In her famously thoughtful, considered voice, she says, “All of us are just one bad death away from understanding how important it is to have medical aid in dying.”
Medical aid in dying is at the heart of Rehm’s recent work, “When My Time Comes,” a book that focuses on conversations with parties on both sides of the debate. Medical aid in dying is not palliative care and it’s not hospice, though the three end-of-life practices often get conflated.
The practice of medical aid in dying gives physicians the freedom to provide prescriptions to terminally ill patients for medicine that will hasten the end of their life, and with it, the suffering that goes along with their illness. The question is: Should terminally ill patients with less than six months to live be given the choice to end their own lives?
Rehm is on the side that says yes but gives plenty of space—and support—in the book to those who personally disagree. “The Roman Catholic priest believes that God should be the only decider. And for people who believe that, I support them one thousand percent,” Rehm says. “And for other people who say, ‘I want everything that medical science can provide. I don’t want them to turn off any machine.’ Look, if that’s what you want, I support you one thousand percent.”
“I happen to want none of those.”
The book is an extension of the PBS documentary that Rehm has been working on for three years, investigating the issue across the country, from Oregon (where the practice has been legal for more than 20 years) to Washington D.C. where Rehm makes her home and where the practice was legalized in 2017.
Even though she’s had her mind made up on the issue since watching her husband, John, pass away from Parkinson’s Disease, the book is a thoughtful consideration of all the different perspectives when it comes to the end of life, including discussions with spiritual advisors, priests and preachers, as well as conversations with those whose death is imminent.
One of the conversations is with a woman who has since died, who was asked if medical aid in dying was suicide. “She said, ‘If I had my druthers, I’d live until I was 90 … [but] I know that’s not going to happen, because the cancer is all through my body. I don’t want my 12-year-old son to see me suffer … I want to have control so that when it becomes too much, I can make the decision.’”
“People who want medical aid in dying would much rather continue living,” Rehm adds. “They want to go in peace.” And indeed, each conversation in the book ends with the question: When your time comes, how do you want to go? “And so many of them,” Rehm says, “whether they support medical aid in dying or not, they all came up with the same thing: ‘Well, I’d like to die peacefully at home, with my family around me.’ And you can’t always have that.”
Not to spoil the book, but it ends with a very personal conversation between Rehm and her grandson about her choices for the end of her own life. That’s a talk that everyone needs to have, she says, even though it’s not an easy one nor one that can be handled with a single question.
“It’s not even one conversation. It’s many conversations. If my parents were alive, I might say to them, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about my own life, and the things that I would like to have and how I’d like my life to end.’ And then I might say, ‘I wonder if you’ve been thinking about that at all?’ And be in a series of conversations with them, because it’s never, ever just one.”
Is it easy? Of course not. “I know it’s hard. I know it’s hard. But it’s real. Not one of us is going to get out of here … straight up,” Rehm says as she looks toward the heavens. “There is always that discomfort with the beginning of the conversation. And that’s to be expected. But it doesn’t mean you let it go.“
For more information on medical aid in dying and other end-of-life issues, Rehm recommends visiting Compassion and Choices to learn more.