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!

An Anniversary I’d Rather Forego

I’ve been struggling with this column for days. I even went into semi-seclusion for a week without realizing why—until yesterday—when an old friend offered his condolences.

My sister Lisa died two years ago today. The call came that morning, while I was working on The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese. Trying to meet another deadline. It was BJ, my former brother-in-law. I knew the minute I heard his voice it wasn’t good. I hadn’t talked to him in probably six months, if not longer.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” I said. “But you must not be. What’s wrong?”

“Well, I’m okay, but your sister isn’t,” BJ said.

At least, that’s how I remember it. BJ called me first, he said, after their oldest daughter called him with the news. “I knew you’d want to know.”

This past week it seems like it’s been that long, some 730 days ago. At other times, it really does feel like she was standing right there next to me—and then I blinked, and she was gone.

I’m still trying to figure out what to write, even as I carry out the task. Do I talk about my 2011 trip to Tennessee to help her start her life over, after she did a stint in jail? Or how, just a few months later, she jumped bail, sticking me with the tab? Or how, in return for helping Lisa, another sister accused me of killing her? (Funny, I don’t remember being her dealer.) Maybe that’s a starting point, but I’m not quite ready to write that story. Not yet.

What I think I’d like to say is this: until the drugs took over, Lisa was never without a smile, a funny joke, or a way about her that suggested that life was far too short to be taken seriously, so why not enjoy it while you can. She and I were polar opposites: I was quiet and serious; she was loud and rowdy. I liked pencils and books and wearing dresses. Lisa liked to run and climb and scuff the knees of her jeans. We fought like cats and dogs when we were children, but we were also best friends.

“Your graduation picture was on the bathroom mirror the day she died,” BJ later told me at the funeral home. He said it was the only family picture Lisa still had.

When Lisa eloped to marry BJ at age 15, I think she did so because he really saw her. She had become invisible to us; I had already flown the nest and was expecting child number two. Mom was working full-time, so she needed a babysitter for our three younger siblings. Dad was absent. Again.

Lisa liked the excitement marriage to a long-haul trucker driver promised, and she often went on the road with BJ. She also liked the way he pampered her, taking her to car races and concerts, buying her clothes and cars and not one, not two, but four different diamond wedding ring sets over the course of their life together.

Then came the day when Lisa, BJ, and our entire family traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to meet their first daughter, He Young. Lisa had never been happier than when that beautiful little Korean baby doll was placed in her arms. When their second little girl, Kang Hee, joined their family, it seemed like Lisa’s life could not be any better, richer, or fuller.

Who can say what causes one person to become an addict, while another one turns up his or her nose at the stuff? What forces have shaped our genes, long before birth, predisposing us to addition? And why is it easier for one person to later kick the habit—cigarettes, liquor, narcotic painkillers—while another person dies an early death from them?

I wish I knew. But I don’t, and I know I’m not alone. From loved ones to medical and psychological experts, there is a large army of people who want the same answers.

Here’s what I do know: Lisa loved our “uncle” Bruce, and at family dinners, those two could laugh loud and long, inspiring a sense of wistfulness in everyone around them. None of us had quite the same relationship. She was an excellent cook, far better than me, and she regularly whipped up a big breakfast of biscuits and gravy, fried eggs and potatoes, and bacon on the weekends. And our three younger siblings delighted going anywhere with her, for she was so ornery and so much fun that she was less like an older sister and more like a favorite aunt.

Lisa was also generous, opening her home to a stray friend in need more than once, letting them live with her and BJ for many months or more. She also loved watching football with our father, especially after the move to Tennessee made their home a perfect pit stop, whenever Dad passed through on his way back to West Virginia.

There was the Lisa from her West Virginia years, and the Lisa she became after moving to Tennessee. Her daughters mostly only knew the second one. I hope they eventually get to know the other one, the girl with the easy smile who loved to laugh and crack jokes and make delicious country meals that many people will only eat if they go to Bob Evans.

Scratch that. That many people today never eat, unless they cook at home, in their own kitchen.

Because that Lisa was the real one. She was my sister.

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My latest book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, was released November 17. 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!


Writing My Sister’s Eulogy

My sister Lisa died of a broken heart. She never got over losing our father—or feeling like she couldn’t measure up. I’m afraid we—her family—didn’t make it any easier for her. Many of us judged her, when we had no right. Especially when we didn’t even try to help her.

When Dad died in April 1999, Lisa was lost. A daddy’s girl from the get-go, Lisa was our father’s favorite. Back when it was just the two of us, 12 years before our three siblings came along. I was the quiet reader. Lisa was the lively doer. No doubt she epitomized our globe-trotting, pilot father’s own adventure-seeking spirit.

By the time she died last Friday, Dec. 27, Lisa had experiences in her short 47 years that some of us never get in a lifetime. Her adventures began when she ran right through mud puddles as a child, explored forests on Berry’s Mountain, climbed to the tops of rocks during our mushroom picking days, and later, as an adult, dove into the ocean at South Padre Island, in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Lisa also rode horseback in Texas, traveled cross-country many times (and I’m sure she also took the wheel of those big rigs, even if her husband’s trucker logbooks didn’t quite reflect that). Lisa drag raced her black Mustang at Eldora Speedway in Fairmont, and she learned to speak some Arabic in the Middle East, when she lived in Jordan with our parents during 1979. Lisa kept in touch with a neighbor boy there, who later moved to the United States, for many years. She did this even after 9/11, when much of the country shunned anyone who was a Muslim.

My sister loved taking care of our siblings, especially Elizabeth, as a baby. We hung out together during many a school night at the old Mountaineer Mall. Back then, I was more worried about making sure Mom saved some of that delicious walnut cake that Lums Restaurant served than taking care of a baby. But Lisa didn’t mind pushing Elizabeth up and down the mall corridors or changing her dirty diapers, until our mother’s shift ended each night.

Lisa was tons of fun to be around, and loved spending time with family and friends. She also had an uncanny knack for remembering—and reciting—every joke she ever heard. Even though she could be mouthy, Lisa was also fiercely loyal.

Most important, she didn’t judge others—she just loved them. Which explains why she didn’t hold grudges, and how she could be so forgiving when people mistreated her.

Lisa had health problems from an early age: she was diagnosed with epilepsy, she had a lazy eye and had to wear a black patch over one eye, she was always getting sick, and she had endometriosis so bad that at age 28 Lisa had to have a complete hysterectomy. That ensured she would never have the one thing she’d always wanted, children. I remember going with her to the Grafton doctor’s appointment where her OB/GYN told me, the healthy sister who was pregnant for the fourth time in five years, to give Lisa my unborn child. Even she could see how much Lisa needed a child of her own.

But since she couldn’t, Lisa did the next best thing: she had dogs—poodles and Cocker Spaniels that she treated like her children. I think she’s the first person I remember ever seeing dress up her dog, long before it became a popular trend.

Lisa was a fighter. She didn’t give up. Instead, she set out to find another way. She toyed with the idea of foster parenting. But her husband BJ knew it would be too hard for Lisa to give a child up, as often happens in the foster system. And ultimately, after a 14-year fight, her dreams came to fruition. Lisa found her babies: two beautiful daughters, Destinee (He Young) and Emilee (Kang Hee), in Korea.

I remember the day she became a mother. Our entire family gathered around Lisa in a Nashville, Tenn., airport, as we waited for He Young to arrive from Seoul, Korea. Crossing time zones would have made the journey feel like a 24-hour flight for her. The social worker told Lisa some babies have never seen a white woman, so He Young would either look at her and laugh–or cry.

“Push, Lisa, push,” some family members chanted, laughing as the plane landed. Tears were streaming down my sister’s face when He Young was placed in her arms. She didn’t cry when she saw her mother for the first time.

My two neices are Lisa’s crowning achievement—by adopting them and giving them a home in this country, Destinee and Emilee were given the chance of a life they never could have in their homeland. I am sure of that. For many years, Lisa’s life revolved around them. She planned for them, doted on them, took care of them.

Like she took care of other people she loved, including me. In 1991, after a particularly painful breakup, Lisa she was so worried she drove 60 miles in the middle of the night, to take me home with her. Always a wonderful caretaker, Lisa took care of our father in 1999 when he got so sick from his chemotherapy. She’s the reason I had time to fly from California and spend 11 days with him before he died. Lisa is the reason I got to tell our father goodbye.

Lisa was so loved, the same man married her twice. My brother-in-law, BJ, never stopped trying to help Lisa—even after they divorced again in 2010. He said Lisa wanted to get to a better place in life. BJ believed she really did want to get her life on track—but she just couldn’t do it. I believe he’s right.

What is it that prevents some of us from having the fortitude to reach our goals? What causes some of us to become addicts, while others of us breeze through life without a worry—compared to someone like Lisa, who spent most of her short life in pain?

Becoming an addict was never part of her plans. I know that for sure. Lisa sustained a work-related injury that led to her prescription painkiller addiction. Lisa lived with chronic pain for most of her life. But the last 10 years were especially difficult. She was hospitalized in early November for an infection, and underwent emergency surgery at Ruby Memorial Hospital. When I saw her there, she said she was tired of being in pain and wouldn’t care if she didn’t wake up from the procedure. Trying to encourage her, I told her if that happened, she would wake up in the resurrection, pain free and healed from all her maladies.

The resurrection is one of Jesus Christ’s teachings, and a basic Bible teaching. At John 5:28, 29 (NWT), we learn that “all those in the memorial tombs will come out,” and at Acts 24:15, “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”

When Jesus went to see his friend Lazarus who had died, the Bible says that Jesus compared death to a deep sleep. Right after that, Jesus woke up Lazarus—even though he had been dead for four days. It’s interesting that when Lazarus woke up he was not in heaven—he was right here on the earth. That is one small example of what Jesus will soon do around the world for all our dead loved ones. And then, like the promise at Isaiah 25:8, Jesus Christ’s Father, Jehovah God, “will swallow up death forever.” This is when the earth will be restored to its original paradise condition.

Like I did, Lisa grew up in a home where we learned about the Bible’s teachings. We learned about a loving God who would never let anyone burn his human children in an eternal hellfire, and who never intended for us to die. Lisa’s faith wasn’t very strong, though, and I always wondered why.
I think I know. Many times, people like Lisa whose entire life has been a struggle, often feel a deep sense of worthlessness at their core. As a result, they can’t reach their goals.

Those feelings of low self-esteem may prevent us from doing what we have every intention of doing—but they do not keep our heavenly Father from loving us. The Bible tells us at Psalms 139:2 and 3 that Jehovah God sees when each of us sits down, and when we get up. There, we learn that he is familiar with all of our ways. And we learn at 1 John 3:1 that God wants to lavish love on every single one of us, his earthly children, in spite of our flaws.

I believe my sister Lisa—like so very many of us—wanted to offer her best to God, but she just didn’t feel worthy. Her heart condemned her, like the Bible says at 1 John 3:21. I say that because when I stood at her hospital bedside in early November and mentioned the Bible’s hope of a resurrection, I saw the look on her face: if she did die, Lisa didn’t think she deserved to wake up from the dead.

I quickly reassured her that some of the worst sinners in the Bible will be resurrected—because it’s a guarantee that a loving God promised his human children. Just because we as imperfect humans don’t think someone is worthy doesn’t make it true.

Jehovah God is the only one who has the right to judge us—and we have no right to judge each other. When I explained that to my sister, I saw her eyes light up, and I sensed she was remembering some of the teachings our mother taught us from the Bible as little girls.

As imperfect humans, as people who make mistake after mistake, we might think we are beyond God’s reach, beyond his love. But that simply isn’t true. Even though our steps falter, God gave up what he loved the most—his perfect son, Jesus Christ—so that we could have a do-over, a second chance, if you will.

People dream of getting a second chance in life—but few realize the Bible teaches that this hope is a reality. It’s called the resurrection. The God of the Bible that Lisa and I both learned about as children is a God of love. As such, I believe he now holds Lisa in his memory.

Like any good father, he’s letting her get a good, long sleep—until it’s time for her to wake up again. When she does, I want to be there to greet her. I hope you’re there to greet her, too. Because I’m sure we’d all like to see the expression on her face when she wakes up on a restored paradise earth and realizes she was, all along, worthy of peace and happiness and success and serenity.

Editor’s note: Berry and another West Virginia author, Geoff Fuller, have recently teamed up to write the authorized version of the Skylar Neese murder. Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, is now live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”