Amy Krouse Rosenthal was a beloved Chicago author with a dream life: professional success, loving marriage, a supportive extended family and kids about to be grown. Then, out of nowhere, stomach pains, a trip to the ER, an ovarian cancer diagnosis and sudden decline. She chronicled those experiences in a viral New York Times “Modern Love” essay, “You Might Want to Marry My Husband,” a dating profile for her adoring husband, Jason, whom she would soon leave behind. So many people saw themselves in Amy: a woman in the prime of life, a mom and a spouse, betrayed by life’s cruel uncertainty.
They also saw themselves in Jason, who wrote a response piece, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” which was equally huge.
Rosenthal died in 2017. This year, her husband released a memoir of the same name about grief, marriage, parenthood and coping with emotions that men too often squelch. He talked to JewishBoston about the experience.
Let’s start with the process of writing a memoir about something that is deeply painful. I think it can happen to all of us: when we realize that our perfect life might not be so perfect. Did you always wonder in the back of your mind, “Could things ever go wrong?” What was it like reflecting and thinking then versus now? What was that process like for you?
It’s a good question. The process was a little bit slower. Right after Amy’s piece came out, which went so crazy viral, I was bombarded with journalists and press and things like that, which at the time was not interesting to me. I just wasn’t in a place where I could even begin to process any of my thoughts, and so I didn’t. But at the end of the year, I was asked to consider giving a TED Talk, which was more appealing to me because it meant I could control the story I wanted to tell in my own way.
That was really cathartic and the beginning of the process. And then when it was accepted, I began to really focus on that. Really working hard on being able to deliver it in a way that I wanted, and I knew it would be out there in perpetuity. And so that was my first foray into really speaking about these topics that were so difficult for me and for, as it turns out, many, many, many people.
Right, they’re not alone.
Many people were grateful to me for speaking out publicly about things they had thought about but not really heard spoken of in that way. That gave me the confidence to continue to explore my own journey and try to help other people, which, as it turns out, I was doing for the last three years or so by speaking publicly all over the world on these topics. And then I was able to write a response piece to Amy’s on Father’s Day of the following year. That’s when the publisher began to approach me about expanding it into a book.
For those unaware of your story, can you situate us a little bit? Were there any sort of precursors to thinking Amy might be sick, or was it really as sudden and as jarring as, “Oh my gosh, I’m having strange stomach pains, let’s go to the ER?” Were there any red flags you may have overlooked?
No. We belabored that a little bit, but no, not really. There wasn’t this incident or that incident. It was definitely that sudden, for sure. It was a total shock. A clean bill of health pretty much within the close proximity to when she got her diagnosis, so no, none of this was expected at all. It was a total out-of-left-field situation—at a time where, as you know, we were just about to be empty-nesters and start that whole new phase of our lives.
Did you feel scared or cheated? What happened for you after she got that diagnosis?
It’s a good question. I think that for me and for many of us who become the caregiver, that emotional aspect is put aside for a while. Because for me in particular, I just became hyper-focused on, “Alright, this is what we have to do. We’re going to go through all these steps, and we’re going to get through this.” And maybe that was a little bit of ignorance in hindsight, but really, our mission was to just take care of Amy and make her comfortable and do everything the doctors told us we were supposed to do.
That turned when we realized we had no more options and went into home hospice; that was a whole other story altogether, but yeah, sure, we were optimistic. But your question about male emotions is important to me, because I do spend some time speaking about that.
Talk to me about that. What was the process like?
I don’t think it was until later where I really just began to focus back a little bit on myself, not just emotionally, but physically, too. I was sort of a mess, and I didn’t even realize it. I hadn’t been eating much and didn’t feel strong. It’s hard for us as men to express our emotions, I think. We are raised, this may be a little cliché, but on ball fields and in the military and things like that, where it’s just sort of like, “Alright, guys. Suck it up and get through it.”
But I feel like we also have the same emotions that women do; we just don’t have the practice of expressing it. I think what I’ve done by writing this book and speaking is to permit guys to say, “You know what? This is awful, and it’s OK if I’m sad or if I’m crying or if I’m feeling really miserable.” And it’s OK to embrace that and to share that.
I think your story resonated for people because they saw themselves in you. And it could be me, it could be my husband, it could be my neighbor. Right? It could happen to any one of us. Did you feel betrayal, or envy of other families? What was the prevailing emotion?
I think mostly I was just enormously sad at the loss. At the time, I thought this was the only loss one could experience. How could anyone relate to what I was going through?
Here I was, with this frankly fantasy relationship that was real. We have this amazing relationship, and we have this incredible family, and we were so fortunate, and I felt so grateful about all of that—but all of it was just gone in a minute. And so, yeah, I felt horribly, horribly sad for the loss. I felt the loss that my children were going to experience with this amazing human being, their mother, and all these future milestones, and those were the things I was really emotional about. And the emotions you experience in the first six months or years, it’s just almost impossible to describe in a sense that you’re just so triggered by a thought, a song, a vision, and it’s almost beyond your control. It’s very, very overwhelming.
How is it now?
Now is a lot different and, I have to say, I’ve put in a lot of work. Not just through my own work in writing and thinking, but I’m for sure an advocate of therapy in any way, if it’s at all possible and people can afford it. That was very, very important to me. And it’s just something that happens with time. It’s true. People say that to me. They said that to me at the beginning, and I was like, “Yeah, well, maybe for you, but I’ll never get over this.” But it does happen. It happens. Life moves forward, and what took over was how grateful I am and how appreciative I am for all of those simple moments that Amy used to think about and write about and talk about, that we all just take for granted.
What happens once you’ve had such a wonderful marriage? Is it possible to contemplate wanting to enter a new relationship without the ghost of your previous spouse lingering?
A couple of things, I think. It’s a great question. I feel like I’ve said this publicly a lot, but once you have that special, special relationship, and then you don’t choose to end it, it’s just that’s out of your control. You didn’t fall out of love, you didn’t do all that stuff that sometimes happens when you go into a new relationship. It just means there’s a little space in your heart that will always be occupied by that person, and that’s OK. That’s totally fine. And anyone who chooses to be with you in the future needs to know that and embrace that. And it is hard. It’s hard for that future relationship, if there is one, most definitely. But it’s just a part of who that person is—a little bit of a broken heart that’s filled by someone else.
But that does not mean that one does not have the capacity, again, for love and to appreciate life. And that’s a lot to say, especially from someone like me, who never thought it was in any way possible. But again, here we are. We’re the ones left over. We’re left behind. And I’m not a young man, but I’m not old either, and I do hope that I have a decent amount of this life to live and to appreciate and hopefully to be in a relationship. I am, right now, in a meaningful relationship, and I feel so grateful for that.
How do you navigate that with your children? How do you introduce your children to somebody new?
It’s an important question, I think, and it’s impossibly difficult and challenging. And all you can do is navigate through it the best way you can. For me, I have adult children, and I think they trust my judgment and respect me and understand that if I choose to be with someone, it’s because that person is a very good person. But, sure, there’s all kinds of nuances that are extraordinarily difficult to describe. And even though I have a beautiful relationship with each one of my children, I don’t specifically know all the time what they’re thinking. And I have to keep in perspective, which I’ve been reminded of by them quite a few times, that I’m doing all of this in a public way. I’m going through my grief. I’m talking about my process. But, hey, they also lost their mom. I think it gets easier as time goes on, but it never really feels like it’s over or perfect or any of those things.
What’s been the most unexpectedly hard part of this for you? Is there anything that blindsided you that you didn’t expect to be challenging—anything that completely startled you or that caught you off-guard?
Well, it was a little bit more early in the process. I thought, “I’m going to go to our friend’s kid’s wedding. This is a celebration and I’m ready.” That really did blindside me in a way that I feel bad. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, or maybe, I don’t know, it just hit me in a way that was really sharp. I felt the love in the room, which was beautiful and all of that, but I started thinking about my own kids’ weddings and what we’re going to miss out on, and all of those things. It was just not a smart decision to go, but those kinds of things do blindside you in an unexpected way.
As a caregiver, when the immediate need, the acute need, the triage kind of moment is gone and you’re just left with this hole, how do you make it through those early days and weeks?
It’s super dark and hard, and I think my best advice is to embrace those feelings, that deep, tight grip of grief, which is going to get you for sure. Don’t think you’re going to escape it. Those early feelings are important to the process, and giving in to it is important. Someone very early on told me, “You’re going to feel moments of joy, I promise you, it’s going to come, I promise you.” And I was like, “Yeah, maybe someone else might, but not me.” And, much to my surprise, those things did start to happen, where I would find myself listening to an old song that I love so much and singing along or smiling, or an unexpected situation, laughing and not knowing what was going on. So, those moments will come, and they’ll be short and brief, and then maybe grief will come back, but that process of up and down is natural, and it’s OK.
What do you hope people get out of the book?
I think there’s three things. I spent a lot of time in the first part [of the book] talking about my relationship and raising kids with Amy and things like that, and a lot of people have resonated with that portion: What it is just to be a good partner and have a mutual marriage and have fun, so that was a bit of a surprise. So, maybe a little relationship advice. The second part is to just be really raw and honest about what it’s like to be with someone you love at the end of their life and what that’s really like—not just what people want to sugarcoat, but really some of the tough stuff, and to say that you’re not alone in that process. We have to prepare ourselves more in this country for death as much as we do about birth in many ways. It’s such a natural part of what we go through. And then the end is, I wanted to share a message of hope and resilience, and that all of us are going to experience loss, and some of it’s devastating and horrific, and we are capable of carrying that loss with us—but also finding some meaning in life and doing some really positive things. And I hope, and I think, that’s what I’ve done.
You were fortunate to have such a wonderful marriage. Do you have any relationship advice? What makes a good marriage?
I opened that door, didn’t I?
Yeah, you did!
A few things. Make time for yourself, always. Even in the chaos of whether you choose to raise children or not, or whatever it is, animals, pets, family, always remember who you started with, and to make time for yourself; it’s so important. And then to really honor each other and to give each other space, whether it’s professionally or personally, encourage your spouse to be successful and appreciate their successes in life. And also, if you have some differences in the way you want to use your life—for me, it was going to see music that Amy didn’t like—encourage that person to have a little bit of their own time. That’s really important. And I do list in my book the “List of Amy and Jason Rosenthal’s Marriage Goals and Ideas,” which we wrote on our honeymoon and which were interesting to look back on. So, there’s some other advice in there that people can read.