Diane Rehm On Living—And Dying—With Dignity

The longtime radio host opens up about her anger over how her husband died, living alone, and what’s next.

“Good morning, sweetheart. How are you?”

That’s how longtime radio host Diane Rehm starts every morning—despite the fact her longtime husband, John, has been dead for more than a year.

I’m sitting next to Rehm in her pink living room at her northwest Washington, D.C., apartment discussing her new book, On My Own, about her husband’s death and her new life alone. Hair blown out, black leather boots up to her knees, red nails, slim black pants, and black blouse, the 79-year-old Rehm is the maxim “age is but a number” made manifest.

I’ve listened to Rehm on the radio for years, but for some reason never bothered to Google Image her. Her voice, severely affected by spasmodic dysphonia, conjured up in my mind someone equally frail. Instead, in person, Rehm is spry, hopping up to answer the door or to get her phone to show me her grandchild. If it’s not too impertinent, the feature that I remember most are her cheekbones, high and extremely smooth.

“It's absolutely natural,” Rehm exclaims, when I ask if she ever catches herself talking to her now-deceased husband. In the book Rehm recounts her husband’s battle with Parkinson’s and his decision to starve himself to death as his doctors could not legally help him die. The book is a passionate and personal push from Rehm for an individual’s right to die.

“I wasn’t thinking about it politically,” Rehm counters, when I point out that the book is more political than normal for an NPR host. “I was thinking, ‘Darn it, he ought to have had a way to go that he wanted to go and I want to go.’ It just didn’t seem fair to me. Not in political terms, but in personal terms.”

Since John’s struggle, Rehm has become one of the more prominent public faces of the right-to-die movement. She says she has had many conversations with people on both sides of the argument. While she respects their points of view, she stresses, “I would ask them to respect mine. I do believe that I want choice, and I think every person ought to have a choice."

Rehm’s husband, John, passed away on June 14, 2014, after two years in an assisted-living facility. His final two years are best described as a descent into indignity. He eventually could not move his legs, and when he tried to feed himself with his shaky hands, he would miss his mouth. Finally, for 10 days, John went without food, water, or medication in order to end his own life.

“I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death,” writes Rehm in the book. “He was of rational mind, with no hope of recovery, knowing full well that the only way ahead was a slow downward slide, moving toward more incapacity and even greater indignity.”

The book is powerful. It is an easy read but far from easy to read. Rehm’s struggles with diseases that sap a patient’s dignity will hit close to home for many whose family members suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any number of illnesses.

It is also a book, Rehm says, about learning to live alone after a loved one passes away.

“This is the first time in my life I’d ever been alone,” she tells me. “I remember one night getting into bed and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never slept in the middle of the bed.’ So I wrote about it.”

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I ask her what has most surprised her about life alone.

“I think the thing that has surprised me is the absolute delight I have taken in learning to be alone,” she confesses. There are nights when friends will ask her to come over, and she’ll say she’d rather stay in with her dog.

Even the tough days have surprised her.

“I think I have come to realize I’m stronger than I thought I was,” she says, nodding. “From all that time of depending on John for money, support, strength—I could come home crying. Now, I talk to myself.”

Rehm is quite hard on herself in the book, particularly when she decides to put John in assisted living while she continues living at their apartment.

“Clearly, I was unwilling to give up for his sake the life we had both come to love,” she writes. “I will always carry that guilt with me, even as I build a new life, on my own.”

I ask her why she decided to include such a harsh portrait of herself.

“I think some of us are really, really wonderful at being caregivers,” she responds. “One of my dearest friends is a tremendous caregiver. I am not that good. I know that about myself!”

Years before, when John had a major back operation, Rehm took care of him. She knew he was going to get better.

“But when you know somebody is not going to get well,” she counters. “You know, poor guy, he’s going down and down and down. I just knew if he stayed here he was not going to get the kind of care he needed. I think there are probably a lot of people who can identify with that, knowing that they did everything they could. I had to put that in there.”

As for that new life on her own, Rehm bristles when I ask what she will do after retirement, and if she has a bucket list.

“I’m not retiring. I’m stepping away from the microphone. I’m not retiring,” she chides. In 2017 she’ll ramp up her work on right-to-die as well as advocacy on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She will also continue her work on NPR cruises.

She also says that if she is diagnosed with a debilitating disease, she will not accept treatment.

“Selfishly, I’d like to drop dead!” she says. “Go to sleep happy and healthy and never wake up.”

And as to whether Rehm thinks there is romance at all in her future?

“Ugh! I wouldn’t. I really wouldn’t. I think I had a really good man. A really romantic man,” she declares.

“I think a relationship, even dating someone, takes a lot. I have never, with one exception, seen a man of my own age that I would even think about dating or sitting down and having dinner with.”

Then again, as she writes in the book, never say never.