Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part IV

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By Catherine Walsh, Northeast Communications Specialist

Our concluding article to this series of profiles of sisters living with serious illness is an interview with Sister Jean Roche, a nationally recognized pioneer in the hospice and death-and-dying education movement, and author of What Color is the Other Side of Darkness? Lessons of Living Taught by the Dying.

Read “Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy” Part I, Part II and Part III.

Sisters who have shared their stories of facing terminal illness with Mercy in this series are like Jesus on the road to Emmaus, says Sister Jean Roche.

“Just as Jesus did for his disciples that day, these Sisters of Mercy are giving the rest of us a wonderful blueprint for our own very human journeys of suffering, dying and rising again,” she says.  

A nationally recognized pioneer in the hospice and death-and-dying education movement, Sister Jean often uses the Emmaus story as a guide to accompanying the dying and bereaved. She notes that Jesus doesn’t initially offer his dejected disciples—who, like most human beings in chaos, don’t recognize God in their midst at first—consolation or prayer.

“He says, ‘Tell me what’s going on here.’ He encourages them to tell the story of the crucifixion from their point of view, and they share not only the facts but also their emotional and spiritual perspective on all that has happened. Only after having listened deeply does Jesus reveal his presence in the ritual of breaking bread. Similarly, the mere breaking and sharing the bread of sorrow is itself a potentially transformational event.”

By sharing their stories, Sister Pat Farley (who passed away during Lent), Sister Mary Ann Walsh and Sister Elaine Deasy have done something remarkable, says Sister Jean, who is the author of the book What Color is the Other Side of Darkness? Lessons of Living Taught by the Dying, and co-founder of the Bereavement Certificate Program at Maria College in Albany, New York. “These sisters have transformed the people around them and given us a new model for death and dying, as well as for life and living.”

In the past, she notes, terminally ill sisters—like other people—were often whisked away to a hospital or nursing home, where there was little opportunity for other community members to witness an ill sister’s journey from diagnosis to death, with all of the stages in between such as increased weakness and disability, the loss of hair from chemotherapy or becoming wheelchair-bound or bed-bound.

But Sister Mary Ann Walsh, by living in the Albany convent—known as the Motherhouse—“continues to be integrally involved in community life, attending Mass, meals and meetings when possible despite being quite ill,” says Sister Jean, adding that Sister Mary Ann “manifests the Mercy value of hospitality” by leaving the door to her room open.

“Mary Ann’s presence has quite literally transformed the Motherhouse,” continues Sister Jean, who lives nearby. “Her humility, willingness to be vulnerable, and redemptive sense of humor makes her an outstanding example of someone who has ‘normalized’ the end-of-life process, rendering it less fearful.”

Sister Jean also views the late Sister Pat Farley’s decision to live out her final months in the home of Sister Chris Kavanagh, a close friend and colleague, and Sister Elaine Deasy’s decision to keep working as a part-time spiritual director as positive, life-giving choices.

“These Sisters of Mercy, and women religious in general, have dedicated their lives to others,” she reflects, “and I can’t help but think and believe that those to whom they have ministered with compassion, sensitivity and joy have taught them, bestowed on them perhaps, the power and gift of transcendence in their own time of need.”

If there is one thing that Sister Jean could convince people of during this Easter season, it’s that the end of life can be one of deep meaning, spiritual growth and communion with the Divine.

She notes that just as Jesus experienced and expressed the gamut of emotions when facing his own death, including existential loneliness and feelings of abandonment, Sisters Pat, Mary Ann and Elaine did not shy away from talking about the very real pain and fear they have known in their illnesses.

“These sisters have been so up front about feelings, including their fears, and that’s not something we have historically done in religious life. But because they have accompanied so many others in need while ministering to the suffering Christ in our time, I believe that they and other women religious today have learned to accept their pain and transform it.”

Musing about her life’s work around issues of death and dying, Sister Jean adds with a smile, “Like St. Paul I often reflect on the fact that I could say to those to whom I’ve ministered, ‘You are my joy and my crown because through you I bring down on myself the mercy and grace of God.’”

Editor’s note: Sister Jean’s book—What Color is the Other Side of Darkness? Lessons of Living Taught by the Dying—grew out of her desire “to dispel the myth that the end of life is necessarily and exclusively one of pain and suffering, rather than also an opportunity to heal the heart, reconcile estranged relationships and celebrate life.” Individuals may obtain copies from Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, 1475 Western Avenue, Albany, New York 12203. Phone is 518.489.4761. Groups requesting multiple copies, such as Sisters of Mercy, associates and companions; hospice organizations; and nursing schools may obtain copies at reduced rates by contacting Sister Jean directly at