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Dr. Harriet Berman died May 2, 2012 in Dover, Massachusetts. She was 63 years old — a psychologist who counseled patients with cancer, and, ultimately, a psychologist who died of cancer. But she never accepted the metaphor that disease was a war.
Patients didn't need to battle it, or face defeat; with them and with herself she insisted on optimism. Living well was victory.
In 1998, Dr. Berman’s own breast cancer brought her to the Wellness Community, a non-profit support group. Though she had begun her career as a child psychologist, soon she was running the program, and psycho-oncology became her life work. She continued to lead groups without pay after the Wellness Community closed. Then, when she was coping with (as opposed to battling) a second bout of cancer in 2010, she co-founded another program: Facing Cancer Together. Patients said she changed their lives. This did not surprise her husband or three children — she was always changing theirs.
Everything she touched, she touched creatively. She made thematic ice-cream cakes and birthday piñatas, clothing and costumes. For Halloween, she dressed a daughter as a gift, and wrapped black duct tape around her son's padded, yellow middle to turn him into a bumblebee. Years later, when he was planning his wedding, he considered a color scheme of subtle autumn shades. She talked him into pink, purple, and teal. And when the family dog found a skunk in rural Maine one summer, there was no deodorizing tomato juice in the cottage — so she doused the dog in Bloody Mary mix.
That was Harriet: artistic, deft, utterly involved, remarkably practical. As a senior in college, she forbade her future husband from breaking up with her. The night her rebelling high-school son came home drunk and sick, she offered him a receptacle instead of a lecture. How can you rebel against that?
When cancer recurred for the last time, no one ignored the irony: this illness she had devoted her life to was the illness that would end it. But she wasn’t interested in irony. She was knitting a sweater for someone, worrying that her family might have to travel too far to visit her grave, and holding the hands of visitors in such a protective way that it was hard (one said) to figure out who was helping whom.
A few weeks before Harriet died, her three-year-old granddaughter came to the hospital to paint her toenails. After Harriet's death, a number of packages arrived without explanation from Amazon. They were art projects. She had ordered them for her granddaughter, intending to finish them together. The art she made of her own life was never finished.
Did you know Harriet Berman? Share your memories in the comments section.
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