• Staying in the Dana-Farber fold after loss: the House family's story

    Jerry and Sue House with sons Tommy, John, and Ben (left to right)Jerry and Sue House with sons Tommy, John, and Ben (left to right) 

    Jerry House was 37 when he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood. He received care from Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) on and off for more than four years until he died in August 2008, leaving behind his wife Sue and their three young sons.

    Today, Sue misses running things by Jerry; it's tough making decisions alone. Even more so, she misses his touch. "He used to give me what I call a 'kitchen hug.' It's a deep embrace, where you hold on tight and sigh deeply – very different from a 'kindergarten hug' in which your child gives you a quick squeeze and runs off to play."

    A Reading, Mass. native and avid sports fan, Jerry's first visit to DF/BWCC was in February 2004, the day of the Super Bowl victory parade for his beloved New England Patriots.

    Under the care of David Fisher, MD, Jerry later received chemotherapy treatments for six months and achieved remission for a year and a half.

    Then his cancer came back.

    Jerry House displays the David Ortiz Red Sox jersey with 9-year-old Ryan Reardon and Jimmy Fund chairman Mike AndrewsJerry House displays the David Ortiz Red Sox jersey with 9-year-old Ryan Reardon and Jimmy Fund chairman Mike Andrews 

    Returning to DF/BWCC for more chemotherapy, Jerry participated in another sports milestone in April 2008: helping to unveil a jersey belonging to Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, which had been excavated from Yankee Stadium and auctioned off to benefit the Jimmy Fund.

    He prepared for a stem cell transplant with cells to be donated by his brother, Greg – a perfect match – but the transplant had to be postponed because of complications, and in June he entered Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dana-Farber's partner in adult care, to fight several serious infections.

    Jerry House never came home. He died in his sleep on Aug. 1, 2008, the day his transplant had been scheduled, with his wife at his side.

    In his final days, he had dictated his farewells to his boys, recalls Sue. "I typed up his parting words, such as 'You are the cherry on Daddy's sundae.'"

    Today, she says, she and her boys are sustained by their faith, and try to maintain the life they had when Jerry was alive.

    "For example, we celebrate Jerry's birthday," says Sue, "and we still have an incredible support network. When you've had a loss it's important to let others help you. Staying connected with you is part of their own grieving process.

    "People don't want to be around you if you're bitter," she adds. "Instead I am grateful and humble. We are survivors, not victims."

    Because the House family found comfort in the cancer world when Jerry was ill, Sue chose to maintain this tie. Just two weeks after her husband's death, she appeared with her children on the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund RadioTelethon, which raises money for cancer care and research at Dana-Farber.

    They also participated in the Jimmy Fund Fantasy Day, another fundraising event, which gave them a chance to play ball in Fenway Park, thanks to the generosity of Susan Archambault and family.

    "Jerry always said, 'When I beat this I'm going to give back,' so I'm doing it for him," notes Sue. "We spent so much time at DF/BWCC when he was ill; we wanted to help other families in a similar situation."

    Along with her sons – Ben is 9, Tommy 7 1/2, and John 2 – she returns to the floor at Brigham and Women's Hospital where Jerry was an inpatient to leave some practical items (a hairdryer, contact lens solution, and crayons) in a cabinet for families who spend the night.

    Going back for the first time after Jerry's death wasn't easy. "Parking in the garage, entering the lobby, riding the elevator, and inhaling the familiar smell made me very emotional," recalls Sue, who attended Dana-Farber's weekly bereavement group for the spouses and partners of patients who pass away.

    "Jerry's passing was a loss for us as well," says John Horras, LICSW, the social worker who guided the family through the final months.

    "He was kind, compassionate, and devoted to his family and his faith. He and Sue did a remarkable job of preparing for his death, and we felt privileged to be allowed into their lives at this time."

    Horras points out that there is no template for losing a loved one to cancer; some families choose to stay connected to their caregivers afterwards, while others find such a bond too painful.

    While Jerry's caregivers and others sing his praises, the person he loved most – his wife – has a more modest view. "Jerry was an ordinary guy who had an extraordinary influence because he did the little things right," she says.

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