Bereavement program extends Dana-Farber’s compassionate care beyond patients

When we think of compassionate care, we are generally focused on the patient themselves: Are they being treated effectively? Do they have good quality of life? But at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, compassionate care extends beyond the patient, to their family and loved ones. A shining example of this “total patient care” philosophy is the Institute’s Bereavement Program, led by Sue Morris, PsyD, which offers support services to those whose loved ones have died while patients at Dana-Farber.

Bereavement program extends Dana-Farber’s compassionate care beyond patients

“There is a model of extended support at Dana-Farber,” explains Sue. “Many bereaved people will ultimately do fine on their own, but when they have come to Dana-Farber for a long time, they often feel a connection and want to get support here.”

Dana-Farber’s program started in 2010 to provide resources for families of adult patients and collaborates with Dana-Farber’s partners to provide services for pediatric families as well. Families receive information from the Institute following their loved one’s death, and they have the option to meet with Sue one-on-one or participate in group sessions. Sue runs custom groups depending on the people in need: spouses, parents, or children, grouped together by age or life experiences – young adult partners or spouses, retired partners or spouses, etc.

“Everyone’s grief is going to be different based on their experience and where they are in life, but the common rollercoaster-like experience of being a cancer caregiver brings them together,” Sue says. “There is a shared language since everyone has had similar experiences, even if the diagnoses have been different. It helps them feel less alone or isolated.”

One person who has benefited from Sue’s support and connections with other bereaved people is Fred Bogin.

Fred, 73, lost his wife of nearly 49 years, Joanna, in March 2021, surrounded by their children and grandchildren at home. Joanna was treated for metastatic breast cancer for four years in Western Massachusetts, before being referred to Dana-Farber’s Sara Tolaney, MD, who advised local doctors and cared for Joanna during the last few months of her life. A former pediatrician, Fred was impressed throughout the family’s experience with Dana-Farber—both at the level of care and with the kindness of the staff, from the people at the top to the valets and café staff. This extended to bereavement care, too.

“I made an inquiry about the bereavement group after Joanna died, and I got off the intake call with Sue and thought it was the best therapy of my life,” Fred recalls. “I found it grounding, helpful, and supportive. She normalized all the feelings I went through, and I was excited to be a part of the group.”

Fred’s group of similarly aged, bereaved partners or spouses met virtually for eight weeks over the summer and fall of 2021. Each session was a mixture of Sue introducing a topic and teaching, and then hearing other people’s stories. Sharing each other’s often tearful experiences created a strong bond among the group, which still meets every month or so after the formal sessions ended.

“Before I signed up, I wasn’t sure what it would be like, or if I’d just be sad all the time,” Fred says. “But it felt so good to talk to Sue and to hear everyone’s else’s stories and have them be attentive listeners to mine. It was a great place for me.”

One “Sue-ism” that has helped Fred tremendously is the idea of grief coming in waves. In the initial weeks and months, the waves of grief are intense and coming closely together.  Over time, they get smaller and less frequent in occurrence, but can still strike at unsuspecting times, like hearing your loved one’s favorite song on the radio. Sue’s advice was also helpful for Fred in helping his children and grandchildren process their own grief.   

“The past two years have been difficult for everyone, but especially for bereaved families,” Sue acknowledges. “Bereavement can be extremely isolating, especially during the pandemic.”

For now, Sue is continuing virtual support groups and individual sessions, while also working with bereaved families to raise awareness of the program and support for bereavement services. She organizes the Bereavement Team for the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai each year and hopes to gain more philanthropic support for this vital, but often underfunded, resource.

“Bereavement is an unmet public health need,” Sue says. “There aren’t many hospitals that offer standardized bereavement programs in the community. We can be proud that Dana-Farber offers a bereavement program to all families.” 

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