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Diane Rehm shares the painful story of her husband’s death

After her husband starved himself to death over the course of nine days rather than continue living with Parkinson’s disease, NPR’s Diane Rehm found herself plagued with questions and fears. She channeled her struggles into “On My Own,” an evocative and incisive memoir. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Rehm to discuss what the book means for her and her ongoing advocacy for assisted suicide.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now a different kind of read.

    A new memoir captures the grief of losing a spouse and reassessing one's path.

    Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For more than 35 years, radio host Diane Rehm has tackled pretty much every topic under the sun.

    DIANE REHM, Author, "On My Own": Already, hundreds of Syrians have been killed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Her two-hour daily public radio program produced by WMAU in Washington, D.C., reaches some 2.5 million listeners nationwide.

    Now in a new book titled "On My Own," she's addressing a more personal an raw topic, the death of her husband John after 54 years of marriage. John was dying owed with Parkinson's disease in 2005 and moved into an assisted living facility in 2012.

    Two years later, in steady decline, he decided to end his life. But with doctors legally barred from assisting, his only option was to refuse food, liquids and medication. His death came 10 days later. Diane Rehm lives alone now with her dog Maxie and with lingering grief and anger over her husband's last days.

  • DIANE REHM:

    I so resented that John was having to go through this long 10-day process to die. He had said 10 days earlier he was ready to die, and it took him that long. It shouldn't have, I don't believe, taken him that long.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You write: "I rage at a system that wouldn't allow John to be helped toward his own death."

    He knew what he was going through. You two had talked this through, and he just wanted to let it happen.

  • DIANE REHM:

    He wanted to relinquish life. He didn't commit suicide. He wanted to let go of life and be on to the next journey.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You and he had talked a lot about these kind of end-of-life matters. Right?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That is one of the things that comes through in the book, is that that helped you in some degree. Right? Even as hard as it was, you had talked it through.

  • DIANE REHM:

    Even after he said, I'm ready, I'm ready to die, I said to him, sweetheart, are you sure? Is this really what you want?

    And he said, absolutely. I can no longer use my hands. I cannot walk. I cannot feed myself. I cannot do anything for myself. I am ready to die.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the things I'm sure will resonate with a lot of people, you refer to is the capital-G guilt that you felt along the way, right, as you were moving toward this point.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    … the guilt?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Of course, of course.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • DIANE REHM:

    How could I not feel guilt? I think every spouse who sees another go into an assisted living facility must experience some of that.

    If I had stayed home, if I had given up my work, if I had cared for him here at home, perhaps he would have lived at least a few months longer. I'm not sure that is the case. But it was the guilt I felt. We take vows when we marry, for better, for worse, in sickness, in health.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Fifty-four-year marriage, right, which you write about very honestly. You write about periods of joy and of partnership, certainly, but also, as you say, years of hostility, endless periods of silence. Why did you write about that?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Because I believe that no marriage is perfect.

    And yet so many of us go into marriage or partnership or relationship believing that all is going to be sunny, all is going to be wonderful. I wish, Jeff, I had been more mature, because John needed more distance than I did. John needed more quiet time than I did. I love to be with people. John's greatest solace was being alone.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, in the end, in his last days, was there a kind of understanding?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Totally.

    I mean, there was such closeness in those last three weeks, four weeks before he died.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, out of this experience, you have become a much more active advocate, I guess, right, for the right to die. That sets you in the middle of a very passionate debate in this country.

  • DIANE REHM:

    I appreciate both sides.

    I am arguing not that everyone should feel as I do and ask for death when the time comes. I understand those who would prefer to give and receive palliative care. Total individual choice. But do not let the law prevent me from making my choice about my own life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Becoming so public about it also brought you some questions and criticism from your organization, right?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Whether you are now an advocate or your more traditional role as a journalist, right?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Once I leave the microphone, then I will become, as you say, an advocate. Right now, I am advocating for myself. I am not advocating for any organization in particular or any change in any state law in particular. I am advocating for myself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, you're now, as the book says, on your own…

  • DIANE REHM:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    … for the first time in many, many, many years, right?

  • DIANE REHM:

    Yes, all my life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Except for Maxie.

  • DIANE REHM:

    Except for Maxie, who is my constant companion.

    I talk to Maxie. I talk to John, and John talks back to me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. That conversation hasn't stopped, huh?

  • DIANE REHM:

    It hasn't stopped. I don't think it will stop. And it really helps me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have also announced that you will stop doing your radio program at the end of this year.

  • DIANE REHM:

    At the end of the year.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I wonder if — are the two related?

  • DIANE REHM:

    I had decided that, since I am currently 79 — I will be 80 in September — that 80 was a good point to step away from the microphone I have held daily for 37 years.

    It seems to me that there ought to be other, fresher voices, newer ideas, newer plans for a national program like mine. And I think I would welcome that change.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. The book is "On My Own."

    Diane Rehm, thanks so much for letting us come.

  • DIANE REHM:

    Jeff, thank you.

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