University of Calgary Professor Emerita Mary Valentich credits her comfort with death to her Croatian background. But she did not start working towards legalizing assisted death in Alberta until her friend was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Since her friend’s decision to end her life, Valentich has been advocating for changes in Alberta’s legislation and she now shares her friend’s story to bring awareness to assisted death.

Valentich had her first encounter with death when she was three years old. She recalls attending the funeral of a man from her Croatian community who had visited her family just a few months before his passing.

Valentich remembers feeling very comfortable kneeling in front of his open casket because she was never shielded from death growing up.

“I could feel the sadness, but I was curious and I thought that kind of cultural comfort with death was very good for me to experience as a child,” says Valentich.

“It was no surprise to me that she made it clear quite early on, a year before it actually happened, that she had decided on assisted dying- if we could make it work.” – Mary Valentich

That contentment with death helped her complete a field practicum in a “home hospital ” for the elderly at the beginning of her social work career in Rochester, New York.

Valentich became aware of end-of-life decisions through this experience because many seniors spoke about it.

“Those [decisions] were part and parcel of what I did in the 60’s as a young woman,” she recalls.

“I had lots of opportunities there to be able to connect with people who were 70 and older who certainly were thinking not only about their illness, but also about what it would mean to die and to leave their family and friends.”

Although Valentich knew about assisted death, it wasn’t until her friend Hanne Schafer was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2013 that she took one step further. Since then, she has been actively advocating for medical assistance in dying.

Valentich remembers when Schafer decided to take charge of her own fate: “It was no surprise to me that she made it clear quite early on, a year before it actually happened, that she had decided on assisted dying, if we could make it work,” she recalls.

And make it work they did.

Even though physician-assisted death was illegal at the time, Valentich, Schafer and her husband battled through the court system and obtained an exemption that allowed Schafer to die with the assistance of a doctor.

“I have certainly been involved with almost any media outlet that has wanted to hear her story because they can use it to make people aware of what it’s like to be with a person who is suffering greatly” – Mary Valentich.

Valentich says that while she is proud that her friend was granted access to assisted death, it was difficult to cope with her passing.

“I think the world loses every time someone dies, especially someone like her. That’s the hard part to deal with.”

Although it wasn’t easy, Valentich was motivated by Schafer’s desire to take control of her life and continued advocating for the legalization of assisted death in Canada.

“I did send in a written submission to the province and I did make a presentation to the government consultation committee so I don’t know how they made use of it, but they were very receptive to the things that I was saying,” says Valentich.

She was happy that the committee was receptive to her ideas, but saw no progress until two days after Schafer’s passing. Valentich believes that her friend’s death influenced them to make information about assisted dying public.

“My friend had the assisted dying on Feb. 29. Within two days, finally there was an announcement in the paper that there was a website for Alberta Health Services. I think our immediate involvement with the media probably helped prompt that,” explains Valentich.

Just a few months after Alberta Health Services published the information on their website, the federal government passed Bill C-14, which made physician-assisted death legal.

However, Valentich acknowledges that the legislation needs to make some changes. In addition, she believes that parliament made a mistake by not including advance directives in the law.

June Churchill, a team member of Dying With Dignity Canada, says that advance directives allow people to plan for the future by stating their intention to have assisted death. However, a government committee has not been established yet to study the question of advance consent.

“Currently one can state this request in the Advance Directive but it is not presently able to be carried out unless one is legally competent at time of assessment and at time of death. One must give written consent at the time of administration of the end of life medication,” Churchill says.

Valentich also says that advance directives should be added to current legislation because “there’s serious injustice in not letting us make our choices in advance.”

Additionally, Valentich is disappointed that faith-based hospitals are refusing to provide patients with assisted death services. She argues why the government needs to act.

“I think what they can do is negotiate with these hospitals and make it very clear that the legislation permits this. And right now, we have enough evidence that people are actually suffering,” says Valentich.

Churchill believes that Valentich is helping to reduce the stigma around assisted dying by telling Schafer’s story. She says that sharing personal experiences helps humanize the topic.

“I have certainly been involved with almost any media outlet that has wanted to hear her story because they can use it to make people aware of what it’s like to be with a person who is suffering greatly” – Mary Valentich.

“When it’s all just theory and somebody else, then people can put up all these barriers and worry about someone being vulnerable. But as the stories come out it’s showing that people who are competent have thought about this, usually over a long-term period, and are making a very rational decision and request,” says Churchill.

Valentich continues to talk about her friend’s experience to raise awareness and bring about changes to the current legislation in honour of her friend.

Valentich has been advocating for several social causes. Currently a member of the Mayor Nenshi’s 3 Things for Calgary committee, she was also a founding member of two assault centres in Ottawa and Calgary. Photo by Grace Dirks.She has been speaking to media outlets, holding workshops to educate social workers on assisted dying, meeting with assisted death support groups and communicating with people who want to talk about it.

“I have certainly been involved with almost any media outlet that has wanted to hear her story because they can use it to make people aware of what it’s like to be with a person who is suffering greatly,” explains Valentich.

Linda McFarlane, a member of Social Workers for Social Justice, says that Valentich is a great advocate due to her communication skills.

“She’s really good at speaking out, whether it’s writing or talking to the right people,” says McFarlane.

Valentich is continuing Schafer’s fight to ensure that no one will ever be subjected to the same obstacles that she encountered.

“We just have to continue to educate and continue to lobby. My friend Hanne [Schafer] wanted that,” she says.

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gdirks@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this piece is Ingrid Mir, and can be reached at imir@cjournal.ca