Connecticut Woman’s Journey Reflects a Death With True Dignity

Judith Barillaro’s 2015 death from cancer taught a lesson in living.

Judith Barillaro and her husband, Francis, on Easter 2015.
Judith Barillaro and her husband, Francis, on Easter 2015. (photo: Courtesy of the Barillaro family )

MERIDEN, Conn.  Judith Barillaro of Meriden, was a mother of four, a grandmother, a speech pathologist, an “Apprentice” to the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, and a board member to the Holy Family School in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land.

An objective observer could conclude that she certainly led a full life.

Yet it was in her death that the fullness of her life was most beautifully expressed. After a prolonged struggle with cancer, she died in hospice care in 2015. Her husband, Francis, was with her through every arduous step. Capturing their family’s story through Judith’s own words, which she journaled throughout the ordeal, Francis has commemorated her life — and her death — in his book Judith’s Journey.

The self-published book lightly touches on Judith’s life prior to the cancer, but focuses mainly on how Francis’ beloved wife of 48 years embraced with hope and faith the end of her earthly life in the face of eternal life. He wanted to share his wife’s story of approaching death with true dignity — something seldom seen today in a society that seeks to numb all pain or suffering and is increasingly embracing a culture of assisted suicide and euthanasia. 

After reading through Judith’s collection of favorite quotations and her own journal entries, Francis decided there was something there that was calling to be shared.

“I realized it is more than an inspirational story,” he said. “Judith’s Journey is a testimony to the culture of life. … It shouts that we can live even while we are dying — that dying is part of living and growing, a process of preparation for eternal life that should never be artificially cut short.”

“Throughout the journey, she lived with a ‘This is where we are now; where do we go from here?’ attitude,” Francis explained. “During that week in hospice, through the pain and discomfort, she knew where she was going ‘from here,’ and she was preparing. I always think of our daughter Gina’s statement, ‘My mom lived while she was dying.’” 

 

Hospice Often Misunderstood

Death is seldom easy for either the loved one or the ones they leave. Yet with the growth in availability of Catholic grief counseling and networks, there are resources the faithful can turn to. For some, the beauty of this time of preparation is captured through “hospice.”

Hospice itself is often misunderstood. Dr. Francis Milligan, a family doctor from Bow, New Hampshire, explained that hospice is not about a “fight with the sickness,” adding that “we are not causing death — we are allowing nature to take its course.”

As Milligan explained, “In a Catholic sense, we are trying to have the patients aware of the process of death in a way that they can prepare themselves.”

“A great part of a good hospice system is using human interaction as a principle form of treatment,” Milligan pointed out, “using the person’s relationships to treat … instead of medicine.” Through a good hospice program, “we are putting at the patient’s disposal people who have experienced death so often that they can properly guide the person through death.”

One such program is found in Meriden, Connecticut, at the home of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. The Franciscan Life Center provides marriage and family counseling, along with hospice care and services; the caretakers there are not new to the difficult moments of life and relationships.

Sister Catherine Mary, one of the veteran hospice workers at the center, explained her work: “While physical comfort is the primary focus, hospice acknowledges the psychosocial, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the person’s life as critical to his or her process of being truly comfortable and peaceful. The body, mind and soul of a person are intricately connected; and unless all dimensions are provided proper care, all dimensions will experience some discomfort.”

Sister Catherine Mary said hospice is a time where the focus shifts from the patient’s illness to the patient’s relationships. It is a time that the patient tries, with the assistance of hospice care, to reflect on and say the “four final things” — “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” “Forgive me,” and “I love you” — to those who need to hear them.

“More often than not, the conversation (when conversation is still possible) involving the last four things to say takes place within days or even hours of a person’s death,” Sister Catherine Mary explained. “It can take almost the entire length of the dying process for the person who is dying or a family member to be able to speak so vulnerably and honestly.”

 

‘Something Bigger Than Themselves’

Human relationships are not the only ones that are focused on at this time.

“Even those who think they don’t believe in God, or who are angry with God for some reason,” said Sister Catherine Mary in her writings on the seven phases of dying, “recognize something within that they know is bigger than themselves and that they need to in some way acknowledge that presence.”

Sister Catherine Mary explained that the dying process involves “a sense of self [that] is really our true identity, where we are free to relate to others and to God, and even to be alone without fear or reserve.”

Our “true identity” can be a humble realization, but also a glorious one. Father Robert Rousseau recently became chaplain for the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run the St. Joseph’s Residence in Enfield, Connecticut, for elderly patients.

Father Rousseau also serves as the director of pro-life activities for the Archdiocese of Hartford. He pointed out that the pro-life movement expands from beginning to end of life, and he described how the sisters and staff at this residence carry this spirit, where the residents are “seen as persons and treated as individuals.”

Father Rousseau often reminds the elderly of the power of the Our Father.

“They are the words of God himself, telling us how to communicate with him,” Father Rousseau explained. “It’s an act of love which opens the door for God’s love to work in our lives.”

 

‘Just Six Days Out of 11 Years’

For Francis Barillaro and his wife Judith, hospice was “just six days out of 11 years” of her sickness. They had a beautiful marriage and had drawn ever closer to each other throughout the many treatments and appointments, he recalled. He said that hospice is a time for relationships — and their beauty — to be acknowledged in a way that is, perhaps, only possible under those circumstances. Francis put it simply: “Hospice helped bring us to the place we needed to be and held us in the process of peacefully, with a lively faith, [going] where we once feared to go.”

The Barillaros exemplify a love story that endures. It is an inspiring witness to the dignity of life and to the beauty of love found in the sacrament of marriage. And, in a society where both human dignity and married love are under constant siege, the Barillaros’ story is a reassuring reminder that when life is lived to the fullest, valued and marked by faith and trust in God, there is always hope. 

Kathryn Mihaliak writes from

Hartford, Connecticut.