Judi Merriam’s euphonious voice is well known in the Schenectady theater community – this vocalist and actress has performed on many a stage over the years. Recently, Merriam has been using her voice in another way, she wrote a forthcoming memoir focused on grief.
Titled “Empty Shoes by the Door” and planned for release Monday, the book follows Merriam’s life after the suicide of her son, Jenson, 11 years ago. In an open, 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,” said Merriam in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette. “He became the kindest, most loving child. He was a writer and a filmmaker. . . . He was very much loved by everybody and walked to his own little artistic beat.”
Merriam and her husband, Brian, of the Merriam Insurance Agency, are longtime Schenectady residents. They raised their three children (Tyler, Jenson and Kalina) there and home-schooled them through a local co-op, Schenectady L.E.A.H. There, Judi Merriam used her skills as a vocalist, and her background in music education and theater, to lead the music program and direct annual musicals, some of which Jenson acted in. Jenson was also an avid reader and loved to explore used bookstores. He enjoyed creating animated films, particularly comedies.
The family was blindsided by Jenson’s suicide on Dec. 23, 2011. He was 18, getting ready to enter college to study English and had plans to go on to study animation. 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 the grace of God for getting through what followed.
“I somehow 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,” Merriam said.
That included writing Jenson’s obituary.
“It was egregious to me to say he died ‘suddenly,’ ‘tragically’ or ‘unexpectedly.’ That’s what’s almost always stated in an obituary when someone takes their own life. My heart’s desire was for complete honesty and words that spoke the truth,” Merriam wrote.
Though their funeral director objected, Merriam refused to budge and wrote “Jenson Merriam, 18, took his own life . . . at his home.”
In the ensuing years Merriam kept a journal about her experiences and connected with other mothers who lost a child to suicide.
“Whenever I find out that somebody’s lost a child to suicide I reach out to them. So I have a very large group of moms I meet with,” 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 the genre. Between theater productions and other community endeavors she was involved in, Merriam didn’t dive wholeheartedly into writing it until the pandemic started.
“When COVID hit in 2020, everything that I was involved in pretty much shut down. So while everyone else was complaining about lockdown, I was doing a dance,” Merriam said. “COVID forced me to be able to just stay home.”
After finishing 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 are dealing with people who are grieving,” Merriam said.
Each chapter is named for musical theater songs, tying in her love of acting, and they often open with vignettes about Jenson’s life. She also included sections called “Something to Consider,” in which she discusses what’s helpful and what’s not when it comes to supporting suicide survivors.
As Merriam details, many aren’t equipped to grapple with grief and don’t know how to help friends who are grieving.
“I honestly don’t blame anyone for their questionable behavior toward us in the ensuing months after the memorial service,” Merriam writes. “There are no instruction manuals for how people should walk with others through grief. Grief in and of itself is hard, but suicide grief separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to people’s personality propensities for getting down and dirty in the nitty-gritty mess of life and death. It has always surprised me who walked away, who stayed and who showed up out of nowhere.”
Throughout the book Merriam ruminates on the nature of loss. She writes about the note her son left behind.
“I’ve worked hard to impel my grief from the inside to the outside, and I will most likely have to keep working at it for the rest of my life, for grief, as it progresses, is like the ever changeable weather, where one day it’s dark and rainy and the very next moment the sky can open up clear and beautiful,” Merriam writes.
Maria Riccio Bryce, a local composer/playwright and the music director at 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 could happen to anybody,” Bryce said. “[I’ve seen] mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers being asked by a stroke of fate, bad luck . . . to accept the unacceptable.”
Bryce and Merriam met through the local theater community when Bryce was producing “Hearts of Fire” in 1990, in which Merriam and her husband performed.
“Judi’s got a stupendous soprano voice . . . It’s like a voice that came from the heavens. It’s a beautiful voice, and she was a favorite performer in all kinds of community theater productions for years,” Bryce said.
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’s created a testimonial to the fact that love is invincible,” Bryce said. “In some strange way, she’s performed a service because she shares with us in the book her journey and we can learn from it. She’s had to accept the unacceptable and she’s done it beyond beautifully. She’s done it not just thinking of her own family but of others.”
The book’s release comes during Mental Health Awareness month and at a time when mental health concerns are on the rise. According to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions are increasing around the globe because of the pandemic, especially among young people, who are disproportionately at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviors.
While “Empty Shoes by the Door” will be released Monday, it’s already generated interest online. The first week it went up for pre-order on Amazon, Merriam said, it made it to the No. 1 spot on a new-releases list.
“The first week I just cried. Everybody’s been so supportive and kind and loving,” Merriam said.
That includes Merriam’s family. Tyler and Brian have helped in getting the word out about the book, and Kalina even took the photo featured on the cover of the book, depicting Jenson’s shoes, which remain in the vestibule by the family’s front door.
“[Merriam has] shown herself to be very courageous and I hope the book gets a huge readership because . . . I think the book would have a lot to offer to people who have lost not just children but lost the exceptional,” Bryce said.
The book will be available on Amazon and at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady. There will be a book signing with Merriam at Open Door on Saturday, June 11, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. For 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.