“It is like losing your legs, then getting a whole new pair and having to learn how to walk all over again. But you have to decide if you even want to walk… Things don’t always turn out the way you think,” said Dr. Donald Berry on life after the recent death of his wife of 31 years.
He met his wife in 1981 while they were both in seminary and connected, “Our first conversation was about her parents health issues, and I actually think she had just gone a date with another guy,” he records.
Her name was Carolyn Berry. She had originally gone into college studying zoology but ended up studying religion as well. Then she went on to seminary and received an MRE, Masters in Religious Education.
“Our first date was to see On Golden Pond at the theater,” Dr. Berry explained. They had met in March and were married in August. “The whole process was a sped up, you see, considering we our dorms connected.” As they finished school, they lived in a trailer in the first years of their marriage, Carolyn graduated 8 months pregnant with their first child.
After graduating he explained that, “the mission door was closed at this point, we just were not comfortable with how things were working out.” They had a tough season of moving back in with his parents and not having work. “Big churches didn’t want me with me with limited experience, and then smaller churches wondered why I wasn’t employed and had a PhD.”
A teaching opportunity then arose in Florida, that allowed the doors to open up for them to go abroad as missionaries for a total of four years.
As a missionary, life is difficult. “We were all by ourselves, just buying school supplies for our daughters without knowing any Czech is difficult. At first its adventurous and fun and then its stupid and idiotic, and then you adjust,” he explained.
They moved back to the States, and Dr. Berry taught and worked at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Soon after he moved to where he works currently, Gardner-Webb University, in Boiling Springs, NC.
Here in Boiling Springs, Carolyn finally got to teach as an elementary school teacher, and Dr. Berry expressed, “She was so happy! She loved them and they loved her! She was like a surrogate mother to them.”
Dr. Berry was originally over the Global Missions Resource Center for two years in 1999. He then developed the first missiology classes, and following was approached with a request to create the first World Religions major.
In 2009 Carolyn was having some health issues and received surgery. This was the first of many surgeries, including a hip joint in 2010. Life had improved for the Berry family. However, in 2011 Carolyn was unable to hold things down.
They found out she had stage 3 stomach cancer. “We were shocked,” he stated. This news was followed by three surgeries in just one month. Although when looking back on the situation, Dr. Berry believes, “She should have been sent to an oncologist and tried chemo first.”
She had 25 radiation appointments within one year. After one of the surgeries she became infected with E Coli as well. Through all of this Carolyn was frustrated, but remained determined. “She adopted the phrase ‘People say why me, I say why not me?’ and her motro became “Choose Joy,” he recalled.
Carolyn survived all of this and went into remission. Yet three to four months later a PET scan revealed the tumor wasn’t actually gone, “I knew what that meant,” shared Dr. Berry. They began more vicious chemo treatment and she kept fighting. This was a very difficult season for the Berry family.
As life moved on in 2012 “We then had in house hospice, and try to stay upbeat,” Dr. Berry described, “but not much later I was not my home and my daughter took her to hospice. Carolyn called and told me on the phone so that I could go ahead and get my crying out.”
She went to hospice facilities on a Thursday and died on that Friday. “She didn’t want to die at the house for the memories and the grandkids,” according to Dr. Berry.
“With grieving… there are so many different levels of grieving,” stated Dr. Berry , ”I have done many funerals from 90 years old to two years old. I thought I knew what it was like to grieve. But I didn’t know how debilitating it could be. Nothing I had experienced could have prepared me for this.”
Dr. Berry expected himself to be mad at God, but he really wasn’t. “Call this cliché, he said, but I believe God is not the causer of every storm, but the author of every rainbow.”
When giving comfort over death, he reminds himself, that when it is parent versus a child, “I don’t even try to pretend to understand.” He continued to explain When someone is grieving and asking that why question, “the last thing they need is an answer… and I don’t know and hug is best. Don’t feel like you have to fix it, you can’t.”
He continued to explain, “You never know what is going to trigger it. It is like you are standing in calm water, and then all of the sudden you look up and it is a tsunami those don’t stop they get further apart.”
“You don’t get over it you learn to live with it.” That is what he is currently doing. Yet he still explains, “at this juncture I would say I am standing and have taken a few steps. I wouldn’t say I am walking again.” He has found great comfort and therapy in teaching and interim, even in his exhaustion and grief.
Dr. Berry explained that currently, “Rediscovering who I am, that is the scariest part. Before I was married I was a son to my parents, then for 31 year I was Carolyn’s wife. Now I have to figure out who I am without those things.”
Through the years of their marriage, Dr. Berry went on to pursue a PhD after encouragement from a professor. “It’s by the grace of God I have a pHD, it was nothing I originally considered.”
Dr. Berry is currently a World Religions professor at Gardner-Webb University. He was born and raised in rural Kentucky as the youngest of 4 children. His father was illiterate and because of this, really pushed education for his kids.
When looking back on his childhood and how he has gotten to where he is now. Dr. Berry considered himself to be an average high school student. “I played the drums, baseball, and had the long hair and wore plaid. That was the style then” He originally considered a vocational path, however, to his father, “college was not a choice.”
“I about flunked out my freshman year, I had a 1.6 GPA” commented Dr. Berry. He continued to say that the, “scare and reality of flunking really motivated me and I really began to work hard.” He graduated with a degree in social work.
During Berry’s time in college he was heavily involved with CRU, campus crusade for Christ. This is the time he also felt the call to ministry, “now not a pastor, but more of missions. I didn’t even consider reaching at that point really.”
After graduating college he traveled and spent 6 months abroad in Turkey, Israel, Switzerland, England, and Sweden. “It was eye-opening, and really gave me a global perspective,” he said. This has now shaped a lot of his life and career. While in school, he served as pastor of several churches.
When asked about what his wife was like he said, “She was genuine with no pretense. She was a bit sweet and sour. Charming and genuine, but sour as well with a feisty side. She taught me how to love. I would never gotten my doctorate without her believing in me.”
And in his closing words, as his life has most definitely proved, “Things don’t turn out the way you think”