Diane Rehm on life, death and learning to play the piano

By Sadie Dingfelder

Diane Rehm’s new book explores how she mourned her husband’s death and began her new life alone.
Diane Rehm’s new book explores how she mourned her husband’s death and began her new life alone.

Public-radio host Diane Rehm, 79, began writing her new book, “On My Own,” on the last night of her husband’s life. The candid memoir tracks Rehm’s first year of widowhood, starting when her husband, John, decided he was done fighting Parkinson’s disease, which had rendered him nearly immobile. It describes the 10 excruciating days when John starved himself to death (a path he chose, Rehm says, because assisted suicide is illegal in her home state of Maryland).

“On My Own” traces her uncertain steps without John — taking care of finances, taking over his side of the bed — and features reminiscences of their 54-year marriage. Rehm, who is ending her long-running WAMU program “The Diane Rehm Show” after the November election, will talk at Sixth and I on Wednesday.

You wrote that you and your husband were “more together in sickness than in health.” Can you expand on that?

It’s a lovely thought to expand on, because while he was in assisted living, I think he realized how dependent he had become on me, and I think that broke down some of the barriers he had used all his life to shield himself, to be such a private human being. He knew I would do anything for him, and I think we simply had a loving time with each other in those last few months.

What do you hope people get out of reading “On My Own”?

I hope that people will talk with their families and their loved ones about what it is they want at the end of their life. John and I talked a lot about it with our kids, about how neither one of us wanted prolonged dying or to live long in illness or to lose our ability to care for ourselves. People need to talk about death and dying. It’s kind of a taboo subject in families. I can remember my own mother wanting to talk to me about it and me saying, “Oh Mom, let’s not talk about this now.”

You’ve become the de facto face of the “right to die” movement. Do you feel that impairs your ability to be a journalist?

I’m not an activist. I am not out there campaigning for anyone, for any organization. I am simply speaking about my own experience. I’m going to speak about my husband’s death. I’m going to speak about my own hope for myself — that when the times comes, I will have the right to choose how I wish to die. I’m only speaking from the heart and for myself, so I see no conflict journalistically.

You’ve said that working has helped you keep your grief at bay. Are you concerned about retiring after this election cycle?

The fact of the matter is, I’m not retiring. I’m stepping away from the microphone, but I’m going to continue to work — at WAMU in some capacity, on behalf of trying to find a cure for Parkinson’s, trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and speaking out personally about what I believe is the right to die.

Will you pick up any hobbies?

Piano. I took lessons for just five years as an adult, and I’m looking forward to trying to get back into that. But I won’t try to be too ambitious because I know it’s hard to play the way you’d like to hear yourself play. You just have to forgive yourself and keep on trying.

Do you have any advice for other people who are grieving or friends of those who have experienced a great loss?

If a friend of yours is grieving, just listen. Just be there and be helpful in any way you can. And don’t push that person to “get over it.” I think there’s part of me that will probably grieve forever. When I’m alone, I miss John so much. I miss talking with him. I miss laughing with him. I’ll miss him forever, and I’ll think about him forever, but that doesn’t mean I will close down my life. I will keep living as long as I am healthy and well and have good thoughts and interesting things to do and interesting people to be with. But I will not push someone else who is grieving to do what I am doing. I’ll just try to be with that person and be that person’s friend.

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