Elizabeth Berrien experienced more pain and loss by the time she was 27 than many of us will have to deal with in our lifetime. Within two years, she lost both her infant son to stillbirth, and her husband, a Special Forces soldier, to the war in Afghanistan.
After the initial shock and weeks spent barely moving from her bed, Berrien began to emerge. “In dealing with my own stages of grief and healing, I found that the grieving journey is not a one-sided, rigid process of pain, hopelessness and despair,” she says. “A devastating loss is not only an ending, but also a new beginning.”
Berrien, the author of Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick’s Path from Loss to Hope, recently spoke with the Ladue News about her journey and how she is working to help others who’ve experienced loss.
LN: You speak of grief as ‘a new beginning,’ yet so many people seem unable to see beyond the pain. How did you get to that point, and how are you helping others do the same?
EB: There are definitely different ways to move through grief. I really encourage people to do whatever resonates with them. But it does involve connecting with community and having the ability to find new passion in life, which doesn’t happen right away.
So think about what makes you get up in the morning. Is it your child? Is it a new purpose? Are you volunteering somewhere? Say you lost someone to cancer, for instance. Maybe you’d want to volunteer for a cancer organization and do something close to your heart.
After my losses, the two things that really helped me not only survive but thrive were my dedication to raising my daughter (who was just 4 months old when Elizabeth’s husband died) and finding new purpose in starting a support group and in opening a center to help other people through grief.
LN: You started Soul Widows, a support community for young widows; and also opened The Respite, a nonprofit center for those who are grieving.
EB: A couple months after I lost my husband in August 2009, I began looking for resources for young widows, and it was hard to find something that felt like it was appropriate for my type of loss. I had just moved to Charlotte, N.C., to stay with my sister while I got back on my feet, and I found a support group of both men and women who had lost a spouse. But I craved just being with women because I felt there was more of a bond and understanding in the way women communicate. So I gradually came up with the idea of starting my own group.
I started Soul Widows by putting a website together for it (soulwidows.org). I began getting emails from women in different parts of the country, and I realized almost instantly how much it was really needed. Since then, it’s gradually expanded. It’s a safe space for women to share their stories and concerns, ask each other questions and provide support. It’s really beautiful because a lot of the women create friendships that are really solid, and they keep in touch with each other.
Then the idea for The Respite came shortly. I met my first partner, Mandy Eppley, who is a licensed professional counselor, and we had a lot of similar views about grief and healing. Our idea was to open a space with a bunch of different resources in one place for people who are grieving. Our other partner, Cindy Ballaro, then helped us get our nonprofit status and put us on a solid foundation. (therespite.org)
LN: The Respite provides a wide array of services; and in your book, you write about grief as a holistic experience that involves mind, body and soul.
EB: Grief is a soul experience on every level. In the first few months, I felt like I had the flu. Every part of your body aches just because of the gravity of your emotions and what you’re trying to process. It’s such an ethereal experience to realize you’re never going to see someone again. It can even affect your faith—a lot of women have come to me and said they’re angry at God, or they don’t know what they believe in anymore. Emotionally, you feel completely crushed and confused.
That’s why we combined services at The Respite. If someone has a massage, it calms the nervous system, which can affect your emotions. Or if you have some talk therapy, it can help calm your muscles and release tension in your body. It’s all very interconnected. We emphasize full-self care.
LN: That seems so obvious, but it’s not necessarily the typical way grief is addressed in our society.
EB: Grief is not something people are comfortable with in general. Our culture is based on instant satisfaction and happiness. It doesn’t allow a lot of space for people to be how they need to be when they’re grieving.
People are afraid of grief. But there’s so much to the grief process, and it takes a long time—sometimes years—to get through. And that’s confusing for a lot of people. But it’s com-pletely normal to have waves of grief on anniversaries or have experiences when you’re deeply hurting. That’s why it’s a passion of mine to help normalize grief. It’s a natural part of life—everybody experiences loss at some point.
LN: Your two losses were quite different, though—an infant son, and then your husband. Was the grief process very different?
EB: I’ve had people ask me which one is worse, and there’s really no answer because they’re both terrible in their own ways. With both, you’re missing experiences that would be important and meaningful to your life. In both situations, I felt that my entire life had been turned upside down. Because my losses were both part of my immediate family—people I would have built my life with—they were equally huge.
In both cases, I felt a lot of the same emotions: hopelessness, depression, anxiety, no motivation to keep moving forward. The physical heartache is almost unbearable.
My husband had been a huge rock for me when my son died, so when I lost him it was more isolating and lonely. When I lost my husband, it felt like I had to go through it on my own. Even though there were people around me who wanted to help, I didn’t have my partner to lean on. But in either case, I lost a piece of my heart, for sure.
LN: You believe that embracing grief is not easy, but it is essential to moving forward. Explain how you can do that and why it’s important.
EB: It’s basically a form of acceptance: What has happened to you is a piece of your story, and that should be honored. It’s easy to feel a lot of shame and guilt in grief because you think, I should be dealing with this differently, and I should be doing this better.
When you go through something so drastic and life-changing, you can look back and say, I’ve come a long way, and this has opened my eyes in new ways. Now I talk about my story in a very honorable way with a feeling of gratitude because so many amazing things that have come into my life from being open about what’s happened to me.
I’ve met the most amazing people. I’ve started something I feel proud of. I’m leaving a legacy for my daughter. It’s amazing to feel that you have this new meaning. Your story is part of you—it’s sacred and special, and you don’t have to hide it away.