Elizabeth Berrien was devastated by the loss of her newborn baby and 18 months later by the loss of her husband while on deployment in Afghanistan. She became a 27 year old widow, feeling lost and afraid. When she couldn’t find resources to help her deal with her own grief, she started a non-profit organization to help others deal with theirs. In 2011, a scant seven months after she became a widow herself, The Respite – A Centre for Grief & Hope opened its doors.
A little shy about the way she and Brian met on a Match.com website, the couple were married four years before his life was cut short. “He was my rock,” says Elizabeth, especially after losing their newborn son to complications from a 14 hour labor. A year later in 2009, they had a daughter, Ella and were a typical young couple, making a life together in Virginia Beach. Sergeant First Class Brian Woods, Jr. was a medic in the United States Army Special Forces and was on, what was supposed to be his last deployment to Afghanistan, when he was killed in action just six months after Ella was born.
“I went through a deep period of grief. I felt lost and didn’t know what to do,” says Elizabeth who moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to be near family. “I was overwhelmed and knew I couldn’t do everything on my own. They let me go through the motions of grieving. I just needed time to figure out what I was feeling and what grief meant and how to be a young widow in today’s world.”
Living with her older sister, she suggested Elizabeth attend a support group which she found helpful, but not quite what she was looking for. “I wanted to find a women’s group. I needed that female bond to help me get through this situation,” Elizabeth says.
Seven months into her own journey of grief, she started her own group and called it Soul Widows – a support group for young widows age 60 and younger. She began to put together a weekend retreat at a Victorian inn, in the mountains not far from Asheville, North Carolina, where for three days a small group of widows found common ground and grew really close. They talked, experienced small group sessions, had time to tell their stories, relax and experience art therapy activities like creative journal making. They enjoyed hearty breakfasts and afternoon teas and the hope was that when the women left they would feel rejuvenated and supported. Mandy Eppley, co-author of The Model for Heart Centered Grief had 20 years of experience as a grief therapist, facilitated the retreat with Elizabeth and later became business partners.
Elizabeth says, “She and I really connected on our views about healing and what moving through grief could look like if you viewed it in a healthy way. So we decided to create this wonderful weekend. It was a time to really honor our feelings and where we were in the grief process. That really spurred me wanting to do more.” They talked about creating a grief center and Elizabeth discerned a genuine calling and felt like it was something she was meant to do.
She says, “We decided to create a non-profit called The Respite – A Centre for Grief & Hope. Our vision for the center was to have it be a place where people could come and receive all kinds of support because to me, I like doing things in a very holistic manner. We have things like counseling, Soul Collage, healing arts, support groups, grief massage, restorative yoga, because really when you’re grieving it affects you on so many levels, not just emotionally. I wanted a place where people could feel safe and know that grief was normal.”
With personal investments and private individual donor funding, they created a beautiful center that has bright colored walls and art everywhere creating an atmosphere that is warm and welcoming. When people walk through the doors of The Respite they feel like they can just take a breath and release all that has been weighing them down. Elizabeth continues to offer the Soul Widows group that meets twice a month. She also fulfills her roles as director of marketing and development and co-founder along with Mandy Eppley and Cindy Ballaro. Elizabeth has a Bachelors’ degree in anthropology and dance from the University of North Carolina, studied community counseling at the University of Missouri and is a certified Creative Grief Coach.
“This is what I decided to do with my losses,” says Elizabeth, “Because I just felt it was a calling. Obviously loss and grief were a huge theme in my life and I asked, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” She remembers only about six weeks into the grief process, sitting down and writing out her ideas for a center because she couldn’t find what she was looking for. She went to one end of town for a massage and another end of town for a therapy session and found it exhausting. “Why not have this all in one place for someone who is hurting and in pain?” So she decided to start one herself. “It also has been a huge part of my own healing process because it’s allowed me to look deeper into my own story and feel purpose in life and meaning. I really get to see these amazing transformations in the people that we work with. It’s such a blessing to see people embrace their lives and come to understand that grief is normal and that they’re not crazy. It’s really taught me a lot and been a very rewarding experience.”
One thing that is particularly inviting about her organization is that The Respite welcomes people of every kind, regardless of the type of their loss. According to the center’s website www.TheRespite.org, they welcome those “who have suffered great tragedy, a significant life loss, a trauma, a life-shaking, earth-shattering event or series of events... And, it is also for those who are living with every day losses which are life-changing and life-evolving. Our vision is to be THE place to come when you are feeling any kind of loss.”
They use an integrative approach offering a variety of healing modalities, and although all are welcome they do focus on women’s grief and loss as well as offering some specific programs for veterans, widows, caregivers and elders. Their website also says that they seek to shift the world view of grief “moving from shame and isolation to unveiling grief’s transformative gifts...We welcome grief and provide hope for tomorrow.”
Some programs are free like the Soul Widows Support Group, and other services have fees, but scholarships are available and they don’t turn anyone away according to Elizabeth. And for those who may not be able to physically attend programs at the center, they offer Mandy’s The Model of Heart Centered Grief in a seven step video series which is available on their website. Another resource is Creative Grieving: a Hip Chick’s Path from Loss to Hope by Elizabeth Berrien. “I wrote my book as a way to empower others who were coping with loss and to essentially bring them hope. I felt that by sharing my story, I could inspire people by letting them know they are not alone in their grief journey, and provide many incredible tools and resources. I wanted to get the message out that there is no perfect way to grieve. I wanted to provide the reader with something that was raw and relatable. Hearing others stories that were similar to mine was very healing for me when I was going through the beginning stages of my grief process, so I wanted to lend support to others in that way. It was also therapeutic for me to write down my journey and to see how far I’ve come.”
She sees her work now as a way of honoring her husband and son. “Every woman that I help, every support group that I lead, I see as a way of honoring my husband and my son, because they inspired me to get into this kind of work.”
The most meaningful thing for her in all this is the paradox she recognizes in seeing beauty in grief as well as the beauty in joy. “To see the transformation in the people we work with is a huge blessing. There are so many things I find meaningful about it, just helping others is so healing for me after everything. I see the work I do as a way to show my daughter how to live fully, how to appreciate life in a certain way so I really hope to be a good role model for her. I see the big heart she already has for people and I feel like I’m teaching her some good values … and that makes it all worth it.”