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Harriet Berman, 63; helped cancer patients to reach out

HARRIET BERMAN

As a clinical psychologist whose patients had been diagnosed with cancer, Harriet Kasloff Berman knew better than most therapists that every word spoken about illness has the power to heal minds, even as bodies fail.

Having traveled hospital halls as a cancer patient, she had a perspective few brought to the field of psycho-oncology.

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“I am so aware of the cultural reticence to speak of cancer and death,’’ she wrote in 2004. “Yet over time, as people find the language to do so and allow others into their reality, the benefits on all sides are profound. The person who is ill or dying has the gift of the presence of others and the comfort they can give. And those around the ill person have the gift of being able to reach out, express their feelings, and learn.’’

Dr. Berman, who also taught at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, died Wednesday in her Dover home. She was 63 and had previously lived for many years in Newton.

Diagnosed in 1998 with breast cancer, she was successfully treated before becoming ill a few years ago with endometrial cancer.

“She felt a calling to help individuals with cancer,’’ said her husband, Stanley Berman, dean of advanced graduate study programs at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. “I think this interest was not just responding to her own health history. She really felt most in her element when she was doing cancer-related work.’’

Dr. Lowell E. Schnipper, clinical director of the Cancer Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said Dr. Berman provided “a safe haven’’ for those in her care.

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“Harriet had a personal warmth and a unique empathy that resonated with patients,’’ Schnipper said. “She was able to speak candidly with them about the most serious problems, and yet was able to do so in an entirely supportive and nonthreatening way.’’

As Dr. Berman trained the next generation for her field, “students loved her, students wanted to work with her, students lined up at her door for consultation and connection and just to learn from her,’’ said Alan D. Beck, dean of the clinical psychology department at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. “She was a true practitioner-teacher.’’

For many years, Dr. Berman helped lead the Wellness Community, a Newton nonprofit. When it closed at the end of 2008, she and others formed a new agency, Facing Cancer Together.

“At the Wellness Community, she was beloved by the staff members and by the patients,’’ said former colleague Karen Fasciano, now a clinical psychologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “She would greet every person who came through the door with compassion and warmth and try to understand their situation and what resources would be the best fit for them.’’

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., Harriet Kasloff was the younger of two sisters whose father was a salesman and whose mother worked in public relations.

She graduated from Hunter College High School in New York City and went upstate to the University of Rochester. Majoring in psychology, she graduated in 1969.

While there, she met her future husband; they married in 1972.

After college, she worked at Danvers State Hospital before attending Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University in New York, where she received a doctorate in 1983.

Dr. Berman initially worked with children and began teaching at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology before finding her way to the field of psycho-oncology.

She also raised three children and, by example, demonstrated how to balance the demands of career and family.

An artist and photographer who also was deft at crafts and creating clothes, “she made everything by hand,’’ said her daughter Eliza of Brooklyn, N.Y. “She made ice cream cakes. She made piñatas for birthday parties. She sewed costumes.’’

On the night before her children’s birthdays, “she would wait until we were sleeping and then she would decorate our rooms so we would wake up to ribbons and streamers and a ‘happy birthday’ sign,’’ said her son, Jonah of Cambridge.

Birthdays were only the beginning.

“She really believed in celebrating life,’’ he said. “There was no such thing as an insignificant holiday in our house. If there was an excuse to celebrate, we would.’’

“We’ve been talking about how much my mom loved weddings,’’ said Dr. Berman’s older daughter, Jessica Boatright of Roslindale. “She loved that what you get at a wedding is this abundance of joy and celebration and a chance to dance.’’

Dr. Berman’s pas de deux with life included time spent with her granddaughter, Nora, and a series of dogs, most recently a black Labradoodle.

“In the family that she grew up with and in our family,’’ Eliza said, “the dog was like another child.’’

For years, Dr. Berman and her family traveled annually to the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine, where she kayaked and photographed the outdoors.

“She loved being in nature,’’ her husband said. “It was her sacred space.’’

Just as precious was the space she created for patients, particularly after she experienced the brush with death a cancer diagnosis brings.

“Talking about illness and death is not the currency of a culture that idolizes youth and searches for immortality,’’ she wrote in a letter to the editor that the Globe published in 2004.

And yet “there is reason to celebrate the passing of time,’’ she wrote in another letter four years later.

“We need to broaden our perspective and embrace necessary losses while appreciating what is ahead,’’ Dr. Berman wrote. “In both my work and my personal journey with illness, I have become keenly aware of what we gain if we are fortunate to watch our children grow. The friendships I have with my adult children are every bit as precious to me as their first steps and words, all the more so because I know how precarious life is.’’

Family and friends will gather Sunday at 3 p.m. in Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley to celebrate Dr. Berman’s life and work.

“Her least favorite role was being a patient, not because she wasn’t able to do it, but because caring for others was so much more important to her and gave her strength and meaning,’’ her daughter Jessica said.

Dr. Berman, her son added, “was such an optimist that even as she got more and more sick, she was always talking to us about plans for the future and what we were going to do this summer. People talk about being ready to go. She was never ready.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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