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!

When Silence Interferes With Healing

Silence can be golden—unless its presence is so loud, so abrasive, that it drowns out everything else in the room.

One week later, Shelia Eddy’s guilty plea is still on our minds. Some people say they have cried for hours, others for days. Still others wake up from nightmares about the case, the crime, and last week’s disturbing hearing.

The memory is a hard one to let go of, and I doubt it matters whether you were an observer in the courtroom, a member of the media watching on closed-circuit television, or you followed online, through the live streaming feed.

Teenager Shelia Eddy is led from the courtroom following her January 24 guilty plea to first degree murder. (Photo credit: Ron Rittenhouse of the Dominion Post.)

The trial of the decade didn’t happen. Instead we watched Shelia plead guilty on January 24 to the first-degree murder of Skylar Neese. Those were almost the only words she spoke.

Shelia’s own silence drowned out the words of her defense attorney. When asked if she wanted to speak to the court before her sentencing, Shelia chose to remain silent.

I can’t imagine being Shelia’s parents. Or Rachel Shoaf’s parents. I especially cannot conceive of being Skylar’s parents. We just wish them peace and an end to their suffering, for all of the parents in this case have suffered. Continue to suffer, even now.

It’s clear from last week’s hearing that I’m not the only one thinking of these teenage girls’ parents. No doubt most people in our community were thinking about them. Some people have blamed them—the Shoafs and the Eddys—while others have felt pity for them.

Although defense attorney Mike Benninger’s words were overshadowed by his client’s silence, they bear repeating. Not just for the hope they express for the futures of these three families, but because of his reminder about why criminal cases like these should be surrounded by silence.

Benninger said he spoke in behalf of his client, when he said “the silence which has surrounded these proceedings and our work in them should not be construed by the Neese family or any member of our community as a sign or expression of disrespect or as a sign of lack of remorse by Shelia Eddy and any of her family.”

Of course, he’s right. Even while the newshound in me clamors for the facts, I know that high-profile cases like this one can easily be derailed if an appropriate level of silence isn’t maintained throughout. That in order for justice to be served, sometimes silence is necessary.

Benninger elaborated on this, explaining that the “silence which has surrounded these proceedings was caused and insisted upon by me so that the work we needed to do on the defense was to preserve the integrity of the defense to protect the rights of Shelia Eddy, the rights of Rachel Shoaf, and most importantly, the rights of Skylar Neese and her family, so they could be protected without interference . . .”

Shelia’s attorney said the silence from the defense shouldn’t be interpreted as a “sign of any lack of concern, worry, or caring by Shelia Eddy and any member of her family resulting from Skylar’s death.”

Still speaking on the teenager’s behalf, Benninger said, “I can state without hesitation or reservation that all concerned must know and understand that Shelia Eddy, my client, and her family recognize that the Neese family is in a constant state of despair, loneliness, and sadness.”

Then came the only apology the court heard. “For that, Shelia Eddy and her family are and will be eternally sorry. These proceedings are now coming to a close. With this conclusion, we hope that all families, the Neese family most importantly, the Eddy family, and the Shoaf family, all tragically affected by the actions of Shelia and Rachel, resulting in Skylar’s death, can move forward in a more peaceful and hopeful way.”

Benninger’s sentiments on behalf of Shelia and her family were certainly important. No doubt the Eddy family needed the Neeses to know they are sorry for what’s happened, for the loss of their daughter.

But what a shame those words didn’t come from Shelia Eddy’s own lips. Instead, she chose to continue her deafening silence.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out 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!


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.”

My Big, Fat Hawaiian Vacation or “How to Have Fun While Working Away From Home”

That’s me, in front of one of Hawaii’s many harbors.

The best thing I can tell you is to get to know the locals. They’re key to enjoying yourself while working away from home. This trip has been in the works for almost a year, after I was invited to speak at the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma’s annual Hawaii conference.

IVAT is an organization doing its part to help educate people about abuse, and to help survivors heal. I love being a small part of that, as well as knowing it was my memoir that led IVAT to invite me. With more and more people finally revealing their own abuse, it’s important for as many of us who have the tools and can help them, to do so. That’s what I’m doing now behind the scenes, and what I’ll be doing next week, in a more public arena.

In the meantime, though, I’m working to finish ongoing projects after dark. But during the daylight hours, I’m loving every minute of this Honolulu sunshine! The people are amazing: kind and generous, gracious and hospitable. I wouldn’t experience this as much if I just rented a car and went to see the local sights on my own. That’s why I grabbed some locals–my newest friends–and they’re giving me a tour of this lush, historical island. (To see more photos, check out my Twitter feed, my Facebook page or the “Hawaii 2013” event I created there.)

(Of course, given that a historic trial is underway about an hour from my home back in West Virginia, I’m a little distracted. I keep checking to see what’s happening in the Steubenville rape case, while wondering why one single teenager who saw what was happening didn’t text the photos to police, instead of tweeting about it. I’ll blog about this case tomorrow and then I might–just might–unplug for a day or two.)

This, my friends, is the key to frugal living. And to having a great time during a working vacation.

Editor’s note: Berry is the executive director of Samantha’s Sanctuary, Inc., a new 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to helping empower abused women and their children. She invites you to join her when she gives her first TEDx talk in April 2013.

Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. Berry 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”.