Planning the end: ‘It’s hard, but it’s beautiful’

Barbara Filion receives Reiki sessions from Janet Gnall, a hospice volunteer, to help reduce the aches in her body.

Barbara Filion receives Reiki sessions from Janet Gnall, a hospice volunteer, to help reduce the aches in her body. SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN / Monitor staff

Barbara Filion writes letters for her loved ones at her dining table on a Thursday afternoon.

Barbara Filion writes letters for her loved ones at her dining table on a Thursday afternoon. SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN—

Barbara Filion writes letters for her loved ones at her dining table on a Thursday afternoon.

Barbara Filion writes letters for her loved ones at her dining table on a Thursday afternoon. SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN photos / Monitor staff

Barbara Filion’s paintings of hummingbirds for her loved ones.

Barbara Filion’s paintings of hummingbirds for her loved ones.

SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN—

SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN—

Barbara Filion and Linda Albertson Thorpe sort through medical bills.

Barbara Filion and Linda Albertson Thorpe sort through medical bills.

Linda Albertson Thorpe and Barbara Filion sort through medical bills.

Linda Albertson Thorpe and Barbara Filion sort through medical bills. SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN—

SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN—

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 03-22-2024 3:11 PM

Modified: 03-26-2024 6:06 PM


Stencils of hummingbirds rest on a bench in the quiet corner of the living room, their outlines traced onto paper. Beneath them, small canvases painted in a riot of colors held a message that read: “Keep a green tree in your heart and maybe a singing bird will come.”

Barbara Filion dutifully painted each canvas, adorned with this cherished Chinese proverb, as a gift for her friends and loved ones to keep before she bids them farewell.

Books that used to line the shelves are now packed in large bags in the corner of her Portsmouth living room. Folders of documents, once tucked away safely, are sprawled across the coffee table. Photographs of memories captured over the years are no longer in their albums.

Every time Filion sorts through her personal belongings, they bring back memories, each whispering tales of joy, sorrow, and everything in between from her 82 years of life spent in two nations, Germany and the United States.

“I’ve been going through all the papers so my family doesn’t have to. We’ve sorted some,” Filion said, pointing to a pile of insurance documents on the floor, which she and her social worker sifted through to either keep or discard.

For months, Filion has clung to the hope of seizing control over her own fate, ending her life on her own terms. She’s yearned to break free from the relentless grip of 14 years of metastatic bone cancer before it takes the last pieces of the life she once knew.

Now that the moment Filion has long awaited nears — an appointment for medical aid in dying in Vermont — it brings with it a somber list of final tasks to complete before saying her goodbyes.

Some of those tasks include making specific arrangements for where to stay in Vermont and ensuring the availability of a hospice team when she decides to take the life-ending medication.

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But that may change for people living in New Hampshire, as the fight continues to legalize medical aid in dying, with the House of Representatives narrowly passing House Bill 1283 by a vote of 179-176 on Thursday.

“For many of the people who do choose to participate, just having the prescription is enough,” Rep. Marjorie Smith, a Durham Democrat who is the prime sponsor of the bill, said at the House session.”They have comfort from knowing if things get to be too bad and they can’t bear the pain anymore they have a choice. They can then keep on trying to.”

Filion’s affairs

Filion’s children, Marsha and Kai Filion, shoulder some of the burden of sifting through papers and organizing her affairs, easing some of their mother’s mundane tasks and allowing her precious time to craft gifts, unwind and immerse herself in the joys she holds dear.

“It’s sort of overwhelming when the administration really takes the beauty out of the day,” Marsha said. “It feels like it’s one of the last things you want to do even when you’re healthy and well. It’s especially hard to tackle it when your time is so limited.”

Kai, who flew from Sante Fe, New Mexico has finished his mother’s taxes. Meanwhile, Marsha is making arrangements at the funeral home and working on her mother’s obituary.

“I’m operating on autopilot mode,” Marsha said, her focus set on the tasks at hand while she slowly processes the emotions from the finality of her mother’s decision.

Until this week, the looming uncertainty of when she would be able to take her medication in Brattleboro, Vermont, was weighing Filion down, suffocating her with fear. The thought of her bones fracturing and confining her to a bed for the remainder of her days was haunting.

She has a new sense of relief, allowing her to map out the remaining days and spend time with friends with whom she’s formed beautiful bonds over the years.

“Peace” is the word that floods Linda Albertson Thorpe’s mind when she reflects on Filion, her friend of 25 years. Together, they’ve shared countless moments standing in solidarity at Market Square in Portsmouth for multiple vigils, which have been especially meaningful for Filion, a German who grew up during World War II.

That’s how Filion has chosen to end her life, in peace, seeking an exit free from the grasp of pain and suffering.

Hard, but beautiful

On her dining table sits a box of cards with a picture capturing her enjoying wine and cheese while sitting outside in the sun. That was a good day, a favorite memory. Each card has her handwritten personal notes, sent to at least 80 friends scattered across the globe.

“I think being creative for her is nice and leaving people with gifts is a really nice escape for her,” said Marsha.

As she wrote them, Thorpe kept her company, reminiscing about old times. Filion’s sense of humor remained intact. With a cheeky smile, Filion pointed towards Thorpe’s bag, a gift from her.

“That’s a nice bag you have. It looks like you really like it,” she said, a playful tone in her voice.

Even as she wrote the letters, her mind was preoccupied with the looming tasks awaiting her attention. Taking a momentary break from her writing, Filion reached for a folder containing medical bills.

Turning to Thorpe for advice, they decided to shred the papers.

Beyond the mountains of paperwork, Filion faces having to sort through her belongings.

She must go through her clothes and determine what will hold onto and what she will donate. She also has to choose which of her treasured belongings she wants to share with her friends, giving them as tokens of affection.

“I’ve not experienced this with someone, knowing and consciously planning. It’s hard, but it’s beautiful,” Thorpe said watching Filion as she set everything in order. “To have control and the chance to say the things you want to say, do the things you want to do. So often it’s just the sudden thing you don’t get to do that. So there’s really just something very soothing about it.”

As time passes, Filion’s children hurry to organize, knowing they have only a week left with their mother. But, they’re determined to make every moment count, embracing love and laughter as they create lasting memories together.

“It’s hard saying goodbye forever,” Kai said. “To say goodbye to your mom forever is really hard. It’s just so hard to make every moment be a special moment.”