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Assisted-dying activist remembered at Halifax ‘celebration of life’

Richmond News with Hilary Young 09 November 2018

Hundreds of people gathered Friday afternoon to remember a terminally ill Halifax woman whose fight to loosen assisted dying laws captured national attention as she dispensed wisdom about life from the “bed of truth” where she spent her last days.

A “celebration of life” was held for Audrey Parker at Pier 21 on the city’s waterfront, with more than 300 people in attendance to pay their respects to the charismatic make-up artist.

The gathering at the hall overlooking the harbour included family members, friends and people from the general public who’d been touched by her struggle.

Her circle of close female friends in attendance ranged from the Nova Scotia premier’s principal secretary, the president of Credit Union Atlantic and nationally known broadcasters.

Many had sat around what Parker referred to as her “bed of truth,” where she dispensed advice during her final months, instructing visitors on everything from how to use cutlery through essentials on how to choose a suitable mate.

Her step-daughter Lucie MacMaster said times spent with her were precious, recalling how her children would often hop into bed to play cards with Parker during her illness.

“I really wish we had her with us this Christmas, but there we go,” said MacMaster.

Kim King, 51, a close friend of Parker’s who was with her as she was dying, was one of the honorary pallbearers who carried a candle up to the front of the Pier 21 hall where the ceremony was held.

“People are inspired by her thoughts about living your best life to the end,” she said in an interview.

Every detail of the gathering was planned by Parker, said master of ceremonies Nancy Regan, recalling how they talked about it over champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries at a meeting at Pier 21.

“I know she has a huge smile on her face right now about the gorgeous women … who showed up today,” said Regan.

“Everything about Audrey was swirling perfection.”

Parker ended her life with a doctor’s assistance on Nov. 1, but said under amended legislation she might have lived for weeks longer.

Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2016, the 57-year-old woman had been approved for an assisted death.

She used her case to plead with lawmakers, stressing the law had to be changed because it demands people approved for a medically assisted death must be conscious and mentally sound at the moment they grant their final consent for a lethal injection.

Federal cabinet ministers have said they feel strong sympathy towards Parker and her family, but they remain confident in the federal legislation.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said Ottawa feels the two-year-old legislation strikes the appropriate balance between the protection of people’s autonomy and safeguards for vulnerable people.

The issue will be among those considered in a report being drafted by a panel of experts, which is due by the end of the year but is not expected to make recommendations.

Parker was given a lethal injection and died peacefully in her Halifax apartment.

Norma Lee MacLeod, a retired broadcaster, said encounters with the dynamic Parker were often unforgettable — as she tended to sweep forcefully into a room and had the knack of making people feel good about themselves.

“She could transform you from a puffy mess … We called it being Audreyed,” she said.

Hundreds stood up when asked by MacLeod if they’d received advice on style, wardrobe or life from Parker.

“Look at this room and look at how many people she has literally touched. We’ve been Audreyed and we’re the better for it,” she said.

Hilary Young, an associate professor of law at the University of New Brunswick, said one area where Parker’s death may remain significant is in the discussion of whether lawmakers will have to make distinctions between diseases in terms of when advance directives are permitted.

She said she personally agrees with Parker’s argument that when doctors have assessed and approved a medically assisted death like hers, it could be left to her written instructions or a substitute decision maker as to when it occurs.

However, she said that may be less applicable to people with dementia, or in some other instances.

“I think Audrey Parker’s case has brought to light the distinction between different kinds of advance directives. Most of the troubling issues relate to situations like dementia or situations where it’s made far in advance,” she said in a telephone interview.

She said when a patient has a grievous and irremediable condition and is suffering in a way that’s intolerable to her, and a death is reasonably foreseeable, there are strong arguments for advance requests in cases like Parker’s.