He became one of America’s most famous widowers – now he’s trying to teach us about grief

Jason Rosenthal with his late wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Family photo

Jason Rosenthal enjoyed a splendid but quiet life. He was happy to have his wife, an acclaimed children’s book author, memoirist, filmmaker, public speaker and ebullient extrovert, settle in the spotlight.

“I was just doing my thing,” he says. “A kid from Chicago. If you googled me, you wouldn’t find anything.”

Then, on Valentine’s Day, Amy Krouse Rosenthal inked a love letter to him. This was three years ago.

“I have been married to the most extraordinary man for 26 years,” she wrote. “I was planning on another 26 years.”

That was not going to happen. Amy was in the final stage of ovarian cancer.

The letter was also a personal ad of sorts – “Did I mention he’s incredibly handsome?” – seeking Rosenthal’s second wife. “He is an easy man to fall in love with,” she wrote in the three-hanky piece, the final project of a woman of perpetual projects and lists. “I did it in one day.”

Her story ran as a New York Times Modern Love column, often real estate for romantic woe, under the drop-everything-and-read-this headline, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” The piece ends with “an intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.”

You may well have read it. More than five million people did.

Ten days later, on March 13, 2017, Amy died at age 51 after a year and a half of hell.

Suddenly, Rosenthal was “that husband,” as he puts it, an exemplar of grief. He became, arguably, the most famous widower in America.

He was Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle.” Except, it was his late beloved wife igniting his celebrity instead of a mop-topped son.

Rosenthal was enveloped in a fog of mourning with their three children, now ages 23, 25 and 27. Instead of being defined as a lawyer and real estate developer, he was now a go-to authority for grief and loss.

He delivered a TED talk which, naturally, resulted in requests for more talks. He published a response Modern Love column, which ran in June 2018. It began “I am that guy” beneath the headline “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” the title of Rosenthal’s new memoir. His book is being published this week, during the coronavirus pandemic, when the world is going through its own protracted season of grief.

The book is a 228-page love declaration to Amy. She continues to define everything.

After Amy’s death, Rosenthal became the subject of intense fascination. Hollywood producers came a courting.

Did women, too? Yes, indeedy.

For the first year, he hardly noticed. “I was insularly focused on my kids and my family, and so overwhelmed with grief, I didn’t appreciate and understand the attention,” says Rosenthal, 55. “It wasn’t until later, looking at all the objects and art and emails and letters that people sent me that I realized the world was grieving with me.” A friend dubbed it “a global shiva,” the Jewish period of mourning.

He had planned to share all this on a his book tour. Now, like almost everything else during the pandemic, it’s been scrapped. So, he’s on the phone from the dream home he built with Amy less than a mile from Wrigley Field. Two of their children have returned to live with him during self-quarantine.

Since his wife’s death, Rosenthal overhauled his daily life. He stepped away from real estate, reduced his legal practice, and established a foundation in Amy’s name, funding ovarian cancer research and children’s literacy. He sold Amy’s Modern Love story and her memoir “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life” to Hollywood, though the project is “sort of at a standstill. There’s no director attached.”

He allocated more time to enjoy what he loves: music, friends, travel, family. More was Amy’s first word as a child, and her mantra.

“I definitely feel a shift in my work life. My life has extraordinarily more meaning.” he says. “I was definitely a head-down, providing for my family type of husband, working six days a week.”

He experienced a multivehicle crack up of death: Amy, his father-in-law (they were incredibly close), his father (complicated), their black lab mix. He delivered three eulogies in less than two years.

Rosenthal hesitates when he speaks. Three years later, the renown his wife bequeathed him does not seem a natural fit.

So, about the women.

Rosenthal estimates 300 prospective suitors took Amy up on her proposal. For a while, he placed their correspondence in storage bins, tucked in a crawl space.

There were “seven-page handwritten letters, extolling their virtues, their great looks,” he recalls. “Someone who was good at fixing a car. There were bunches of these envelopes decorated with stickers, almost as if they were young girls.”

One woman proclaimed, “I will marry you when you’re ready, provided you permanently stop drinking,” she wrote. “Take your time. I promise to outlive you.”

Rosenthal enjoys a good tequila but not that much.

He waits until the memoir’s final chapter to share, yes, he met someone. “A hazel-eyed identical twin,” he notes, a curious way to describe a companion, and leaves the bio at that.

How long have they been dating? Rosenthal declines comment.

It’s “not relevant,” says the subject of a 1,323-word personal ad read by more than five million people. For crying out loud, consider the title of his memoir.

OK, fine.

Rosenthal does write, “my world changed” because of his new companion, that he felt apprehensive, judged in public being seen with someone new, because he was “that guy,” Amy’s guy. Then, he realized that “being happy again would actually be, in a way, a testament to the 30 beautiful years I’d had with Amy.”

He felt prepared for this surreal moment, he says, in a time of mounting grief.

“I have, in my view, been through the whole range of emotions,” he says. “I experienced the depths of the pure sadness and grieving, and I’m armed with that. I’m able to handle this situation.” Rosenthal adds, “I feel my story of loss is really relevant to what is happening now. But also in my story, there’s an end, a resilience.”

He will promote the book as best he can. “I do appreciate there may be another chapter. I don’t know what that blank space will be filled with,” he says.

“I’ve been given an amazing gift,” he says, adding, as though it could be from anyone else, “by Amy.”

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