Author Jason Rosenthal: “Why You Need To Give Yourself Permission To Find Joy After Loss”

By Debra Wallace

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Jason B. Rosenthal’s new book — My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me — is a one-third love story, one-third awe-inspiring end of life journey, and one-third blueprint on starting over after insurmountable loss and devastating grief.

A New York Times best-selling author, lawyer, public speaker, and father of three grown children, (Justin, Miles, and Paris), Rosenthal’s world imploded when Amy Krouse Rosenthal, his beloved wife, and prolific best-selling children’s author died of ovarian cancer in 2017 at age 51.

Amy’s first word uttered as a child and her lifelong mantra was “MORE.” With an uncanny ability to devour life, she left an inspiring legacy of books, short films, and inspiring TEDx Talks, as well as always leaving an indelible road map on how to love with abandon on her husband and other loved ones.

Amid their small and big adventures together for more than two decades, they started their marriage with a list — since Amy loved making lists of all kinds — with the title: “Amy and Jason Rosenthal’s Marriage Goals and Ideas.”

This unique list included 11 items including, have lunch together at least once a week, get dressed up and go on dates, never stop learning — take classes, read, cook and travel — and at some point work together, have our own business. Life is too short and we love being together too much to spend 9–5 apart every day.”

So, it is not a surprise that before she died, Amy wrote a story entitled You May Want to Marry My Husband that was published on March 3, 2017, in The New York Times, 10 days before her death.

The story, a kind of personal ad to the world, gave Jason permission to move on from his loss and write the next chapter of his life. She even left a blank space for him to ponder how he would write his Second Act.

Amy’s essay in The New York Times ends: “I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children…But that is not going to happen. I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet. So why am I doing this? I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins. I’ll leave this intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve. With all my love, Amy.”

While Jason wrestled with the gut-punch of her death, Amy’s final love letter to her husband — went viral — reaching 5 million readers around the world — a welcome diversion from dealing with the excruciating loss of his best friend, soulmate, and wife of 26 years.

All of this led to Jason publishing his new book, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, (HarperCollins), a tribute to Amy and an inspiring memoir of life, love, loss, and finding our individual path to new beginnings.

This poignant look at falling love, living a rich family life with the woman of his dreams, their two sons and daughter, and extended family and friends, and how this extraordinary initial loss cripples us and then inspires us to understand how to find hope and love after great despair.

Amid all of this have been amazing tributes to Amy, the classic children’s storybook Meghan Markle chose to read to Baby Archie on his first birthday in April was Amy’s Duck! Rabbit!, one of the 35 children’s books that she wrote.

Jason says it was touching to see the video that has gone viral of Baby Archie flipping through the pages of his late wife’s beloved book.

“Although Meghan Markle is clearly one of the most famous people in the world, seeing her read Duck! Rabbit! to her son Archie was so relatable to any parent anywhere,” Jason said. “There he was squirming around, smiling and just being a regular little boy. What a testament to Amy that her book has such meaning to so many families!”

What was your reaction to Meghan Markle reading Amy’s book to her son Archie on his recent first birthday?

When I first saw it, I really just thought “Hey, here’s one of the most famous human beings on the planet reading Amy’s book.” But also, it just occurred to me immediately that this is just a mom reading to her kid squirming around on her lap. It looked like anyone who’s ever been a parent could relate to it. So that was my immediate reaction. But boy, it was a really beautiful moment. One of many that I wish Amy could have participated in.

So, how do we put your story and your difficulties in the context of the fact that people are going through such a hard time right now with finances, work, homeschooling, and uncertainty? How do you feel this fits with your journey?

I think what we all are experiencing right now, is a significant period of loss and grief. I think my perspective might be a little helpful.

Only because those of us who’ve been to the depths of real devastating loss, are often a little more equipped to handle these types of situations. At least in my own case, I’ve had this whole range of emotions. I’ve been the highest of joy and I’ve been to the darkest and lowest depths of grief. With that, I think there’s some perspective.

Please elaborate on this.

There isn’t any doubt that grief doesn’t leave us, we proceed forward with it and through it. I think what happens during that period of time is that you dip into these moments of real anxiety, and that’s what’s happening to a lot of people right now. As they are missing out on so much; their normal routines or perhaps not being at work and bringing home a paycheck… or God forbid, being with someone who’s extremely ill or dying.

And so those moments of anxiety are going to be coming and going as we proceed through this health pandemic. You might feel happy one day and smiling and joyful, and the next day is back into deep anxiety. And that’s sort of a natural progression through a period of grief that I think is okay. So, I want people to know that it’s okay to have those feelings.

The other thing that happens when you’ve been through a really devastating period of grief, is that time does interesting things. Just by nature as you proceed past your devastating loss moments will occur in your life where you find whatever it is that happiness means to you. Whether that’s joy or real meaning in your life. Those things will happen for you, I think. And that’s slowly what happened to me.

[Best-Selling Author Jason Rosenthal]

There is so much to take away from your beautiful book, and one of them is the kind people who were there for you and your family.

It’s really true. Human beings, for the most part in my experience, are pretty fantastic. They really are. People show up when we need them.

Your wife’s symbol became a yellow umbrella after she gathered a bunch of strangers at a Chicago park for a one-of-a-kind experience that she filmed. The event she called the Beckoning of Lovely. What do yellow umbrellas mean to you now? Are they still in your life?

As you probably know, it’s become really Amy’s legacy symbol. It’s part of our logo for the Amy Krouse Rosenthal Foundation. It’s something that people tend to think about when they think about Amy. And of course, you know having read the book that I commissioned a piece of public art in honor of Amy. A large yellow umbrella that now sits in Lincoln Park in Chicago.

Please tell me about it.

It’s a big, beautiful piece of public art and the umbrella portion at the top is this really stunning imported glass from Germany, with pictures the artist took of flowers that grow right there in Lincoln Park where the umbrella sits.

How do you think it would have it been to have gone through this global health crisis with Amy?

I think that of course, at first, Amy would be really scared of everything that’s going on for all of us. But then she would quickly flip to doing something about it, which was one of her major positive qualities. People you and I know talk a big game kind of thing, but Amy, when she had an idea to do something, it got done. Sort of similarly, if you said you were going to do something, she really held you to it.

I think Amy would have gotten creative. She would have done some kind of a community-based project. Similar to some of the films and the Beckoning of Lovely that you just referenced, to really make people feel good during this period of time.

In her everyday life Amy acted with a tremendous amount of kindness, and I think that is something that we really need right now. And we’re seeing all over the world, people doing acts of kindness for others, without any expectation of anything in return. And I think that is something that was a really big part of Amy’s life.

From your book and her body of work, I can see that Amy’s legacy is truly extraordinary.

As a matter of fact, I’m learning about that more and more as the years go by. People who share stories with me of things that Amy did for them in their lives, whether it was for themselves or their children. That was maybe small in some people’s eyes, but really, really impactful to these people.

What do you think your lessons and Amy’s lessons can help us in finding hope and joy after experiencing so much pain and loss?

There are two things. One, we had this time period together while she was ill in which we were able to really talk deeply about big and small issues of all kinds. So, I think that encouraging people to speak to each other is part of my mission now. In an age where they’re young enough and healthy enough to ask questions that might be difficult, about the end of life and all of the things that come with that, that we aren’t so comfortable about talking about in this country. In many countries death is simply just a part of life.

And so what I mean by conversations, they could range from everything that the person wants to do with their body, to the service, and things I talk about in the book. And then more meaningful things, like if you have children, any final messages you might want to convey, and assure that other partner that they can do the parenting as a single parent. That was really huge for me. I was very, very daunted by that; I still am. But that was important to talk with Amy about.

And then I got this incredible gift, which was that she wrote that article for me. And she clearly gave me permission, not just to find love again, but to do something meaningful with that blank space that she left me at the end of her article. So that’s become my mission really, is to see how I can find and develop more meaning in my life. And that was a permission that I don’t know how I could have gone forward without. And so that’s part of why I tell people, “Talk to each other and share how you feel about what the other person is going to be left with.”

[Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Jason Rosenthal]

Tell me about how it felt the way your children stepped up in such a loving way for their mom.

Yeah. Well, all three so differently, but all so incredible. My daughter, Paris, [with whom he wrote the best-selling book Dear Boy), was just starting college when Amy was diagnosed, as you know. And so, she ended up taking off the time from school and really being my partner, taking care of Amy in those final months of in-home hospice.

And your two sons?

My middle son Miles was a senior in college, and it was important for Amy to convey to him that she really wanted him to finish school and not alter his life all that much, even though that was emotionally impossible. And he did, and he was incredible. He’d come home, of course, often. He still managed to graduate college on time, which was remarkable.

And then my older son, Justin, was living in L.A., working. And the physical toll of traveling back to Chicago almost every weekend on the Red-eye, staying less for 48 hours, and going back to work was pretty incredible. Also, from the moment that Amy was diagnosed, he called his mother every single day.

How are your children doing?

They’re doing well, thank you. Technically, two of them are residing in Manhattan, but they have been living in Chicago with me for the last couple of months during this quarantine time. They got out of Manhattan for a while. That’s been an unexpected joy for me. A gift that I feel very grateful for during this otherwise pretty horrific time. And my older son’s doing well, he lives in Los Angeles. It was not so easy for him to get home, and he just got a dog, so he is being a daddy to his new puppy, and he’s doing well.

[Children’s author Amy Rosenthal and author-husband Jason B. Rosenthal]

What was their reaction to your new book?

I allowed a few people to read it in advance. It was important for me to have the three of them read it and be comfortable with what I was saying about their mom and about them and they were extremely supportive. They really stepped up and were helpful to me with some subtle comments about the book, but also just in really encouraging me to continue to tell my story. They’ve seen me speak publicly a couple of times, as I have been doing for the past three years. I’m also grateful when they’re there, so they can sort of see, not just what I’m saying, but people’s really powerful reaction to it.

I assume you were planning a book tour before COVID-19 put this on hold.

Yes, this bookwas supposed to have a book tour indeed. Yes, April 21 was the publication date for my book, and I was looking forward to traveling around the country. But because, as I said, I’ve been doing a lot of public speaking for the past three years, really meeting people and having them share stories with me. Meeting them face-to-face is really, really meaningful. Because people have so much to share, and they don’t really hear people speak the way I speak a lot. So, I did miss out on that. But we all have to have perspective and so I quickly shifted and I am kind of getting used to this Zoom thing.

I know the future is unknown, but what do you hope the future looks like for you — more books and public speaking?

Well, the immediate future is still about the book. It’s weird, you put so much effort, heart, and soul, into the book, and then who knows what kind of long-tail life it will have? But I’m also working hard on the Foundation. We have an event scheduled in October, and we’re probably going to shift gears to make it a virtual event, so that’s taking some rethinking. Yeah, I assume that I’ll be back speaking at some point somewhere, but who knows how that’s going to work.

It was pretty clear from the beginning of your book that as much as Amy loved writing and creating, that being a lawyer wasn’t where your heart was. Is writing and public speaking and what you’re doing now more of your comfort zone?

Oh yes. Yeah. There’s just sort of no comparison between how I feel about the big picture, in terms of meaning and purpose, to what I had been doing as a lawyer. The days of really being rewarded by a law practice were gone some time ago. But yes, this feels extraordinarily meaningful and powerful. This feels like I’m doing something important in my life, both with our Foundation work and with the speaking and writing.

How’s the rest of your family doing?

Everyone’s good. This particular bit of time is rough. My mother-in-law and my mother are both living alone and it’s hard. It’s hard, we don’t get to see them. I did finally see my mom on Mother’s Day and I talk to her pretty much every day. But, overall, everyone’s doing pretty well I would say.

Without getting too personal how do you balance having this new person in your life that you love and not diminish Amy’s memory?

It’s definitely tricky for someone new. She is wonderful and open to talk about anything and everything. But like you said, I make it clear especially now that I’m being interviewed, that anyone who is going to end up being with me knows that Amy’s always going to be a big part of my life. There’s a place in my heart always where Amy’s just going to have to live, and that’s okay. If someone can’t adjust to that, then we’re not meant to be together.

But it’s certainly not an easy role. It’s a continuing challenge with the dynamics of the family. And I do write about it in the book because I just really wanted two things. I wanted to pay it forward, that gift that Amy gave me.

And just to say, “Hey, here’s my story. You have my permission to find happiness and joy again. It’s okay. It really is okay.” Because that’s a very difficult concept, as you well know, to embrace. Certainly, at the beginning, and definitely still to this day.

Why do you want everyone to read your book? You referenced the play Our Town, and I think that your book had that same feel to it; that we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone, which is why I felt so emotional while reading it.

Well, there are three main parts to my book that I feel are important. The first part is a really incredible love story. I’ve gotten some feedback that people are learning about what a meaningful relationship is like, by reading some of the things that I’ve included in the book.

The second thing is that I talk about some very tough stuff, which is what it’s like to be with someone you love, from diagnosis to the end of their life. I think that it’s very important information that people should know.

Then the final part of the book really is a message of hope, and of resilience that I think we all have tucked away in us, somehow, in some way. And I discovered mine. It was a surprise to me. Who knew how I would react? But I think that we all have that ability to stare down something awful and come out the other side being tough, but also resilient and hopeful!

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