Judi Merriam’s euphonious voice is well known in the Schenectady theater community – this singer and actress has performed on many stages over the years. Recently, Merriam used her voice in another way, she wrote a forthcoming memoir focusing on grief.
Titled ‘Empty Shoes by the Door’ and due out on Monday, the book follows Merriam’s life after the suicide of her son, Jenson, 11 years ago. In an open and conversational tone, she describes grief and her struggles with her Christian faith, and provides insight into how people can support those who are grieving. The book also includes anecdotes about Jenson’s life that are both funny and heartwarming.
“He was definitely a creative,” Merriam said in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette. “He became the sweetest, most loving kid. He was a writer and a filmmaker. . . . He was very much loved by everyone and walked to his own little artistic beat.
Merriam and her husband, Brian, of the Merriam Insurance Agency, are longtime residents of Schenectady. They raised their three children (Tyler, Jenson and Kalina) there and homeschooled them at a local co-op, Schenectady LEAH There, Judi Merriam used her singing skills and background in music education and theater to lead the program straight-forward annual music and musicals, including some in which Jenson starred. Jenson was also an avid reader and enjoyed exploring second-hand bookstores. He enjoyed creating animated films, especially comedies.
The family was left blindsided by Jenson’s suicide on December 23, 2011. He was 18, preparing to enter college to study English, and intended to pursue an animation degree. As Merriam notes, neither Jenson’s doctor nor his family noticed any red flags about his mental health beforehand.
Looking back, she credits honesty and God’s grace for getting through what followed.
“I kind of knew that I was going to have to go into the darkness as much as I needed to go into the light, and that I was going to tell the truth about everything, no matter what it was,” said Merriam.
This included writing Jenson’s obituary.
“It was blatant for me to say that he died ‘suddenly’, ‘tragically’ or ‘unexpectedly’. This is what is almost always indicated in an obituary when someone commits suicide. The desire to my heart was complete honesty and words that spoke the truth,” Merriam wrote.
Although their funeral director objected, Merriam refused to budge and wrote: “Jenson Merriam, 18, committed suicide. . . at his home.”
Over the years that followed, Merriam kept a journal of her experiences and bonded with other mothers who had lost a child to suicide.
“Whenever I hear that someone has lost a child to suicide, I reach out to them. So I have a really big group of moms that I meet,” Merriam said.
Friends often suggested she write a book about her experiences, and about five years ago she began taking memoir writing classes and studying gender. Between theater productions and other community endeavors she was involved in, Merriam didn’t wholeheartedly immerse herself in writing until the pandemic began.
“When COVID hit in 2020, everything I was involved in pretty much came to a standstill. So while everyone was complaining about the lockdown, I was doing a dance,” Merriam said. “COVID forced me to be able to stay at home.”
After completing the first draft in the summer of 2020, she worked with local author and memoir coach Marion Roach Smith to edit the book and prepare it for publication.
“I wrote a book to try to encourage people and give them hope, and to help [those] who deal with bereaved people,” Merriam said.
Each chapter is named after musical theater songs, related to his love of acting, and they often open with vignettes about Jenson’s life. She also included sections titled “Something to Consider,” in which she discusses what is helpful and what isn’t when it comes to supporting suicide survivors.
As Merriam details, many are not equipped to deal with grief and don’t know how to help grieving friends.
“Honestly, I don’t blame anyone for their questionable behavior towards us in the months following the memorial service,” Merriam wrote. “There are no instruction manuals on how people should walk with others through grief. Grief itself is difficult, but suicidal grief separates the wheat from the chaff when it it’s about people’s propensity to get dirty in the mess of life and death. It’s always surprised me who left, who stayed, and who appeared out of nowhere.
Throughout the book, Merriam ruminates on the nature of the loss. She writes about the note left by her son.
“I’ve worked hard to push my grief from the inside out, and I’ll probably have to keep working at it for the rest of my life, because grief, as it progresses, is like time forever. changeable, where one day it is dark and rainy and the next moment the sky may open up clear and beautiful,” Merriam writes.
Maria Riccio Bryce, local composer/playwright and musical director of St. Luke’s Church in Schenectady, has seen her fair share of funerals and tragedies.
“What happened to Judi is in my opinion the worst thing that can happen to anyone,” Bryce said. “[I’ve seen] mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers being solicited by a twist of fate, bad luck. . . accept the unacceptable.
Bryce and Merriam met through the local theater community when Bryce produced “Hearts of Fire” in 1990, in which Merriam and her husband performed.
“Judi has a prodigious soprano voice. . . It’s like a voice from heaven. She’s a beautiful voice, and she’s been a favorite performer in all kinds of community theater productions for years,” Bryce said.
In writing “Empty Shoes by the Door,” Bryce believes Merriam gave audiences a new way.
“Of this indescribable tragedy, through the beauty of his spirit. . . she created a testament to the fact that love is invincible,” Bryce said. “In a strange way, she has done a service because she shares her journey with us in the book and we can learn from it. She had to accept the unacceptable and she did it beautifully. She did this not only with her own family in mind, but with others.
The release of the book comes during Mental Health Awareness Month and at a time when mental health issues are on the rise. According to the World Health Organization, mental health problems are increasing worldwide due to the pandemic, especially among young people, who are disproportionately exposed to suicidal and self-harming behaviors.
While “Empty Shoes by the Door” will be released on Monday, it has already garnered interest online. The first week it was pre-ordered on Amazon, Merriam said, it hit No. 1 on a new releases list.
“The first week I just cried. Everyone was so supportive and kind and loving,” Merriam said.
This includes Merriam’s family. Tyler and Brian helped publicize the book, and Kalina even took the picture on the book’s cover of Jenson’s shoes, which remain in the hallway near the family’s front door.
“[Merriam has] was very brave and I hope the book will get a huge readership because . . . I think the book would have a lot to offer people who not only lost children, but lost the exceptional,” Bryce said.
The book will be available on Amazon and at Schenectady’s Open Door Bookstore. There will be a book signing with Merriam at Open Door on Saturday, June 11 from 1-2:30 p.m. For more information, visit opendoor-bookstore.com.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
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