Nate Berkus sat onstage at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre and tried, unsuccessfully, to hold back the tears.
“I wasn’t going to cry today,” the famed interior designer and television personality told the audience of more than 100 people before jokingly adding: “I hate Camp Widow!”
Berkus shared the harrowing story of losing life partner Fernando Bengeochea with attendees of Camp Widow, a daylong conference held on February 29 that was produced by the nonprofit organization Soaring Spirits International in partnership with the Center’s Senior Services for members of the LGBT community who have experienced the death of a spouse or partner.
Bengeochea, an internationally acclaimed photographer, was swept away in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 227,898 people in 14 countries. The couple had been on vacation at a beach resort in Sri Lanka, and Berkus was barely able to escape with his life.
“Bearing witness to it and being on the ground and watching all of the devastation and being able to help other people while I was still there changed something in me forever,” Berkus said. “You have to accept that it’s a new normal. It has no resemblance to what life was the hour prior.”
During his Camp Widow talk, Berkus shared a poignant conversation he and Bengeochea had a few days before the tragedy while taking a ferry across a river back to their hotel in Bangkok. Bengeochea wanted him to know some things about his past.
“I put my arms around him and said, ‘Wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t matter because we’re together now,’” Berkus recalled. “We had that moment of just purity. I didn’t have any guilt because I knew that he knew he was loved.”
“He and I were absolutely obsessed with each other from the minute we met. It was one of those love stories that I didn’t think was feasible or even possible. But I knew it when I was in it and so did he.”
An incredible love story
Less than a month after losing Bengeochea, Berkus shared the harrowing story on The Oprah Winfrey Show where he had been a frequent guest over the years doing home makeover segments.
“It was just this incredible love story – beautiful, pure, then tragic love story that happened to be with two men,” he said. “It was presented in a way that made it okay. You don’t get more mainstream culture than The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Berkus had no idea what a tremendous impact going public with the story would have.
“I wasn’t thinking this is a huge moment for LGBTQ rights,” he said. “It was me among friends in a studio that I was totally comfortable. I had sat in that chair 1,000 times before, and now, I had a story to tell that wasn’t about someone else’s house. I had a story to tell that was about me and about the hundreds of thousands of people who died and, more importantly, about Fernando.”
Berkus had agreed to appear on the show if funds from the Oprah’s Angel Network were donated to the devastated town in Sri Lanka where he and Fernando were staying when the tsunami struck. He said a total of $3.5 million was raised overnight.
“The letters started coming in from so many kids from around the country,” he said. “I felt this incredible outpouring where people were motivated to share their stories with me in writing – and I read them.”
Grief is cyclical
Berkus initially could not leave his apartment in the weeks after the loss of Bengeochea which had taken place on Christmas Eve. He found himself chain smoking cigarettes and binging on homemade chocolate chip cookies which a friend of his mother’s had dropped off. A grief counselor come to the house twice a week and his parents, who divorced when he was just two, both came to stay with him because, according to Berkus, he was broken.
“I was scared of not functioning ever again,” he admitted. “I couldn’t get out of bed. My great fear was getting stuck in the grief and not being able to move through it. I didn’t recognize myself.”
Eventually, Berkus was able to step back into life.
“If you allow yourself to just move through it, you find that you actually do have the resilience, the capabilities, the strength, and the resources within yourself to draw upon when you need them the most. We all have it,” he said.
“The biggest thing I learned is that grief is not linear—it’s so cyclical. You have to allow the feelings to come when they come. Maybe next Tuesday is going to be way worse than Christmas ever could be. Maybe it’s okay to enjoy Christmas because everyone is there with you. You don’t have to be sad.”
Finding love again
In 2013 Berkus became engaged to fellow interior designer Jeremiah Brent after nearly a year of dating. They married on May 4, 2014, in Manhattan and have two children born via surrogates: daughter Poppy and son Oskar Michael.
“My children will be raised knowing who Fernando was and how important he was to me,” Berkus said. “I married somebody who wasn’t afraid of my past.”
His advice for those who have lost their partner or spouse is—when they are ready for love again—to find somebody who is strong enough and secure enough to know that someone else is a part of their life story.
“Our hearts are big enough to love one person and my husband’s heart is big enough to allow me to do that every day,” Berkus said. “Fernando exists with us in a million different ways. The most significant and the most tangible is his name was Fernando Oskar, and our son is named Oskar for him. That was my husband’s call. I cry thinking about it because that is such a sign of somebody who just accepts you 100 percent, accepts the whole story. There’s nothing more beautiful than that – nothing.”
“I cannot believe that I’m lucky enough as a person to find love again – twice in a lifetime,” he added. “I am so grateful that I’m still here. I’m so grateful that I was able to bring these two kids into the world and have my marriage. I am still connected to Fernando’s world and the people who loved him the most.”