Jason B. Rosenthal: The journey through loss and grief
In her brutally honest, ironically funny and widely read meditation on death, "You May Want to Marry My Husband," the late author and filmmaker Amy Krouse Rosenthal gave her husband Jason very public permission to move on and find happiness. A year after her death, Jason offers candid insights on the often excruciating process of moving through and with loss -- as well as some quiet wisdom for anyone else experiencing life-changing grief.
There are three words that explain why I am here. They are "Amy Krouse Rosenthal."
At the end of Amy's life, hyped up on morphine and home in hospice, the "New York Times" published an article she wrote for the "Modern Love" column on March 3, 2017. It was read worldwide by over five million people. The piece was unbearably sad, ironically funny and brutally honest. While it was certainly about our life together, the focus of the piece was me. It was called, "You May Want to Marry My Husband." It was a creative play on a personal ad for me. Amy quite literally left an empty space for me to fill with another love story.
Amy was my wife for half my life. She was my partner in raising three wonderful, now grown children, and really, she was my girl, you know? We had so much in common. We loved the same art, the same documentaries, the same music. Music was a huge part of our life together. And we shared the same values. We were in love, and our love grew stronger up until her last day. Amy was a prolific author. In addition to two groundbreaking memoirs, she published over 30 children's books. Posthumously, the book she wrote with our daughter Paris, called "Dear Girl," reached the number one position on the "New York Times" bestseller list. She was a self-described tiny filmmaker. She was 5'1" and her films were not that long.
Her films exemplified her natural ability to gather people together. She was also a terrific public speaker, talking with children and adults of all ages all over the world.
Now, my story of grief is only unique in the sense of it being rather public. However, the grieving process itself was not my story alone. Amy gave me permission to move forward, and I'm so grateful for that. Now, just a little over a year into my new life, I've learned a few things. I'm here to share with you part of the process of moving forward through and with grief. But before I do that, I think it would be important to talk a little bit about the end of life, because it forms how I have been emotionally since then. Death is such a taboo subject, right?
Amy ate her last meal on January 9, 2017. She somehow lived an additional two months without solid food. Her doctors told us we could do hospice at home or in the hospital. They did not tell us that Amy would shrink to half her body weight, that she would never lay with her husband again, and that walking upstairs to our bedroom would soon feel like running a marathon. Home hospice does have an aura of being a beautiful environment to die in. How great that you don't have the sounds of machines beeping and going on and off all the time, no disruptions for mandatory drug administration, home with your family to die.
We did our best to make those weeks as meaningful as we could. We talked often about death. Everybody knows it's going to happen to them, like, for sure, but being able to talk openly about it was liberating. We talked about subjects like parenting. I asked Amy how I could be the best parent possible to our children in her absence. In those conversations, she gave me confidence by stressing what a great relationship I had with each one of them, and that I can do it. I know there will be many times where I wish she and I can make decisions together. We were always so in sync. May I be so audacious as to suggest that you have these conversations now, when healthy. Please don't wait.
As part of our hospice experience, we organized groups of visitors. How brave of Amy to receive them, even as she began her physical decline. We had a Krouse night, her parents and three siblings. Friends and family were next. Each told beautiful stories of Amy and of us. Amy made an immense impact on her loyal friends.
But home hospice is not so beautiful for the surviving family members. I want to get a little personal here and tell you that to this date, I have memories of those final weeks that haunt me. I remember walking backwards to the bathroom, assisting Amy with each step. I felt so strong. I'm not such a big guy, but my arms looked and felt so healthy compared to Amy's frail body. And that body failed in our house. On March 13 of last year, my wife died of ovarian cancer in our bed. I carried her lifeless body down our stairs, through our dining room and our living room to a waiting gurney to have her body cremated. I will never get that image out of my head. If you know someone who has been through the hospice experience, acknowledge that. Just say you heard this guy Jason talk about how tough it must be to have those memories and that you're there if they ever want to talk about it. They may not want to talk, but it's nice to connect with someone living each day with those lasting images. I know this sounds unbelievable, but I've never been asked that question.
Amy's essay caused me to experience grief in a public way. Many of the readers who reached out to me wrote beautiful words of reflection. The scope of Amy's impact was deeper and richer than even us and her family knew. Some of the responses I received helped me with the intense grieving process because of their humor, like this email I received from a woman reader who read the article, declaring, "I will marry you when you are ready --
"provided you permanently stop drinking. No other conditions. I promise to outlive you. Thank you very much."
Now, I do like a good tequila, but that really is not my issue. Yet how could I say no to that proposal?
I laughed through the tears when I read this note from a family friend: "I remember Shabbat dinners at your home and Amy teaching me how to make cornbread croutons. Only Amy could find creativity in croutons."
On July 27, just a few months after Amy's death, my dad died of complications related to a decades-long battle with Parkinson's disease. I had to wonder: How much can the human condition handle? What makes us capable of dealing with this intense loss and yet carry on? Was this a test? Why my family and my amazing children? Looking for answers, I regret to say, is a lifelong mission, but the key to my being able to persevere is Amy's expressed and very public edict that I must go on. Throughout this year, I have done just that. I have attempted to step out and seek the joy and the beauty that I know this life is capable of providing. But here's the reality: those family gatherings, attending weddings and events honoring Amy, as loving as they are, have all been very difficult to endure. People say I'm amazing. "How do you handle yourself that way during those times?" They say, "You do it with such grace." Well, guess what? I really am sad a lot of the time. I often feel like I'm kind of a mess, and I know these feelings apply to other surviving spouses, children, parents and other family members.
In Japanese Zen, there is a term "Shoji," which translates as "birth death." There is no separation between life and death other than a thin line that connects the two. Birth, or the joyous, wonderful, vital parts of life, and death, those things we want to get rid of, are said to be faced equally. In this new life that I find myself in, I am doing my best to embrace this concept as I move forward with grieving.
In the early months following Amy's death, though, I was sure that the feeling of despair would be ever-present, that it would be all-consuming. Soon I was fortunate to receive some promising advice. Many members of the losing-a-spouse club reached out to me. One friend in particular who had also lost her life partner kept repeating, "Jason, you will find joy." I didn't even know what she was talking about. How was that possible? But because Amy gave me very public permission to also find happiness, I now have experienced joy from time to time. There it was, dancing the night away at an LCD Soundsystem concert, traveling with my brother and best friend or with a college buddy on a boys' trip to meet a group of great guys I never met before. From observing that my deck had sun beating down on it on a cold day, stepping out in it, laying there, the warmth consuming my body. The joy comes from my three stunning children. There was my son Justin, texting me a picture of himself with an older gentleman with a massive, strong forearm and the caption, "I just met Popeye," with a huge grin on his face.
There was his brother Miles, walking to the train for his first day of work after graduating college, who stopped and looked back at me and asked, "What am I forgetting?" I assured him right away, "You are 100 percent ready. You got this." And my daughter Paris, walking together through Battersea Park in London, the leaves piled high, the sun glistening in the early morning on our way to yoga.
I would add that beauty is also there to discover, and I mean beauty of the wabi-sabi variety but beauty nonetheless. On the one hand, when I see something in this category, I want to say, "Amy, did you see that? Did you hear that? It's too beautiful for you not to share with me." On the other hand, I now experience these moments in an entirely new way. There was the beauty I found in music, like the moment in the newest Manchester Orchestra album, when the song "The Alien" seamlessly transitions into "The Sunshine," or the haunting beauty of Luke Sital-Singh's "Killing Me," whose chorus reads, "And it's killing me that you're not here with me. I'm living happily, but I'm feeling guilty." There is beauty in the simple moments that life has to offer, a way of seeing that world that was so much a part of Amy's DNA, like on my morning commute, looking at the sun reflecting off of Lake Michigan, or stopping and truly seeing how the light shines at different times of the day in the house we built together; even after a Chicago storm, noticing the fresh buildup of snow throughout the neighborhood; or peeking into my daughter's room as she's practicing the bass guitar.
Listen, I want to make it clear that I'm a very fortunate person. I have the most amazing family that loves and supports me. I have the resources for personal growth during my time of grief. But whether it's a divorce, losing a job you worked so hard at or having a family member die suddenly or of a slow-moving and painful death, I would like to offer you what I was given: a blank of sheet of paper. What will you do with your intentional empty space, with your fresh start?