Jason Rosenthal: What Does the Loss Of A Loved One Teach Us About Life?

Sep 7, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 10:05 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Dying Well.

About Jason Rosenthal's TED Talk

Before Jason's wife Amy died, she wrote a heartbreaking farewell essay: "You May Want To Marry My Husband." Jason Rosenthal remembers Amy's life — and the lessons he learned from her death.

About Jason Rosenthal

Jason Rosenthal is a lawyer and the executive director of the Amy Krouse Rosenthal Foundation, a nonprofit that funds ovarian cancer research and childhood literacy initiatives. Rosenthal founded the nonprofit in 2017 after his wife, a children's book author, died of ovarian cancer. His TED talk is his response and tribute to the essay his wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, wrote in the Modern Love column of the New York Times, called "You May Want to Marry My Husband."

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

So how did you and Amy meet?

JASON ROSENTHAL: We met on a blind date. And my third year of law school, my father-in-law's best friend, uncle John, he told me that Amy was moving back to town, and I should give her a call.

RAZ: And was it like - did you click right away?

ROSENTHAL: Amy's version is that she fell in love with me when she opened the door and that I fell in love with her a year later, so...


ROSENTHAL: But yeah, we definitely clicked for sure.

RAZ: This is Jason Rosenthal. He's a lawyer in Chicago.

ROSENTHAL: I mostly do personal injury litigation, represent the little guy against the big guy.

RAZ: But many of you might know Jason because of something else. He's the husband of children's book author Amy Krouse Rosenthal. And in March of 2017, Amy wrote an essay for The New York Times' Modern Love section that, ultimately, went viral. The essay was called "You May Want To Marry My Husband."


DEBRA WINGER: (Reading) I've been trying to write this for a while, but the morphine and lack of juicy cheeseburgers - what has it been now, five weeks without real food? - have drained my energy and interfered with whatever prose prowess remains.

RAZ: This is actually the voice of actress Debra Winger. She's reading from Amy's essay, and it was featured on the Modern Love podcast.


WINGER: (Reading) Still, I have to stick with it because I'm facing a deadline - in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this and say it right while I have A, your attention and B, a pulse.


RAZ: Amy wrote this piece while she was battling cancer. The column is a witty, touching and heartbreaking play on a personal ad for her husband, who she knew she would leave behind.


WINGER: (Reading) First, the basics. He's 5'10", 160 pounds with salt and pepper hair and hazel eyes. The following list of attributes is in no particular order because...


RAZ: Just 10 days after this essay was published, Amy passed away.

ROSENTHAL: I was aware that she had one final project that she wanted to do. And I watched her write this piece as she sat across from me on the couch, working away, taking little micronaps, working away, you know, and repeating that process. And it wasn't until she was completely done with it that she asked me to read it, that I knew what it was.

RAZ: And what did you think when you read it?

ROSENTHAL: I was blown away, first and foremost, at the writing and her ability to combine what she always did - her whimsy and her humor and how incredibly intelligent she was - into this type of piece. And I gave her my full blessing, a guy not knowing or having any clue whatsoever about what it would become.

RAZ: Amy's husband, Jason Rosenthal, picks up the story from the TED stage.


ROSENTHAL: 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 5 million people. While it was certainly about our life together, the focus of the piece was me.

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 were in love. And our love grew stronger up until her last day. And my story of grief is only unique in the sense of it being rather public. However, the grieving process itself is not my story alone. Amy gave me permission to move forward, and I'm so grateful for that. 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.

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. 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.


RAZ: You - in your talk, you specifically describe death as a - it's a taboo topic, especially in the West. Like, we just don't - we don't like to talk about it. It scares us. But you wanted to be really explicit in your descriptions about what dying is. Can you tell me about why you wanted to do that?

ROSENTHAL: Yeah. I just felt like, you know - well, when I first started to think about really being that explicit, I sort of just warned my family that, you know, this is going to get a little bit raw. And I wanted everyone to understand that. But the reason I did it is because I knew that I could not be alone in having these feelings and living with these images that I do live with, even up to now, and that I wanted to take some of that stigma, that taboo out of it and encourage people to access that and to talk about it because it shouldn't be something that we're so very afraid of. If we're ready, I think, if we know what to expect a little bit, I'm hopeful that it won't be as difficult.


RAZ: So is there a way we can talk about dying without fear and make plans for the inevitable while we still have the time? Can there be beauty even in death? Well, today on the show, we're going to explore those ideas and what it means to prepare for the end of our own life and the lives of those we love, which is, ultimately, what Amy's essay was trying to do for Jason Rosenthal, trying to prepare him for her death by giving him the space to move on.

It's an incredibly beautiful, warm and also very funny column. For the 1.1 percent of people who don't know it who might be listening, she says, hey, you know, there's this great guy. He's available. (Laughter) Was that just, like, Amy's way of doing things? Was that just her style?

ROSENTHAL: Oh, man. I don't know. I think, you know, for the most part, that was her way of expressing her love for me. But at the time, I didn't think, oh, wow. You know, I'm going to find someone to love because Amy said I should. But as time has gone by, I just can't explain to you enough how liberating the idea of her giving me that blessing and also, you know, the deeper conversations that we've had has helped me.


WINGER: (Reading) I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at The Green Mill jazz club on Thursday nights, 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 ahead as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.


ROSENTHAL: 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 are 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'm doing my best to embrace this concept as I move forward with grieving.


RAZ: Do you sort of feel like you hit milestones every, you know - every few months or every few weeks - that something changes in a way that you kind of feel and you - I don't know, just visceral?

ROSENTHAL: Yeah. I would say yes. But there's also literal milestones that happen that are incredibly emotional. And you just don't know how you're going to get through them. You know, one of the first ones was that my son graduated college. And he had been doing his best to keep up with his studies while Amy was sick, and he sure did that. And he graduated, and there we were. You know, that was tough.

My anniversary - the date of my anniversary, for whatever reason, was much, much more difficult than, you know, Amy's birthday or other occasions. So I think we travel through those spots along the way. But there's always - I think, maybe because of Amy, who she was, there's always something that reminds me of us together in our life. And I don't think that's ever going to change.


RAZ: That's Jason Rosenthal. His late wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, wrote an essay called "You May Want To Marry My Husband." You can hear Jason's full talk at ted.com. And you can hear more from Amy's essay on The New York Times and WBUR podcast Modern Love. On the show today, ideas about death, dying and saying goodbye. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.