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Diane Rehm on her husband's death, her memoir, and the right to die

Mar 15, 2016

Diane Rehm
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When couples stand together to speak their wedding vows, they’re very likely laser-focused on the present. But there is that promise: “’Til death do us part.”

If that marriage proceeds the way the couple hopes, they will be forced to confront the reality of those words.

NPR’s Diane Rehm reached that moment of truth on June 14, 2014. That is the day that her husband of 54 years began his withdrawal from life. John Rehm had battled Parkinson’s disease for nine long years, and he decided it was time to stop fighting.

John Rehm’s decision to end his life, and then Diane’s living day to day and month to month without him, is the focus of her latest book, On My Own.

Rehm tells us her husband made that decision at a time when he felt there was little left for him to lose.

“He no longer had use of his hands, he could no longer walk, he could no longer care for himself in any way at all,” she says. “There he was, lying in that bed, literally being fed. This man of such dynamic intellectual ability. This man whose mind was so sharp, who in life could do anything. … He was such a strong man, and I think for him, the indignity of what he was experiencing finally became more than he could endure.”

"If he had been able to take a pill, we would all – my daughter, my son and I – have been able to be with him as he went."

He hoped to receive some medical assistance in ending his life, but, like in most states, that option was unavailable to him in the Maryland.

So, he did what Rehm tells us she feared he would do: “He said, ‘I will no longer take water, I will no longer take food, I will no longer take medication.’”

She says that for a day, “he felt fine,” but his slow descent began shortly thereafter. Rehm sat by his side for nearly 10 days until he passed. 

John and Diane Rehm at their 25th wedding Anniversary

She writes, “I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death. I cry at the loss of what might have been this final intimacy between us replaced by a long descent into oblivion.”

Rehm tell us she and her husband spent the time sharing memories about their life together, talking about the good times as well as the bad. She says those day were very dear to her, but also that, “sitting there watching him disintegrate before my eyes was just so hard.”

“If he had been able to take a pill, we would all – my daughter, my son and I – have been able to be with him as he went,” she says.

"I think there are no perfect marriages in this world ... but, let us not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We had a good marriage."

In On My Own, Rehm welcomes readers deep into the nooks and crannies of her marriage with John, detailing both good and hard times they had together. As part of the latter, Rehm writes of what John called his “deliberately emotionally abusive behavior” towards her. It’s an intimate thing to put in print, and Rehm thinks it’s an important one to share.

“I think there are no perfect marriages in this world,” Rehm says. “I mean, one looking at our marriage from the outside would see two happy, successful people with two glorious, successful and happy children. And yet, there were times of such long periods of silence between us. Such periods of tension, periods of anger. That’s why I feel we wasted so much time. But, at the same time, I really do believe that there are many marriages like ours. They’re not horrible marriages, and yet they’re not perfect marriages. … But, let us not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And we had a good marriage.”

"On My Own" by Diane Rehm

By the end of this year, Rehm plans to step away from The Diane Rehm Show after some 37 years behind the mic. Among other things, this will relieve her of the necessary restrictions of remaining neutral, after which she plans to take an active role in the right to die movement. She says she’s not yet sure of the exact shape that activism will take, and doesn’t have plans to speak on behalf of any particular organization.

“I’m going to be speaking out from my own heart, from my own experience, and urging families and people, individuals, to honor the idea of death as much as we honor the idea of birth and marriage,” Rehm says. “It is part of life, and we need to talk about it. We need to talk with each other about what it is we want, what we don’t want.”

In addition to speaking on the right to die, Rehm plans to bring attention to Alzheimer’s disease as well as Parkinson’s disease.