Grisamore: Grieving mother reaches out to promote driving safety

May 8, 2014 

Morgan Berryhill

BUTLER --

Tammy Berryhill will always remember the second Sunday in May two years ago.

It was a special Mother’s Day.

She left her home in Box Springs and went to church with her family at Geneva Baptist. They treated her to lunch at Country’s Barbecue in Columbus.

Tammy’s oldest daughter, 19-year-old Morgan, wrapped her arms around her mama.

It was the best hug.

She asked her what she wanted for Mother’s Day.

“I told her all I wanted was her time,” Tammy said.

A year earlier, Morgan had graduated from Taylor County High School, where she was a pretty and popular cheerleader. She had been away at college her freshman year at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, where she was studying to be a teacher, like her mom.

Tammy and her husband, Jon, and their twin daughters, Cate and Clair, had missed not having Morgan around the house. She was energetic and fun loving, with a flair for the dramatic.

“A grand personality,” said her mother. “An all-around great girl who never met a stranger and could light up a room.”

Now that Morgan was home for the summer, Tammy cherished the prospects of spending more time with her daughter.

Twelve days later, she was planning her funeral.

It was a Friday -- May 25, 2012. Morgan told her parents she was going to Columbus to hang out with some friends. On her way to an appointment, Tammy drove by the house and saw that Morgan’s Honda Civic was still parked in the driveway, so she knew she hadn’t left.

Tammy thought about stopping for a minute to say hey, but she kept going. When Tammy arrived home that evening, another car was in the driveway. It belonged to the coroner.

“We think that it will never happen to us,” she said. “Of all the ways for Morgan to die, I would have never dreamed a car accident. She was the safest of drivers. The detectives who investigated the crash felt strongly that the lady who hit Morgan was texting. A few moments with her eyes off the road, and my gift was gone.”

Sometimes people ask Tammy if she is angry with the woman responsible for the head-on collision on Double Churches Road in north Columbus.

No, Tammy tells them. The woman had her three children in the car. Two of those children, ages 5 and 2, died from their injuries three weeks later.

She is a grieving mother, too.

Tammy tried to reach out to her, but she never got a response.

The cause of the accident was cited as “distracted driving.” Tammy said she had been guilty of it herself in the past. We all have.

Four years ago, state laws went into effect that prohibit texting while driving and cell phone use for teen drivers. An estimated 80 percent of automobile accidents are caused by some form of distraction, ranging from cell phones, eating, putting on make-up to fiddling with the stereo or GPS navigation system.

As a way of honoring the memory of her daughter, Tammy began a driver awareness campaign with the help of Jennifer Wilder and Cheree Fricks, two of her fellow kindergarten teachers at Taylor County Primary School.

Morgan’s nickname was “Mo,” so the campaign is called “Mo-Focused.” They make charms to hang on rear-view mirrors to remind drivers to keep their eyes on the road. Tammy has spoken to students at Taylor County High and asked them to sign a pledge, promising to pay attention whenever they’re behind the wheel.

The campaign also created a “Morgan Berryhill Scholarship,” awarded annually to a graduating Taylor County senior. This year’s recipient will be announced after May 15.

“Morgan had a learning disability (attention deficit), so it goes to a student who is college-bound with similar circumstances,” Tammy said. “She had to work hard at her schoolwork. She wasn’t a natural ‘A’ student.”

The campaign’s major fund-raiser, the “Moberry Color Run” 5K road race, was held this past weekend at the Silver Dollar Raceway in Reynolds. Along with a silent auction, the event raised nearly $7,000 for the scholarship fund and the campaign’s public awareness efforts.

There are times when the grief is still heavy. Birthdays, graduations, holidays and anniversaries all pull on the memory triggers.

“Sometimes I have to fake it,” Tammy said. “It’s difficult. I have to smile when I don’t want to smile and go when I don’t want to go.”

She met a woman in a grief support group in Columbus who “didn’t want to get out of bed for two years” after losing her child.

Tammy said she didn’t have that option. Life goes on, even with sadness in the margins. Her twin daughters are now 14. The week before Morgan died, Clair and Cate learned they had made the middle school cheerleading squad. They were excited. They had always wanted to be cheerleaders, like their big sister.

Morgan was able to celebrate with them and share a conversation about faith. The family will forever hold that memory dear.

“Sometimes I think people are afraid to mention her name,” Tammy said. “But I want them to talk about her. I don’t want her to be forgotten.”

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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