Just over a year ago, Jason Rosenthal suffered the most intense loss he’d ever known in a very public spotlight.
His wife died of ovarian cancer in their home, just days after she wrote an adoring and ironically funny ad looking for her husband’s next wife. That essay would be shared by millions, touching people from across the country and around the world.
Still, what Amy Krouse Rosenthal did in her final moments had an intention – even down to the white, empty space she left at the bottom of her piece, titled “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” Space, she said, for him to begin a fresh start.
The late Chicago author’s daughter has been vocal since her mother’s tragic death, sharing memories and ensuring her legacy lived on. But the “handsome” and “wonderful father” described by his wife as “an easy man to fall in love with,” had largely gone unheard from – until now.
“Amy’s essay caused me to experience grief in a public way,” Jason Rosenthal said while speaking at the TED 2018 conference. Video of the talk was made public this week.
Opening up about his journey after loss, Rosenthal said it was his wife’s letter that guided him through the dark cloud of grief that would ultimately consume him.
“My story of grief is only unique in the sense of it being rather public,” Rosenthal. “However, the grieving process itself was not my story alone. Amy gave me permission to move forward and I’m so grateful for that.”
Opening up about what he’s learned since the heartbreaking loss of his partner, Rosenthal began by revealing some of his tragic final moments with his wife.
“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,” he said. “And that body failed in our house.”
Amy Krouse Rosenthal died on March 13, 2017.
“My wife died of ovarian cancer in our bed,” Rosenthal told the audience. “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.”
Just a few months after his wife’s death, Rosenthal’s father died of complications related to a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“I had to wonder how much can the human condition handle?” he said. “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.”
It was his wife’s dying wish that her husband find love and happiness once again – and he was determined to fulfil that, but not without challenge.
“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 wedding and events honoring Amy - as loving as they are - have all been very difficult to endure,” he said. “I really am sad a lot of the time. I often feel like I’m kind of a mess. 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 receiving some promising advice.”
That advice, from a supporter and someone who had also lost a spouse, was that he “will find joy.”
And he did.
“Because Amy gave me very public permission to also find happiness, I now have experienced joy from time to time,” Rosenthal said, noting that he experiences “the simple moments life has to offer” in “an entirely new way.”
As for love, Rosenthal said he received his share of messages in response to his wife’s essay.
One, he said, included a proposal.
“I will marry you when you are ready, provided you permanently stop drinking,” the email read, according to Rosenthal. “I promise to outlive you. Thank you very much.”
“Now I do like a good tequila but that really is not my issue,” Rosenthal said. “Yet, how could I say no to that proposal?”
Among some of his advice for many who have yet to experience such loss, Rosenthal suggests talking about death openly with those in your life.
“Have these conversations now when healthy,” he said. “Please, don’t wait.”
And for those who are dealing with or will deal with the loss of a loved one, he had a profound message.
“I would like to offer you what I was given, a blank sheet of paper,” he said. “What will you do with your intentional empty space, with your fresh start?”