On December 23, 2011, Jenson Merriam ended his life. Ten years later, Empty Shoes by the Door is his mother’s, Judi Merriam, story of her life before and after Jenson’s suicide. In this work, she shares a candid glimpse into what it is like to not only lose one’s child but specifically to lose that child by suicide.
Vulnerable: One of the most compelling aspects of the book was Merriam’s transparent writing style. For example, she shares that while talking about Jenson to a pastor, she was told to “smile” not even eight months after the tragedy. This statement upset both her and her husband, Brian. While people might say, “Well, the pastor meant well,” Merriam was brutally honest with how his flippant comment made her feel.
In the midst of discussing her feelings and the events that took place, she also includes Bible verses to reveal her spiritual journey during this time. She discusses someone attempting to encourage her by saying that God “doesn’t give us more than we can bear.” She notes that this verse comes from 1 Corinthians 10:13, but people often misunderstand its meaning thinking God won’t give you hard times that you can’t handle. However, what it really means is that God won’t allow Satan to tempt you more than you can handle.
Creative: Another neat stylistic choice is how Merriam titles most of the chapters after musical theater numbers, including chapter one “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” which comes from the musical Footloose. As someone who loves theater, especially musicals, I thought this was a brilliant blending of art forms. At the end of the book, she lists all the chapter titles and tells what movie, musical, or song they came from.
Merriam also concludes each chapter with a section called “Something to Consider,” where she gives tips about how to be empathetic and understanding towards someone who is grieving. One piece of advice is it’s okay to give a grieving person a book or article to read concerning death and grief. However, she writes, “Please don’t ask the person if they’ve read the book you gave them” (164-165). Merriam explains that asking can make a grieving person feel uncomfortable because they may not have the answer the well-meaning friend wants to hear.
I liked this section because many of us do not know how to respond when someone is grieving and can often say or do the wrong thing. This book offered practical tips for how to handle tough situations and be caring towards someone who is grieving.
Guiltless: I also admire how Merriam handles the topic of suicide. Many people, especially in the church, consider suicide the “unpardonable sin”; however, she doesn’t treat her son Jenson as a horrible person for committing suicide. She states when discussing his funeral, “We wanted the pastors to assure those in attendance that we knew Jenson was in Heaven” (38). While she does not blame her son for committing suicide, she also does not paint him to be a perfect child either. I believe this is important for readers to understand because a person can be an incrediably strong believer and still commit sin, whether it be suicide, adultery, or lying. Losing hope for a few minutes can allow sin to creep into our lives, yet it does not take away our salvation. The Bible clearly states, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
I highly recommend Empty Shoes by the Door. It is emotional, educational, and a bit fun. It explors how to relate to a grieving person––especially one who lost a loved one to suicide. I believe this book is very inspirational because Merriam kept going after losing her son, and that is no small feat. I don’t fully understand; I am not a mother and have never lost a child. But I do know any kind of grieving is difficult, and we all grieve in our own way, in our own time. Merriam’s book allows people to do that without feeling guilty or ashamed of their big feelings.