THOUGHTS ON DEATH WITH DIGNITY
BASED UPON FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE & INSPIRED BY THE SAD PASSING OF DIANE REHM’S HUSBAND, JOHN
Story extract from the Washington Post of February 14 2015. Written by Michael S. Rosenwald.
Diane Rehm and her husband John had a pact: When the time came, they would help each other die.
John’s time came last year. He could not use his hands. He could not feed himself or bathe himself or even use the toilet. Parkinson’s had ravaged his body and exhausted his desire to live.
“I am ready to die,” he told his Maryland doctor. “Will you help me?”
The doctor said no, that assisting suicide is illegal in Maryland. Diane remembers him specifically warning her, because she is so well known as an NPR talk show host, not to help. No medication. No pillow over his head. John had only one option, the doctor said: Stop eating, stop drinking.
So that’s what he did. Ten days later, he died.
For Rehm, the inability of the dying to get legal medical help to end their lives has been a recurring topic on her show. But her husband’s slow death was a devastating episode that helped compel her to enter the contentious right-to-die debate.
“I feel the way that John had to die was just totally inexcusable,” Rehm said in a long interview in her office. “It was not right.”
Back in 2010, I helped to look after a friend of a friend who was dying of cancer. To this day, I’m not quite sure why I volunteered, but I’m glad I did. It was an honor to help to care for Jo (Curran) and a life changing experience as far as I was concerned.
Jo was a feisty lady with a bawdy sense of humor and told everyone I was her lover. Crippled with pain as she was, that possibility didn’t exist—but it entertained her. Her pleasure was mine.
A particularly aggressive cancer was eating her spine and death within weeks or months was certain. It was highly likely that she would become paralyzed before then.
Jo faced up to these grim realities with great courage—and decided to kill herself legally under Washington State’s Death with Dignity
When I first heard of her decision I was decidedly shaken. I had been brought up a Catholic—conditioned to think that the taking of your own life was a mortal sin. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but such teachings leave their mark.
Beyond that, I have encountered, or been on the periphery of suicide far more often than I care to think about. People near and dear to me have killed themselves despite every effort to dissuade them. On the other other hand, none were facing a fairly imminent and painful death.
In fact, it was a supposed suicide—there was never a thorough investigation so I have never been quite sure—which inspired my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN. I found the body one damp morning hanging from a tree in a lonely wood. It was not a pleasant sight.
Hell of a way to start the day.
When I thought things through—and it wasn’t easy—I realized that Jo’s decision was courageous, rational, and the morally right thing to do. She was not just sparing herself, by she was sparing those who would otherwise have to look after her. We were more than happy to do that, of course, but it we knew it was going to be a sad and grim ending.
I still felt incredibly strange when I was dispatched to find something flavorful to disguise the taste of the barbiturate overdose that would kill her. Jo, her sense of humor ever evident, fancied Flavor Aid, or something in the Jonestown tradition. I bought her straws as well since a straw would be easier to drink from than a glass. She was very weak.
Knowing Jo, I anticipated a joke about ‘the last straw’ and I was not disappointed.
She asked me to attend. When I arrived dressed up for the occasion she sent me away to change into the clothes I wore when nursing her. Jo being Jo, I obeyed.
Together with her daughter, I then helped to hold her up while she drank the lethal dose. A small group of friends was standing around her bed as she did so, and Jo then started to say goodbye to us one by one. With a grin, she apologized to me for not getting me into her bed. Within a couple of minutes she was unconscious—and dead within half an hour.
Crying, I could not take my eyes off her as she lay there dying—and it took months before I was over the experience. I doubt I ever will be entirely. I had become very fond of Jo and it broke my heart to see such a vibrant spirit kill herself.
At the same time, I was happy for her. She died on her own terms with her friends around her and the alternatives would have been paralysis, pain, much indignity over her bodily functions, no quality of life at all, endless tests, and inevitable death.
I have no doubt at all, but that the Death With Dignity Act is a good thing. It should be universal.
I truly feel for Diane Rehm and what she had to go through. I would also add that she is an exceptional broadcaster and a truly beautiful woman.
The prospect of death does not worry me much. I have had a good, rich, fascinating, life with as many adventures as I used to long for so long ago. I hated boarding school, escaped through adventure stories—and dreamt of having such wonderful adventures myself when I grew up.
Life has not let me down.
The manner of my passing does give me pause. I hope I die as well as Jo.
The most beautiful rainbow appeared shortly after her death. The most beautiful spirit had passed.
VOR words c. 643.