Zibby Owens: I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason B. Rosenthal who is an author, foundation board chair, public speaker, and lawyer. He is also the subject of an essay written by his wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, called “You May Want to Marry My Husband” that went viral and was read by millions of readers worldwide. It was in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. His first book, written in collaboration with his daughter Paris, is called Dear Boy. It debuted on the New York Times best seller list as a number one. His response to Amy’s piece was titled “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me.” It was published in the Modern Love column in 2018. That was the inspiration for this book. Amy died of ovarian cancer just ten days after her article appeared in the Modern Love column. When she passed away after twenty-six years of marriage, Jason had to confront his pain and reevaluate his life’s work. Now he speaks publicly and writes about issues related to processing grief and finding hope and joy amongst the pain. His website says his future is a blank space waiting to be filled. Please listen to this love story of Jason’s and his wife Amy’s.

Welcome, Jason. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jason B. Rosenthal: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I was so excited when your book arrived, I have to say. I knew it would be heartbreaking in a way. Also, it was one of those books where I was like, I’m pushing everything else to the side so I can read this one immediately. It’s the colors, the image, the story, the whole thing. It didn’t disappoint, so thank you for that.

Jason: You’re welcome. Thanks for saying that. I really do appreciate that. Thank you.

Zibby: Your story with your — what do I say? Former wife? I don’t want to say former wife. It sounds like you’re divorced. What do you say?

Jason: It’s tricky. You can say wife. That’s totally acceptable.

Zibby: Amy’s article in The New York Times, let’s start with that.

Jason: That’s perfect.

Zibby: Basically, put you on the market for every woman out there after she was going to pass away, was her gift in a way to you, and one of many. You depicted her generous spirit and just how amazing a woman she was so well in this memoir. That propelled you into a position of visibility that perhaps you hadn’t anticipated afterwards. Now of course, it’s resulted in this book and all the rest. I just was hoping to hear from you, and you were so open and wonderful in the book, so thank you on behalf of everybody reading it for being so open and helping so many people by sharing your experience, but tell me about how you took this experience and turned all of it into a book. That’s a big question.

Jason: That’s a big one.

Zibby: We could just talk about that. That’ll be your only question.

Jason: Okay, that sounds good. I knew Amy wanted to finish this one last project that she was writing as she was terminally ill. It was a physical struggle for her to even get through that last final piece. I did not know what it was about until after it was done. My daughter apparently knew, which I didn’t know until recently, by the way. Then of course I gave her my blessing to have it published. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with it. I never anticipated in a million years the incredible viral nature of it and the response that I got on behalf of the family and to me personally and on behalf of my kids. It was just really, really remarkable. At the same time, it was at a period, of course, when we were super focused on Amy and her final days. It was very confusing, I guess is the right way to put it. On the one hand, there was that celebratory nature of what an incredible tribute to Amy to have this piece published and so widely accepted and praised, but we were focused on her final days of life. It wasn’t until much, much later, and I mean months, that I was really able to appreciate the tremendous outpouring of love and support that I got as a result of this piece being so viral. I started to get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more, thousands of letters, emails and physical letters and trinkets and pieces of art and medical advice and all kinds of things that I sort of put to the side until I was in a better position to really appreciate them.

Zibby: Then you wrote a rebuttal piece, basically, a while later. Tell me about that.

Jason: It was actually in between that. I was asked to give a TED talk. That was in April of 2018. That really gave me the courage to continue to speak about my experience. I immediately, and I mean literally right after I got done with that talk, was inundated with people responding to me in a such a positive way for speaking candidly about a love story and about loss and about the end of life because people sort of don’t talk about those topics considering it taboo. Then yes, in June, Father’s Day of that same year, I wrote a response Modern Love column to Amy’s piece that is of course the same title as my memoir. It gave me that public space to have a publisher come to me and ask me to write the book.

Zibby: So that’s why you did it?

Jason: Yeah. I did it because between those two things, between writing the book and my TED talk, I continued to speak literally all over the world about these topics and was so rewarded with all the responses and the people who spoke to me about really intimate things going on in their lives and wanting to connect with me on the topic of loss. I knew that I had something to say.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. And you did. I actually wouldn’t even say this was a memoir about loss. This was a lot about your relationship. I know you put it in different sections and you didn’t structure it as such. The last section was kind of your empty space to play with that. It was so much just about a marriage. Not that it’s as taboo, necessarily, as talking about end of life, but a lot of people don’t talk about the ins and outs of their marriage to begin with. It’s something considered so private. You can chit-chat about it, but then there’s a lot you don’t talk about. Here, you talk about a lot of it. What was it like going back and revisiting it and trying to put it down on the page? Painful? Rewarding? What did it feel like?

Jason: What I realized in writing this book was that repeatedly, people wanted to know who were these two people that were the subject of this story? The incredible thing that we had together throughout the course of our marriage was this really, really fantastic relationship. I felt like that was important to talk about. It was certainly the foundation for who these people were. It was very rewarding. What I did in starting to figure out how to structure the book was I almost treated it like a journalist would treat a nonfiction piece even though it was about my own life. I went back down into the basement, into the crawl space, and pulled out all of these things that families keep throughout the course of raising children and stuff, everything from the silly artwork in junior kindergarten to letters that we exchanged at anniversaries and things like that. One of the things I found that people are really being drawn to is this list that I found which is called Amy and Jason Rosenthal’s Marriage Goals and Ideas. It became a thread throughout the book with my editor’s help. That document, even though we weren’t so conscious of it, was something that we really did live by even though it was written on our honeymoon.

Zibby: I did nothing productive on my honeymoon. Now I’ve had two because I’m remarried. I should’ve done a list. Maybe I would’ve had one.

Jason: I don’t know about that. I got a slice of what it was like to live with a writer, Amy in particular who was quite a list-maker. Like I said, that really was sort of a blueprint for our lives, but subconsciously in a way.

Zibby: I couldn’t believe when I read that. So many of the things, you really did act on. It’s impressive. I was like, I should be recording my kids’ voices. I should be doing all these things too. Oh, my gosh, is it too late? A lot of these aren’t even about — obviously, they’re about relationships, but they’re also just parenting or life in general or things you can do at any stage, not necessarily with your partner, but anyway, still.

Jason: That’s true.

Zibby: I loved how you put so many little bits and pieces of multimedia, essentially, inside the book, little art and newspaper excerpts and the phone number where you wrote her number the first time. I can’t believe you still have that. That’s so sweet. It’s almost like reading your journal, your scrapbook. It’s just such a lovely tribute.

Jason: Thank you so much. I was a pretty private person before all of this. If you were to google Jason B. Rosenthal before all this happened, you wouldn’t find anything, really, maybe my office address downtown, but that was about it. I took a leap here in opening up my life in a way that it had already been widely opened up by Amy and had the spotlight sort of focused on me. I really felt it was important.

Zibby: I know you talked about in your book how the people you work with in your law career were very understanding and would do anything and would pitch in and everything for you, but do you feel like now that all of the interior monologues and personal life and your life being out there has affected your other professional life? Did everything kind of meld, or have you always been the type of person who’s really open at work about everything?

Jason: No, for sure no, definitely not. Yes, it opened me up in a big way. One of the fallouts of this whole transition in my life has been my professional career. I’ve really focused much more on other things than practicing law. That’s what I talk about, like you alluded to, in the third part of the book.

Zibby: I wouldn’t say it was a fallout. You’re not a professional failure now. You’ve pivoted a bit, right? I don’t know.

Jason: Excellent way to put it. Of course not, no. Yes, it was a 180 that I think I was really open to and probably looking for for a longer period of time than I realized. I talk a little bit about my angst and my anxiety in the book about my professional life for a long time.

Zibby: Even where there was a stretch of time where you were going to have to commute to Florida and you were talking about how there was obviously a financial cost to that decision and you just decided, there’s no price I’d rather pay. This is it. I feel like it was this level of clarity, perhaps, that a trauma like this, a loss of someone who you loved so much can open up.

Jason: That’s a great way to put it. That’s really true.

Zibby: You wrote also so heartbreakingly about even just the immediate aftermath of losing Amy. Can I read this first paragraph, if that’s okay? It’s from chapter eleven, Empty, Not Nest. Also, listeners should know it was the day you should’ve been empty nesters, that the diagnosis essentially began and you went in a different direction. “You hear about it. You read about it. You see movies about it. You anticipate it over and over and over again trying to brace yourself, but it turns out that nothing you do prepares you for the intensity of the emotional explosion that slams into you when your loved one takes her final breath. It was more complicated than I’d expected. I knew I’d be decimated. I knew I’d be lonely, vulnerable, empty, and grief stricken. I knew I’d be indescribably sad. Turns out that is pretty much accurate and then some.” Aw.

Jason: That’s really true.

Zibby: When you’re talking now to other people who’ve experienced loss, what are some of the things that you think they are finding most helpful? What are you giving them that they so desperately need? What are they getting from what you’re sharing, do you think? What do they keep telling you?

Jason: I thought I would relate to other people who are spouses who’ve been in a long-term marriage who lost their partners. As it turns out, really just speaking openly about loss, which in my case was that example, has made other people relate to me whether the issues are everything from losing a long family pet to losing a job or going through a divorce or hitting rock bottom, all these different forms of loss, which I didn’t know would be something that people would relate to through my story. That’s really what it’s been. It’s been people just needing, I would say is the word, to share a little bit about their loss. Because I’m open and I talk about it, they are comfortable talking about it with me. Part of my message is that it’s most likely that any room that you’re in, if you do open up a little bit about your own loss, someone is going to have a shared story of loss. It’s not only about end of life. It’s about all those things I just mentioned. As hard as it is to begin talking that way, I think that you will find just a deeper connection with people by being open and talking about it.

Zibby: I went through a period of time in my own life about twenty years ago where I lost five people who were all very close to me within a year. I feel like since that time I have this extrasensory ability to pick out who’s sustained loss. I feel it or something. I am always, not eager to talk about it, that sounds weird, but just open and ready to talk about it because I feel like so many people are very uncomfortable and they don’t know how. You gave examples in your book of the guy friend who walked right by you on the street. You gave some good examples of how people can actually help. I do feel like until you’ve had a loss, you don’t really know what to do. I do feel like once you’re in this unfortunate club that most people at some point are going to be a member of, it just opens up another level of interaction between people.

Jason: I’m really so sorry that you had to go through that. As you can tell, I sort of had that same pileup, if you will, over two years.

Zibby: I’m sorry you had to go through that. I should’ve started this whole thing by saying how sorry I am for your loss and everything. I’m truly, truly sorry, and your dad and your dog. I don’t mean to laugh. It was just so much that you had to shoulder all at the same time. So when you were writing this book, it sounds like you had help from your editor which is so useful. I feel like having to produce a project like that, like anything, most writers need the little — any sort of help is great. Tell me about what the process was like for you. Did you have a place you went? Did you structure your time? Did you have daily writing goals? How did you do it?

Jason: It was super intimidating, of course, not just because I’d never done it before in that exact way. I wrote a book with my daughter called Dear Boy that was a picture book, a lot less words. Also, I’d lived with this incredible, incredible writer who was so prolific. A lot of that was very, very intimidating, and then of course the personal nature of all of it and opening up and all of those things. Then I had a really short window of time to get this done. It did become my full-time job. I would post up here at my house and spend hours writing or I would purposely go out to a coffee shop and put some headphones on and write. Sometimes I would even get lost in my office and close the door and just really hunker down and work there. It was really more of finding large chunks of time to set aside to write. It wasn’t a specific routine every day.

Zibby: How involved were your kids? I know in the end you included this beautiful piece from your son after you became — well, I won’t say anything more. Did they read it? How did they feel about it? Did you share it with them as you went? How did they feel about the idea of you writing it to begin with?

Jason: That’s a good question. No, I did not share it as I went along. When I was done, it was important for me to get their clearance, if you will, just to make sure that I was not saying anything that they would be uncomfortable with or perhaps not talking about someone enough or whatever it was. I wanted them to be okay with the words contained in this book, first of all. They gave me some good feedback, definitely. That was it to the extent that they were involved.

Zibby: You did a really nice job too. Obviously, I don’t know your kids, so I can’t say it’s an accurate job, but you certainly created them as characters in this book very vividly. I feel like I want to take Paris out to coffee or something now after you wrote about it.

Jason: She’s definitely someone who would be fun to do that with. She’s quite incredible.

Zibby: Having written this book and now putting a new piece of yourself out there, what would you like to come next? Do you want to keep speaking? What’s your goal? Do you want to, at some point, say, I don’t want to talk about this anymore? What has been the most fulfilling for you? What do you want to do going forward?

Jason: That’s a good question. Whenever normalcy will resume, we don’t know. It’s been such a strange time to have all of this happen for me and for the world, not just selfishly for me, but it’s been a difficult time to have a book released, and a book of such a personal nature. I don’t really know. That proverbial blank space is still with me and something I’d like to fill. I would like to continue talking about these topics. I think they’re really important. I’ve met so many people and learned so much by delving into these issues. In terms of the next professional phase of my life, I really just don’t know yet. I’m not sure.

Zibby: I think you should have a podcast. Do you have one and I didn’t know about it or anything?

Jason: I don’t. No, I don’t.

Zibby: You should do that next, if you want.

Jason: Sounds great.

Zibby: I think you’d be really good at it.

Jason: Oh, thank you.

Zibby: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work Claire Bidwell Smith. She wrote a really fantastic memoir called The Rules of Inheritance and then a couple other books on grief. She’s a grief counselor now. Anyway, I just realized she has a podcast that’s called “Sunday Mourning,” M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G. I think that conversations like these and the way you’re able to relate to people — not that you’re looking for something to do or that you need my advice, but I like to give everybody advice unsolicited, which is a flaw of my own. That’s my two cents.

Jason: Well, stay tuned. Who knows? We’ll see. Thank you for that, though.

Zibby: I’m sure you have the world at your feet. Looking back, is there anything that you wish you had done differently or that you would tell people who are maybe not appreciating their spouse enough in the current moment to pay attention to or anything like that?

Jason: What I did learn, unfortunately from losing Amy and my partner in life, was that, as cliché as it sounds, we’re born and we know for sure we’re going to die. We don’t know when that ending’s going to come. I think my best advice would be to really try as best you can to appreciate the small moments in life and appreciate that this may not go on for so long. Whether that’s by changing what you do professionally or meditating or reading more or whatever it is, bring something into your life that’s going to give you meaning. You will be a better partner along the way by doing that.

Zibby: Do you have advice for aspiring authors having gotten this book into the world?

Jason: I think the biggest thing is to write and to have a disciplined practice of writing. My circumstances were certainly a little bit different. I think spending some time every day writing is what’s most important and getting that muscle into shape. There’s so many ways that you can express yourself now, whether it is in a book or if it’s on a blog or online or in an essay. That would be my best advice, is just to do it.

Zibby: Did you get any sort of a writing bug after this? Do you still write? Are you like, that was great, but now I finished that so I’m done?

Jason: You know, I’ve written a few pieces. I’ve just done them for myself. Maybe they’ll get placed somewhere. Maybe they won’t. This environment is so unique, like we’ve just touched upon. If you don’t fit into a little niche, you may not get published right now. I think maybe I have, yeah.

Zibby: I have an online magazine if you want to submit, seriously, if you’re looking. I know it’s not The New York Times.

Jason: Sounds great. Good. We will stay in touch, for sure.

Zibby: Thank you so much for all of your time and for sharing your story and for being so open. I feel like it’s kind of rare for men to be this open, honestly. It’s so appreciated, as you can tell by the reception of it. I’m truly sorry that you had to go through this loss. Yet I’m happy for you that you had such an amazing marriage. That’s a real gift, not that it makes it any better. Thank you for sharing all your experiences.

Jason: Absolutely. Thanks for your feedback on the book and for having me today. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: My pleasure. Thank you. Bye.

Jason: Bye.