The melodious voice of Judi Merriam is well known in the Schenectady theater community – this singer and actress has performed on many stages over the years. Recently, Merriam has used her voice in a different way, writing a forthcoming memoir on grief.
The book, titled Empty Shoes by the Door and due for release Monday, follows Merriam’s life after her son Jenson committed suicide 11 years ago. In an open, conversational tone, she describes the grief and her struggles with her Christian faith and provides insight into how people can support those who are grieving. The book also contains funny and heartwarming anecdotes about Jenson’s life.
“He was definitely a creative,” Merriam said in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette. “He grew up to be the kindest, most loving kid. He was a writer and filmmaker. . . . He was loved by everyone and went to his own little artistic rhythm.”
Merriam and her husband Brian of Merriam Insurance Agency are longtime residents of Schenectady. There they raised their three children (Tyler, Jenson and Kalina) and homeschooled them through a local co-op, Schenectady LEAH. There, Judi Merriam used her singing skills and background in music education and theater to direct the music program and direct annual musicals, of which Jenson starred in a few. Jenson was also an avid reader and loved exploring used book stores. He enjoyed making animated films, especially comedies.
The family was surprised by Jenson’s suicide on December 23, 2011. He was 18 years old and preparing to go to college to study English and intended to study animation. As Merriam notes, neither Jenson’s doctor nor his family noticed any warning signs about his mental health beforehand.
Looking back, she credits honesty and the grace of God for getting through what followed.
“I somehow knew that I had to go into the dark as much as I did into the light, and that I would tell the truth about anything, no matter what it was,” Merriam said.
That included writing Jenson’s obituary.
“It was outrageous for me to say that he died ‘suddenly’, ‘tragically’ or ‘unexpectedly’. That’s almost always in an obituary when someone takes their own life. My heart’s desire was complete honesty and words that spoke the truth,” Merriam wrote.
Despite her funeral director‘s objections, Merriam refused to move, writing: ‘Jenson Merriam, 18, took his own life . . . at his home.”
In the years that followed, Merriam kept a journal of her experiences and socialized 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 very large group of moms that I meet with,” Merriam said.
Friends often suggested that she write a book about her experiences, and about five years ago she began taking memoir-writing classes and delving into the genre. Between theater productions and other community projects she’s been involved with, Merriam didn’t fully dive into writing until the pandemic hit.
“When COVID 2020 hit, everything I was involved with pretty much shut down. While everyone else was complaining about the lockdown, I was dancing,” Merriam said. “COVID forced me to just 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 and prepare the book for publication.
“I wrote a book to try to encourage, give hope and help people [those] dealing with people who are grieving,” Merriam said.
Each chapter is named after musical theater songs that reflect her love of acting, and they often begin with vignettes about Jenson’s life. She also added sections titled “Something to Consider,” in which she discusses what is and isn’t helpful when it comes to supporting suicide survivors.
As Merriam points out, many are not equipped to deal with grief and do not know how to help grieving friends.
“I honestly don’t blame anyone for their questionable behavior towards us in the months following the funeral,” Merriam writes. “There are no guidelines for how people should go through grief with others. Grief in and of itself is harsh, but suicidal grief separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to people’s personality tendencies to get dirty in the sober mess of life and death. It always amazed me who left, who stayed and who appeared out of nowhere.”
Throughout the book, Merriam ponders the nature of the loss. She writes over the note left by her son.
“I’ve worked hard to turn my grief from the inside out and I will most likely have to keep working at it for the rest of my life because grief, as it progresses, is like the ever-changing weather, where in a day it is.” dark and rainy and the next moment the skies can open up clear and beautiful,” writes Merriam.
Maria Riccio Bryce, a local composer/playwright and music director at St. Luke’s Church in Schenectady, has witnessed many 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 who are being called upon by fate and misfortune. . . to accept the unacceptable.”
Bryce and Merriam met through the local theater community while Bryce was producing Hearts of Fire in 1990, which starred Merriam and her husband.
“Judi has a stunning soprano voice. . . It’s like a voice that came down from heaven. It’s a beautiful voice, and she’s been a popular performer in all kinds of community theater productions for years,” said Bryce.
In writing “Empty Shoes by the Door,” Bryce believes Merriam has gifted audiences in a new way.
“Out of this unspeakable tragedy, through the beauty of her spirit . . . She created a testament that love is invincible,” said Bryce. “In a strange way she has done a service because in the book she shares her journey with us and we can learn from it. She had to accept the unacceptable and she did it incredibly well. Not only did she think of her own family, but also of others.”
The book’s release comes during Mental Health Awareness Month and at a time when mental health concerns are rising. According to the World Health Organization, mental health problems due to the pandemic are on the rise worldwide, particularly among young people who are at disproportionate risk of suicide and self-harm.
As “Empty Shoes by the Door” releases Monday, it’s already garnered interest online. It was pre-ordered on Amazon in its first week, Merriam said, making it #1 on a new releases list.
“The first week I just cried. Everyone was so helpful and kind and loving,” Merriam said.
That includes Merriam’s family. Tyler and Brian helped popularize the book, and Kalina even took the photo on the cover of the book that shows Jenson’s shoes sitting in the front room by the family’s front door.
“[Merriam has] proved very courageous and I hope that the book will find a wide readership because . . . I think the book would have a lot to offer to people who have lost not only children but also the extraordinary,” said Bryce.
The book will be available from Amazon and the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady. There will be a book signing with Merriam at Open Door on Saturday, June 11 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Visit opendoor-bookstore.com for more information.
If you are in a 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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