“On My Own” is the deeply felt and thoughtfully written account of the illness and death of U.S. State Department attorney John Rehm, and of the first year of widowhood for his wife, Diane Rehm. The author, host of the nationally syndicated “Diane Rehm Show,” writes candidly about her husband’s decision to die when Parkinson’s disease had deprived him of the ability to “in any way care for himself on his own,” and his frustration at the discovery that in the state of Maryland his doctor could not assist him in dying.
The only option that John, 83, had was to refuse food, water and all medication except morphine until he caused his own death. This was the course he followed for the 10days it took to end his life. His wife supported his decision. “I sat by his side, never forgetting that he had chosen to die. . . . It was excruciating to witness.”
It is not easy for a terminally ill person to die deliberately, even in a profoundly weakened condition. In most parts of the country, it is still against the law for medical personnel to give any assistance whatsoever to anyone, at any point of illness or incapacity, who is intent on suicide. The result of this legal prohibition is that individuals like John who no longer wish to exist in a painful and hopeless state must literally starve themselves to death. Though his doctor tried to keep her husband as comfortable as possible during the process, Rehm nonetheless writes, “I rage at a system that would not allow John to be helped toward his own death.”
Following her husband’s passing, after the family gatherings and the public memorial service and testimonials were over, Rehm began to reflect on his last, difficult days, on their marriage of 54 years and on the complex process of her own grief. “One of the first feelings that strikes me is Guilt with a capital G,” she admits, along with the conviction, shared by many surviving spouses, that she should have cared for her husband herself during his last months of life, rather than moving him into the facility where he eventually died. But like most people in her situation, she really had no choice: At a certain point in her husband’s illness, she was unable to care for him at home, something he and their children fully understood. Still, and inevitably, there was guilt.
At the time of her husband’s departure from their shared apartment, there was also a curious mixture of apprehension and relief. The relief will be familiar to all those who have finally made the decision to “place” a loved partner or parent in a setting that is better equipped than the home to provide appropriate care. The apprehension, for the author, had to do with living alone after half a century of marriage.
Rehm writes eloquently about the changing landscape of grief, not only her own sorrow but that of friends such as retired television news anchor Roger Mudd, who lost his wife, E.J., after only a few weeks of illness, or another close friend, Jeff Stann, who went through a long dying process with his wife, Patsy, just as Diane had done with John. In looking toward the future, Diane realizes that there is no spouse to take care of her someday, as she cared for John during his final illness and as he supported her in her struggles with spasmodic dysphonia, the neurological disorder that affects her voice.
“The Team of Rehm is no longer,” she writes. She must make her own preparations for the future.
Rehm vividly describes the roller coaster of emotions she has felt following her husband’s death: the inability to concentrate, the grief coming in waves while she was in the midst of an on-air conversation, the overwhelming need to be alone. “I don’t want to be in the company of others, even close friends, who are laughing and sharing ideas and stories.”
As she reflects on the many decades of her marriage, both good times and bad, the author also recognizes that she is in a new phase of her life, with a new purpose inspired by the manner of her husband’s death. She promises that once she has retired from her radio show, “I shall do all I can to promote the right of aid in dying.”
“I don’t believe in closure,” she writes. “Some part of me will grieve forever.” But she chooses to live fully the richness of her own experience and to share it with others in this clear, moving and completely honest account. Diane Rehm has again found her voice, and, as she has always done, she speaks passionately and courageously about issues that concern us all.
Diane Rehm will talk about her book March 2 at Sixth & I, tickets and $20 minimum registration. sixthandi.org.
Reeve Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, including “Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age — and Other Unexpected Adventures.”
By Diane Rehm
Knopf. 162 pp. $23.95