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TED2018

Jason B. Rosenthal: The journey through loss and grief

Filmed:
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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.

- Advocate, artist
When Jason B. Rosenthal's wife died, he says: "as clichéd as it sounds, I started working on living each day as it comes, to get through the complexities of life." Full bio

There are three words
that explain why I am here.
00:13
They are "Amy Krouse Rosenthal."
00:17
At the end of Amy's life,
00:23
hyped up on morphine and home in hospice,
00:24
the "New York Times"
published an article she wrote
00:28
for the "Modern Love" column
on March 3, 2017.
00:30
It was read worldwide
by over five million people.
00:35
The piece was unbearably sad,
00:39
ironically funny
00:42
and brutally honest.
00:44
While it was certainly
about our life together,
00:47
the focus of the piece was me.
00:49
It was called, "You May
Want to Marry My Husband."
00:53
It was a creative play
on a personal ad for me.
00:56
Amy quite literally left
an empty space for me to fill
01:00
with another love story.
01:04
Amy was my wife for half my life.
01:07
She was my partner in raising
three wonderful, now grown children,
01:10
and really, she was my girl, you know?
01:15
We had so much in common.
01:17
We loved the same art,
01:20
the same documentaries, the same music.
01:21
Music was a huge part
of our life together.
01:24
And we shared the same values.
01:27
We were in love,
01:30
and our love grew stronger
up until her last day.
01:31
Amy was a prolific author.
01:37
In addition to two groundbreaking memoirs,
01:39
she published over 30 children's books.
01:41
Posthumously, the book she wrote
with our daughter Paris,
01:45
called "Dear Girl,"
01:47
reached the number one position
on the "New York Times" bestseller list.
01:49
She was a self-described tiny filmmaker.
01:54
She was 5'1" and her films
were not that long.
01:57
(Laughter)
02:00
Her films exemplified her natural ability
to gather people together.
02:01
She was also a terrific public speaker,
02:07
talking with children
and adults of all ages
02:09
all over the world.
02:12
Now, my story of grief is only unique
in the sense of it being rather public.
02:15
However, the grieving process itself
was not my story alone.
02:19
Amy gave me permission to move forward,
and I'm so grateful for that.
02:25
Now, just a little over a year
into my new life,
02:30
I've learned a few things.
02:33
I'm here to share with you
part of the process of moving forward
02:35
through and with grief.
02:38
But before I do that,
I think it would be important
02:42
to talk a little bit
about the end of life,
02:44
because it forms how I have been
emotionally since then.
02:46
Death is such a taboo subject, right?
02:50
Amy ate her last meal on January 9, 2017.
02:54
She somehow lived an additional two months
02:58
without solid food.
03:01
Her doctors told us
we could do hospice at home
03:03
or in the hospital.
03:07
They did not tell us that Amy
would shrink to half her body weight,
03:09
that she would never lay
with her husband again,
03:13
and that walking upstairs to our bedroom
would soon feel like running a marathon.
03:16
Home hospice does have an aura of being
a beautiful environment to die in.
03:22
How great that you don't have
the sounds of machines beeping
03:27
and going on and off all the time,
03:30
no disruptions for mandatory
drug administration,
03:33
home with your family to die.
03:37
We did our best to make those weeks
as meaningful as we could.
03:42
We talked often about death.
03:46
Everybody knows it's going
to happen to them, like, for sure,
03:48
but being able to talk openly
about it was liberating.
03:52
We talked about subjects like parenting.
03:57
I asked Amy how I could be the best parent
possible to our children in her absence.
04:00
In those conversations,
she gave me confidence
04:06
by stressing what a great relationship
I had with each one of them,
04:08
and that I can do it.
04:12
I know there will be many times
04:15
where I wish she and I
can make decisions together.
04:17
We were always so in sync.
04:20
May I be so audacious as to suggest
04:24
that you have these conversations now,
04:26
when healthy.
04:30
Please don't wait.
04:32
As part of our hospice experience,
we organized groups of visitors.
04:36
How brave of Amy to receive them,
even as she began her physical decline.
04:40
We had a Krouse night,
04:45
her parents and three siblings.
04:47
Friends and family were next.
04:49
Each told beautiful stories
of Amy and of us.
04:51
Amy made an immense impact
on her loyal friends.
04:55
But home hospice is not so beautiful
for the surviving family members.
05:00
I want to get a little personal here
and tell you that to this date,
05:05
I have memories of those
final weeks that haunt me.
05:09
I remember walking backwards
to the bathroom,
05:14
assisting Amy with each step.
05:18
I felt so strong.
05:21
I'm not such a big guy,
05:23
but my arms looked and felt so healthy
compared to Amy's frail body.
05:25
And that body failed in our house.
05:31
On March 13 of last year,
05:36
my wife died of ovarian cancer in our bed.
05:40
I carried her lifeless body
05:46
down our stairs,
05:50
through our dining room
05:53
and our living room
05:56
to a waiting gurney
05:58
to have her body cremated.
06:01
I will never get that image
out of my head.
06:04
If you know someone who has been
through the hospice experience,
06:07
acknowledge that.
06:10
Just say you heard this guy Jason
06:11
talk about how tough it must be
to have those memories
06:13
and that you're there
if they ever want to talk about it.
06:15
They may not want to talk,
06:18
but it's nice to connect with someone
living each day with those lasting images.
06:20
I know this sounds unbelievable,
but I've never been asked that question.
06:27
Amy's essay caused me
to experience grief in a public way.
06:32
Many of the readers who reached out to me
wrote beautiful words of reflection.
06:37
The scope of Amy's impact
was deeper and richer
06:41
than even us and her family knew.
06:44
Some of the responses I received helped me
with the intense grieving process
06:48
because of their humor,
06:52
like this email I received
from a woman reader
06:54
who read the article, declaring,
06:56
"I will marry you when you are ready --
07:00
(Laughter)
07:02
"provided you permanently stop drinking.
07:03
No other conditions.
07:07
I promise to outlive you.
07:09
Thank you very much."
07:11
Now, I do like a good tequila,
but that really is not my issue.
07:14
Yet how could I say no to that proposal?
07:19
(Laughter)
07:21
I laughed through the tears when I read
this note from a family friend:
07:23
"I remember Shabbat dinners at your home
07:28
and Amy teaching me
how to make cornbread croutons.
07:30
Only Amy could find
creativity in croutons."
07:34
(Laughter)
07:38
On July 27, just a few months
after Amy's death,
07:42
my dad died of complications
07:46
related to a decades-long battle
with Parkinson's disease.
07:47
I had to wonder: How much
can the human condition handle?
07:52
What makes us capable
of dealing with this intense loss
07:56
and yet carry on?
07:59
Was this a test?
08:02
Why my family and my amazing children?
08:04
Looking for answers, I regret to say,
is a lifelong mission,
08:08
but the key to my being able to persevere
08:12
is Amy's expressed and very public edict
08:16
that I must go on.
08:20
Throughout this year,
I have done just that.
08:23
I have attempted to step out
and seek the joy and the beauty
08:26
that I know this life
is capable of providing.
08:30
But here's the reality:
08:36
those family gatherings,
08:38
attending weddings
and events honoring Amy,
08:40
as loving as they are,
08:42
have all been very difficult to endure.
08:44
People say I'm amazing.
08:48
"How do you handle yourself
that way during those times?"
08:49
They say, "You do it with such grace."
08:52
Well, guess what?
08:56
I really am sad a lot of the time.
08:58
I often feel like I'm kind of a mess,
09:02
and I know these feelings
apply to other surviving spouses,
09:05
children, parents
09:09
and other family members.
09:12
In Japanese Zen, there is a term "Shoji,"
09:16
which translates as "birth death."
09:18
There is no separation
between life and death
09:21
other than a thin line
that connects the two.
09:24
Birth, or the joyous,
wonderful, vital parts of life,
09:28
and death, those things
we want to get rid of,
09:32
are said to be faced equally.
09:35
In this new life that I find myself in,
09:38
I am doing my best to embrace this concept
as I move forward with grieving.
09:40
In the early months
following Amy's death, though,
09:47
I was sure that the feeling of despair
would be ever-present,
09:50
that it would be all-consuming.
09:53
Soon I was fortunate
to receive some promising advice.
09:56
Many members of the losing-a-spouse club
10:01
reached out to me.
10:03
One friend in particular who had also
lost her life partner kept repeating,
10:05
"Jason, you will find joy."
10:10
I didn't even know
what she was talking about.
10:14
How was that possible?
10:16
But because Amy gave me
very public permission
10:19
to also find happiness,
10:22
I now have experienced joy
from time to time.
10:25
There it was, dancing the night away
at an LCD Soundsystem concert,
10:29
traveling with my brother and best friend
or with a college buddy on a boys' trip
10:35
to meet a group of great guys
I never met before.
10:39
From observing that my deck had sun
beating down on it on a cold day,
10:42
stepping out in it, laying there,
10:47
the warmth consuming my body.
10:50
The joy comes from my three
stunning children.
10:54
There was my son Justin,
11:00
texting me a picture of himself
with an older gentleman
11:02
with a massive, strong forearm
and the caption, "I just met Popeye,"
11:05
with a huge grin on his face.
11:10
(Laughter)
11:11
There was his brother Miles,
walking to the train
11:13
for his first day of work
after graduating college,
11:15
who stopped and looked
back at me and asked,
11:19
"What am I forgetting?"
11:21
I assured him right away,
"You are 100 percent ready. You got this."
11:23
And my daughter Paris,
11:28
walking together
through Battersea Park in London,
11:29
the leaves piled high,
11:32
the sun glistening in the early morning
on our way to yoga.
11:34
I would add that beauty
is also there to discover,
11:40
and I mean beauty of the wabi-sabi variety
11:44
but beauty nonetheless.
11:46
On the one hand, when I see something
in this category, I want to say,
11:49
"Amy, did you see that? Did you hear that?
11:52
It's too beautiful
for you not to share with me."
11:54
On the other hand,
12:00
I now experience these moments
12:02
in an entirely new way.
12:04
There was the beauty I found in music,
12:08
like the moment in the newest
Manchester Orchestra album,
12:11
when the song "The Alien"
12:14
seamlessly transitions
into "The Sunshine,"
12:16
or the haunting beauty
of Luke Sital-Singh's "Killing Me,"
12:19
whose chorus reads,
12:24
"And it's killing me
that you're not here with me.
12:26
I'm living happily,
but I'm feeling guilty."
12:30
There is beauty in the simple moments
that life has to offer,
12:35
a way of seeing that world
that was so much a part of Amy's DNA,
12:40
like on my morning commute,
12:44
looking at the sun
reflecting off of Lake Michigan,
12:46
or stopping and truly seeing
how the light shines
12:49
at different times of the day
12:53
in the house we built together;
12:55
even after a Chicago storm,
noticing the fresh buildup of snow
12:59
throughout the neighborhood;
13:03
or peeking into my daughter's room
13:05
as she's practicing the bass guitar.
13:08
Listen, I want to make it clear
that I'm a very fortunate person.
13:13
I have the most amazing family
that loves and supports me.
13:18
I have the resources for personal growth
during my time of grief.
13:22
But whether it's a divorce,
13:27
losing a job you worked so hard at
13:30
or having a family member die suddenly
13:33
or of a slow-moving and painful death,
13:35
I would like to offer you
13:38
what I was given:
13:40
a blank of sheet of paper.
13:43
What will you do
with your intentional empty space,
13:47
with your fresh start?
13:51
Thank you.
13:55
(Applause)
13:57

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About the speaker:

Jason B. Rosenthal - Advocate, artist
When Jason B. Rosenthal's wife died, he says: "as clichéd as it sounds, I started working on living each day as it comes, to get through the complexities of life."

Why you should listen

Jason B. Rosenthal writes: "I have practiced law and developed real estate in Chicago for half of my life. But that is only what I did 9 to 5. What made me better at my profession -- and as a human being getting through each day -- was realizing my thirst for learning and doing. I practiced yoga intensely; I traveled the world with my wife and my family; I learned to paint and made a home studio; and I developed a passion for cooking. I would not have called myself the most passionate student when I was in school, but in my adult life I have read with a thirst for knowledge -- everything from the most meaty fiction, fascinating nonfiction and magazines. My family is what makes me who I am today.

"I was married to the most amazing woman for half of my life. We raised three incredible children in Chicago, a culturally vibrant and livable city with people of good midwestern values. When my bride died of ovarian cancer after 26 years of marriage, I got in touch with real pain. I immediately reevaluated my life's work. I had talked for years about whether my chosen career path gave me real fulfillment. I am now the executive director of a nonprofit organization created in Amy's name, the Amy Krouse Rosenthal Foundation. I am fueled by its mission to provide programs that encourage child literacy and funding for early detection of ovarian cancer. My future is a blank space waiting to be filled."

More profile about the speaker
Jason B. Rosenthal | Speaker | TED.com