(CBS Charlotte) — The Queen City is comprised of many interesting and extraordinary people who often have a tremendous impact on our city — and Elizabeth Berrien is definitely one of those people.
Berrien has endured several hardships and losses in her life, but it was during those struggles that Berrien became motivated to help others who were also grieving.
Berrien is a young widow who lost her husband while he was serving in Afghanistan. Here is her story:
Q. How long was your husband serving in Afghanistan, and how long were you married at the time of his death?
A. Brian was serving his final deployment that he owed the military. He was supposed to be there for a six-month deployment, but was only there for six weeks when he was killed. He served in the Special Forces, and had been in the military for 12 years. We had been married for 2 ½ years at the time of his death, and had been together for almost 4 years.
Q. Can you describe what happened during 2009?
A. The year had begun full of hope for us. We gave birth to our healthy daughter, Ella, that January. Brian was able to spend the first 4 months of her life with her. We had known for almost a year that he would be leaving on deployment that summer. It was something that I was dreading, but knew there wasn’t a choice. I planned to spend time visiting family and friends to help pass the time while he was gone.
I had gone to visit my dad briefly in Asheville, North Carolina, and was going to stay there at his condo for several days to visit with some old college friends. Brian and I talked every day while he was gone, and usually it was around the same time in the afternoon. But the day that he was injured, I didn’t hear from him at the usual time and I began to get anxious after several hours had passed. I was supposed to be going to lunch with a girlfriend and my daughter that afternoon, but right before my friend arrived I received a phone call from an Army Chaplain. He explained to me that Brian had been shot and that the wound was in the back of the head. I instantly felt my knees buckle and I went into a state of shock. My daughter was in her bouncy seat and I began throwing items into a suitcase.
They flew me over to Germany to visit him in the military hospital there. They had tried operating on him, but his death had been instant. They kept him on life support long enough for me to say goodbye. I stayed in the hospital with him that night, and then they flew his sister and I back to the states. It was scary being away from my support system during that time. The nurses kept reminding me that I had a baby girl to go home to and that I need to stay strong for her and take care of myself. Once I arrived home, I collapsed into the arms of my family and friends. I barely got out of bed for six weeks. My sister helped me find a counselor and get started with a support group. Those were some of the darkest days of my life.
Q. Can you tell us about your son? Were there complications with his birth?
A. My son was stillborn in January 2008. I had gone through a completely normal and healthy 9-month pregnancy, and I went into labor the night before his due date. I had a doctor, midwife, doula, and Brian there during the birth. I had been in labor for 14 hours and was in the final stages of pushing when we realized that the cord was wrapped around his shoulder. The cord had been cutting his oxygen off. The doctor tried resuscitating him for almost an hour before declaring that he was not going to make it. My son, Tookie, was 9 lbs. and looked completely healthy otherwise. It was another time that I went into complete shock as I held him on my chest. It felt like all of my dreams had crumbled and disappeared. We had the nursery all set up for him and a closet full of clothes awaiting his arrival. After he died, I went into a deep depression.
Q. Where does your strength come from?
A. I believe that my strength comes from several places. I’ve always had a deep desire to make a positive difference in the world, and that has always driven me to never give up. I believe that as human beings we have a natural resilience that kicks in when faced with devastation. I want to be a strong mother to my daughter, and that motivates me to continue doing whatever it takes to embrace the joy and beauty that life has to offer, even while honoring my grief. I also draw a lot of strength from my support system, which includes my family, friends, and co-workers. They help remind me what I’m capable of when I’m going through struggles.
Q. What inspired you to help other grieving widows?
A. I felt very isolated as a young widow, which compelled me to reach out to other widows who had lost their husbands too soon. I knew that these other women must be feeling the same heartache, and I believe in strength in numbers. I attended a support group for widows/widowers right after my husband died, which is where I met my first widow friend. I appreciated the group, but wanted to create a special group just for women where we could bond on a deeper level. About 7 months after Brian’s death, I started the group Soul Widows in March 2010. I first began it as a website, and set up an annual retreat which was co-facilitated by a wonderful counselor that I had met here in Charlotte. I began receiving emails from women all across the U.S. They would share their stories and tell me that they were also seeking a space to connect with other young widows. It was my first big project after my losses and I began to feel a sense of purpose again. I also realized that it was helping me in my own healing process.
Q. What made you decide to become a Grief Counselor?
A. I decided to become a Certified Creative Grief Coach® in order to gain more specified skills for helping people individually, as well as within my Soul Widows support group that I facilitate. I had actually been in graduate school to become a Community Counselor shortly before my son died. After his death, my husband and I relocated and I never completed my degree.
I co-founded the nonprofit, The Respite: A Centre for Grief & Hope, in 2011 with two incredible women. Mandy Eppley, LPC is a therapist who has specialized in grief and loss for over 20 years. Our third partner is Cindy Ballaro, who has an extensive background in nonprofit development. Once we successfully opened The Respite, I felt called to further build upon my studies in the area of grief and loss. I wanted to be of greater help to more people, and I feel that becoming a Creative Grief Coach® has helped give me this opportunity.
Q. Where did the motivation come from to write Creative Grieving?
A. I had the idea of writing a book shortly after my son died. I felt compelled to write about that experience in order to reach other mothers who had lost children. After my husband died, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would feel driven to put my thoughts down on paper. My counselor at the time was a great catalyst in encouraging me to go for it. The more I spoke about writing, the more motivated and determined I felt. It was over three years into my journey and I felt that I had gained enough wisdom and strength to begin sharing tools and words of hope that other women would find helpful and comforting on their own path to healing. I wanted to take what had been a tragic situation, and turn it into something beautiful. I felt that my book was a big piece of that. I wanted my journey of loss to have a powerful purpose, and I felt that writing my story was one of the best ways to honor my losses and help others who were suffering and in need of hope.
Q. Can you describe how your life is different now than in 2009?
A. There are many things that have shifted since 2009. My daughter, Ella, is now 4 years old and full of spunk and confidence. She keeps me laughing every day. I got remarried to a man named Tim, who has two children. I opened The Respite: A Center for Grief & Hope, which helps hundreds of people who are coping with all kinds of loss. I spend my days feeling a great sense of purpose through the work that I do and enjoying my family. In 2009 I felt very lost, almost to the point of despair. I couldn’t see the next day in front of me. I thought that the heaviness and deep sadness would last forever. I do have moments of sadness still, particularly around anniversaries and holidays, but it’s not the same intensity that it used to be. I’m able to enjoy things again, and look forward to what is ahead. I feel much more hope and have become mentally and emotionally stronger.
Q. If you could offer one word of comfort to a widow, what would it be?
A. I would say to her, “Your journey belongs to you and your losses should be honored in a way that feels right to you. There is no specific way to grieve and you don’t have to travel your journey alone. You will not always feel the way that you do in this moment. Just take it one step, minute, or day at a time.”
If it had to be just one word, I would likely say “trust.” I think it is important for a young widow to realize when she is simply doing the best that she can, and being able to trust that it is enough. Trusting in the journey will help her gradually move forward. It is certainly not easy, but I eventually had to try and trust in life again and that things would not always be so painful and difficult. I had to trust that somehow things would be okay – that mentally and emotionally, I was right where I was supposed to be. Through trusting, I was eventually able to not allow the pain and sadness to overwhelm me. I was able to come to the realization that I could not control everything, which released some heaviness from my shoulders.
My nonprofit The Respite, helps people coping with all types of loss. My support group, Soul Widows, is for women age 60 and under who have lost their spouse or partner due to any cause. We provide a variety of integrative services at The Respite that include Counseling, Grief Massage, Restorative Yoga, Soul Collage, Support Groups, and Retreats. We also have a program that we are currently developing to help women veterans coping with reintegration issues, depression, and PTSD. We believe that it is possible to find gifts within the grieving process, and that loss should be honored. Transformative growth can occur if a person is given the tools and proper support. We help people of every socioeconomic status, and also provide scholarships.
-Nichole Jaworski, CBS Charlotte