On the afternoon of December 23, 2011, Judi Merriam‘s eighteen-year-old son, Jenson, took his life ~ an act that blindsided everyone who knew him ~ changing her life and those of her family forever. The suicide of a loved one is devastating for those left behind and brings deep despair and seemingly endless grief. Judi was forced to confront profound feelings of loss and guilt and a future so very different from what she thought it would be. In her honest and soul-searching memoir, Empty Shoes by The Door, Judi reflects with grace and courage on the experience of living life after an unfathomable loss.

 Life is so very different from what I thought it would be. It’s fragile and amazing and terrifying and broken and glorious and devastating all at the same time, and it can change in a matter of seconds. A breath can continue a life, or a breath can end a life. Sometimes the ending of a life or the continuing of a life comes down to a choice that should not be ours to make.

On the afternoon of December 23, 2011, the sweetest, kindest, most loving, endlessly creative, intelligent, thoughtful, and polite young man I’ve ever known, died by suicide and robbed my world of one of my most precious treasures. He’s my son, Jenson; my second born, blue-eyed, smiling eighteen-year-old. My life hasn’t been the same since he left this earth, and it will never be the same again while I’m still here. 

This is my story of Jenson, his life, his death, and how I’ve survived without his physical presence throughout my days since he died. I write this so I’ll never forget who he was and who I am because of him.  I write so others will understand who and what I lost on that day Jenson chose to end his life. I write because he wrote, and it seems a fitting way to tell my chosen details of the intriguing, complex, brilliant and fine young man he was and what my survival has looked like. Jenson was a master weaver of stories and loved the written word in a most passionate way. Stories were the cornerstone of his creativity, whether in written form or in film.

This isn’t my husband Brian’s story, or my daughter Kalina’s story, or my oldest son Tyler’s story; it’s mine, and I’m telling it the way I think it should be told. More than anything, though, I want you to know that because I take so much time to speak of only one of my dear children, this by no means lessens the great love and admiration I have for my other two, or my husband. I am, most frequently, their biggest champion when challenging those who would challenge them. I would willingly lay down my life for any one of these dear ones in the nucleus of my present soul-cluster of four. They are my treasures, my heartbeats, my DNA of love and commitment. If you ever get to meet my amazing family, it will be a good day for you. 

 I often wonder if I’m too dark or negative in what I’ve written, but I can’t answer that question. Sometimes I’m dark; sometimes I’m light; sometimes I’m both at the same time because of the gamut of sensations that go hand in hand while walking through grief and mourning on a daily basis for several years. After tragedy stakes a claim in our lives, grief runs in waxes and wanes like the moon’s monthly journey across the sky. I am whatever I am as I speak the truth of my memory’s moments throughout these pages. I imagine it’s the same for any of you who may be reeling in the aftermath of whatever has brought grief to your hearts and minds. 

I may come across as a woman of negativity, but be patient as you read, for without darkness, there wouldn’t be light when the sun rises and morning arrives. Charles Finney tells us not to doubt in the darkness what we know in the light. When truth is spoken, darkness loses its power. We have to move through the darkness in order to inhale relief when the light comes. And when the light comes, we gain a perspective we couldn’t see when all was black before our eyes.

I don’t hate the darkness, but when it’s all there is, my eyes endlessly flutter here and there to find a pinpoint of light – a star, the moon, a glow on the opposite shore, an illuminated window – anything I can fix my eyes on so as to nurture the hope all is not totally black. Total blackness suffocates the life in my soul, but that pinpoint of light on the horizon tells me darkness is not all there is.

If you want a happy ending according to the world’s standards, this isn’t the story to read. Although pain and grief aren’t all consuming the way they once were, my family and I continue to walk with them, and I anticipate we will for the rest of our days on this side of heaven. I suppose it would make everyone feel better if I could say “and we all lived happily ever after,” but life isn’t a fairytale, and I refuse to be delusional or live my days in denial.

We can’t escape reality no matter how hard we try; it always catches up with us and finds our heart’s hiding places. If we don’t accept truth early on, grief redefines itself into even greater darkness and devastation. Fairytales aren’t true no matter how many times we cross our fingers or wish upon a star.

I believe truth is typically the best course, so I follow Brene’ Brown’s advice and “rumble” with it regularly not wanting deception to claim victory. I’m convinced the only healthy way to deal with the factuality of a suicide is to meet it face to face from the heart wrenching moment it happens and not redefine it into something more acceptable. We also need to personally dictate how we’ll deal with it so as to avoid any delusion that would capture our thoughts and change it into something it isn’t. It’s impossible to dress up a suicide death and be truthful about it at the same time! Some try, but I don’t believe them. 

I desire the truth of my own brokenness and survival shine a light on your personal path of grief if you need a pinpoint upon which to fix your eyes and gain encouragement. And I hope this glimpse of one of my fine children allows you a small understanding of what this world lost the day Jenson died, as in the words of Charles Dickens, “And can it be, in a world so full and busy, the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up?”

© 2022 by Judi Merriam

About the author: Judi Merriam loves her roles as wife, mother, singer, actor, director, speaker, and writer. When these vocations allow her free time, she can be found hiking, swimming, sewing, reading, or watching British murder mysteries. Her most favorite people on earth are her husband, Brian, and her two living children, Tyler and Kalina. Judi makes her home in the historic Mohawk River Valley located between her beloved Adirondack Mountains and New York City. She sings and speaks for various churches and community organizations throughout Upstate New York and has played an extensive number of leading roles, as well as directed, for musical theater companies across the same area. Judi is continuously grateful for the sustaining grace of God as she walks through the messiness of life in this broken world. It is her heart’s desire to shine a light of hope into the lives of those who grieve, especially parents who have lost children to suicide. Visit Judi at her website, on Facebook and via email at  [email protected].

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