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.

* * *
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!

Pen in Hand, I Begin 2015 By Looking Back at 2014

I do so because I believe Pearl Buck’s words: “To understand today, you have to search yesterday.”

Searching yesterday, as in all of 2014, I found that I’d forgotten about some celebrity deaths, undoubtedly because I’ve been more concerned about the ones here at home. Still, they lived, they entertained and inspired us, and in 2014 Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall, Shirley Temple, and many others all died. Some of them, like Hoffman and Williams, died far too young.

I’m starting 2015 by looking through all these scraps of paper, sorting and filing what I need and tossing the rest.

Personally, I was touched more by Maya Angelou and Robin Williams’s deaths than the rest, because their own work touched my life profoundly. In their collective body of work, they speak to the human condition—a topic Angelou always talked about, and something Williams taught me with his many roles.

As we start 2015, the world is a hot mess. Here in the U.S. black male deaths by the men in blue have led to riots over race, privilege, police, deadly force and justice. Or, some say, the lack thereof. Then there was the University of Virginia gang rape that was—and then wasn’t. Or was it? From kindergarten to college (43 in Mexico, 276 in Nigeria, and 132 in Pakistan) at least 451 students were kidnapped and/or murdered. U.S. and U.K. journalists were beheaded. And three Malaysian airliners have crashed: one simply vanished; another was blown from the sky by a drone, and the most recent one appears to have been downed by a bad storm.

Those were some of the more sobering headlines that found their way onto the 27/7 news cycle, and which caused not a few people to give up reading or watching the news completely. Then there was less important news, which quickly turned quite serious. For instance, there was the parody about a plot to murder North Korea’s leader. That seems to have led to a cyber-attack on Sony (the debate continues as to who was responsible), one of the largest movie studios out there, which resulted in dozens of embarrassed celebrities. Not to mention studio execs, after the hackers shared email correspondence and other private information with a voyeur public.

Along the way, free speech was taken hostage—until President Obama reminded his people that the United States does not cower before cowards, resulting in said speech being released, to the tune of almost $20 million in earnings for Sony after just one week.

Another disturbing 2014 news story involves the rise of the dangerous group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), not to be confused with that other Isis, the ancient Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom who surely must have been much more benevolent than this modern ISIS. On top of that danger, there was the equally deadly Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 7,000 people in West Africa, and made even me worry about boarding my next flight.

The Ray Rice elevator incident, and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance the NFL took in response—all of which has served as the best campaign against domestic violence in decades—made for a fascinating 2014 news story. By punching out his then-fiancée (now wife) the former Baltimore Ravens running back has provided a new level of awareness to the behind-closed-doors war zone that many women and children have remained captive to for far too long. If Twitter is anything to judge by, (#WhyIStayed) the clumsy Rice-NFL mambo has helped other men learn that women aren’t punching bags. Or footballs, to be kicked around. But there is a price to pay for doing so—which can include losing your job as a breadwinner.

Then, most recently, a bit of good news: U.S.-Cuba relations saw a thaw, which means it’s only a matter of time before the island and its archipelagos become yet another pit stop for cruising tourists. Oh yes, the thaw also means that authentic Cuban fare should be much more accessible to people like me, who find their rich blend of exotic spices a culinary delight to the palate.

One of the best feel-good stories of 2014, perhaps by now forgotten in view of the overwhelmingly bad news, is the one about Pakistan teenager Malala Yousafzai, who in 2014 was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” At 17, she is the youngest person to ever receive the distinguished prize. This and Malal’s own bravery at age 15—when she single-handedly stood up to the Taliban—reminds us that while courage often comes in the face of a child, it can flee by the time we become adults. (Then again, all those nurses and doctors caring for Ebola patients give us faith that even adults can be courageous when they are called to do so.)

Here in West Virginia we were happy to see a corrupt coal baron indicted in 2014 for his part in the Massey Energy deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine four years ago. Yes, Don Blankenship will have his day in court, for putting insanely rich profits before the safety of his employees. I’m just happy that the winds of change seem to be blowing in our direction over here in Appalachia, hopefully bringing down the Dark Lord of Coal Country with them.

I’d like to think this constitutes a happy change here in Almost Heaven, since the ongoing fallout for company execs at Freedom Industries includes similar federal charges. That firm, you might recall, contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents one year ago January 9 when MCHM, a toxic chemical, leaked into the Elk River, leaving many people without a way to even take a bath—much less a drink.

And even closer to home, here in Morgantown, W.Va., the Skylar Neese murder case came away as one of the top five biggest news stories in 2014, according to WDTV. It was a real downer, and I should know, because I covered the story on my blog while simultaneously writing two books about the case and its related legal proceedings. (But make no mistake, although some of the details from my blog were used in the book, less than one percent made it into Pretty Little Killers.) If you aren’t familiar with the tragedy, it will air January 3 on ABC’s 20/20—just two days away. The adorable Ryan Smith asks some great questions during his interview with my coauthor and me.

The first book about the case, an ebook titled The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese, contributed to my becoming a New York Times best-selling author–which was definitely the most unexpected good news I personally got in 2014. Having this title added to my résumé was not something I aspired to–because I never sought recognition for my work. My work involves shining the light on other people, so journalism used to mean working behind the scenes. Not being the story. But I do believe that when you work hard, and you do good work, recognition comes whether you seek it or not.

Being a reporter, or a journalist, aren’t always one and the same—especially nowadays. Reporters report; journalists dig and dig, unearthing facts some people would rather keep buried. That being said, I have wonderful colleagues who refuse to be called “journalists” because they believe the title has become synonymous with reporters who feel entitled.

I don’t as a rule make New Year’s resolutions. I resolve every day when I get up to try and make that day better than the last. Some days I succeed. Other days I fail. In an epic way—but I never give up trying.

So for today, be it January 1 or not, I have concluded the following while looking back at the last year: I will post more about my work to social media, and I will blog once a week. I might blog here or at Huffington Post, depending on what news stories are making the rounds that week.

I would like to take in a professional journalism conference this year, to help me hone my writing, editing and cognitive skills. I also need to be kinder to myself, as I continue trying to find a good work-home-personal life balance.

I resolve to go through scraps, one at a time, and toss or file, and I’ll do the same with clothes I’ve outgrown or those which are heaped up in a mending pile, and with the books I’m never going to read. I’m also going to worry less, and to remember more, including this key point: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

Oh yes, and I will finish my sequel, To Shatter the Silence–sooner rather than later. Come downed aircraft, pestilence and disease, or other tragic world events that are sure to happen this year. All the while hoping that only good things light up our lives in 2015.

* * *

I have four books. 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 BooksNellie Bly BooksAmazon, 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 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.”

World News Tidbits: Women, Poets, Entrepreneurs and Taking Risks

There is just too much news, from all over the world. It flows in faster than I can keep up. Faster than many news organizations can keep up with it—much less a solo Lois Lane like me.

So tonight, as this Memorial Day 2013 draws to a close, I’m going to share some headlines from around the world that have been on my mind for the last week. Then I’m going to leave you with something I hope will inspire you. First, though, I’d like to share what I posted this morning on my Facebook page. Which is this:

Memorial Day is to honor all the soldiers who died fighting for freedom. I respect their sacrifice, but haven’t many of the wars fought been for things other than freedom (like land, or oil)? And how free are we, when so many people don’t have access to good medical care and transportation, or can’t find a job to pay their bills? How free are we, when the laws prevent parents from getting their seriously mentally ill adult children help, who then end up homeless or making headlines as mass murderers? I wonder what my deceased father, a Navy man himself, would think of his sacrifice now. Or if the parents of so many soldiers—since many who enlisted were barely adults when they joined—would send them into the military again.

 * * *

Last week while at a book signing at Barnes and Noble, I noticed the current issue of Mother Jones. The title caught my attention right away. During slow periods, when customers didn’t stop by to chat or talk about my book (or mistake me for a store clerk, stopping by only to query me about what features are included on the Nook, the giant bookseller’s e-reader), I would read a graph or two. At home that evening, I finished reading the article online. Mac McClelland—whose Twitter bio sums it up quite nicely: “Lady Reporter” it proclaims—did an outstanding job at weaving a personal story (her own family’s brush with mental illness) throughout the thoroughly researched, poignant piece of journalism.

It’s a story every single person in this country should read. (Especially on a day like today, given that so many soldiers come home with PTSD.) For it contains the answers to many interconnected questions: Why do we have so many homeless people? Why do mass killings like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and Blacksburg, Va., keep happening? And perhaps most important, what can we do to stop them? I know great journalism when I read it. But as someone who has battled depression, who has studied mental illness, I know the truth when I hear it. McClelland’s piece is the gospel. We would do well to learn from her story.

  * * *

Saturday morning listening to West Virginia Public Radio, I heard a story I don’t remember ever hearing. And I grew up in this state, next door to where this man lived. Inside Appalachia had a segment on Karl Dewey Meyers, the state’s first poet laureate. Meyers was from Tucker County, and as part of the “Traveling 219” project, Reporter Jessie Wright Mendoza and WVU graduate Cindy Karelis were quite adept at pulling at listeners’ heartstrings. Along the way, they showed how a person’s failings can lead to his own undoing. Dewey, like my father, was a drinker. Which is why I felt an immediate affinity for him as I listened. The Drink was also his downfall, though—as it has been for many a person of creative talent. So, if you use alcohol to numb your pain, as Dewey surely did, beware: you may find yourself unable to create anything more than an unending cycle of pain.

  * * *

I found this piece, “Which Matters More: Reporting Assault or Respecting a Victim’s Wishes?” in The Altantic, after someone tagged me on Facebook. (That piece was about forcing colleges to adhere to the Clery Act and report sexual assaults on campus.) From there, I found the above, related story. In it, students expressed fear that some victims who wish to remain anonymous might find their names being turned over to the authorities.

Thus the dilemma, since the Clery clearly says college officials who learn about possible or actual sexual crimes must report such to law enforcement. (Who must, in turn, keep a list and report these crimes to the federal government. This list is something every college reporter should be able to openly view when collecting campus police news. If your campus cops won’t let you see it, start asking more questions. File a freedom of information request. Something’s up, and it could mean they aren’t keeping track of the sexual assaults like they’re supposed to.)

This is why this story matters: victims have a right to privacy. We know this. (I personally think it’s healthier to speak out, but I realize not everyone thinks like I do. Nor is everyone able to do this. Some psyches are just different; some crimes are more heinous. There’s a long list of reasons why one victim chooses to speak out when another one doesn’t.) Bottom line? It’s the victim’s choice, when to speak. Or if to speak at all.

 * * *

Finally, a story from overseas that shows a woman’s value can increase—even in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, women are slowly breaking into the entrepreneurial scene there. Even though her family wasn’t thrilled, Shilla Qiyam, 27, started her own pickle and chutney line. At first she faced some hurdles, but Qiyam is now finding respect and approval from Afghan men, who recognize women like her are doing great good: they are helping to support their families.

  * * *

Hope springs eternal. So said Alexander Pope. And that’s the message I’d like to leave you with today. I know it’s true. It’s happened to me—as it has to other people I know and love. Most recently, it happened to a dear friend who has been waiting more than a decade to receive the best, most exciting news possible. Of course, I can’t tell you what the news is. It isn’t mine to tell. What I can say is this: if you have a dream, don’t ever, ever give up. Don’t stop dreaming. Don’t let other the negative words on the tongues of other people end up inside your own knowing head. Refuse to let them dissuade you. Close your ears when they say you can’t do it. That it won’t happen to you. That you don’t deserve it.

Because you know what? Only you can decide if you’ll reach your dreams. With enough determination and courage, I know you can. So does my friend. So does anyone else who tried and failed and tried again, only harder the next time. Until those failures finally turned into life-changing success. It can happen. It really can. Because you really do deserve it.

 

Editor’s note: Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College is now live. She is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change and a public speaker who challenges her audience to overcome 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.”