Joan Gaustad reads from \"Someone’s Missing . . . and I think It’s Me\"
Joan Gaustad reads from "Someone’s Missing . . . and I think It’s Me" at a book launch event hosted by VCU Libraries on Wednesday. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

‘Life with loss’: Artist and alum Joan Gaustad discusses her new book at VCU Libraries launch event

“Someone’s Missing … and I Think It’s Me,” chronicles the loss of Gaustad’s husband — School of the Arts professor Jerry Donato — and his struggles with early-onset dementia.

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After Joan Gaustad lost her husband, Gerald “Jerry” Donato, following 37 years of marriage and eight years since his diagnosis of early-onset dementia, the Richmond artist and Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts alum wanted her “suffering to count for something.”

“I thought, ‘I’ve learned a lot,’” Gaustad said. “‘I have this to offer.’”

Gaustad decided to set out to write the book she couldn’t find while she was dealing with her grief, a book that would make her feel less alone.

That book, “Someone’s Missing … and I Think It’s Me,” published by VCU Publishing, combines memoir, art and advice, and chronicles their marriage and the challenges of navigating Donato’s illness. VCU Libraries hosted a launch event for the book Wednesday featuring Gaustad in conversation with her longtime friend and first reader, Sara Monroe, M.D., a VCU emeritus professor of infectious disease.

At the event, Gaustad described how, after Donato (an accomplished painter who taught at the School of the Arts) died in 2010, she would often take walks and find herself remembering stories about their life together. When she got home, she would jot them down, sometimes including little cartoons, and started thinking that maybe it one day would become a book.

She gathered a few of these anecdotes into a submission for the New York Times’ Modern Love column. She read from the submission, which appears early in the book, at the launch event.

“… Once, while out walking our little pound poodle, Jerry stopped suddenly with an expression of intense sorrow as he looked at a dying dogwood tree,” she read. “The empathy was so pure. I asked my dear friend Sharon, ‘Why is it that I think the confusion and violence are the illness, but the compassion is the real Jerry?’ ‘Because it’s true,’ she said. And it was.”

Modern Love rejected the submission, perhaps, Gaustad speculated, because of its graphic, brutally honest descriptions of Donato’s illness.

“When I sent the Modern Love piece in, and it was rejected, I thought, ‘Oh right, well, I’m a painter, whatever.’ And [I] just sort of put it aside,” she said. “But it kept pulling me back.”

She would pin stories of their life together on the wall of her studio. Corresponding images and art would come to mind. A friend came by at some point and saw the “mess,” and told her she should pursue the book.

“I kept going sort of back and forth,” she said. “Finally I was knocked back a bit physically and it was a little hard to paint. So I thought, you know, this would just be a good time to really give a shot. I’m going to take the summer and just really see what I can do. And at the end of the summer, I’ll see if I feel like I have something. And so I did.”

Sara Monroe, left, and Joan Gaustad, right, speak at an event.
Sara Monroe, M.D., a VCU emeritus professor of infectious disease, interviewed Gaustad (right) about the book and its themes at the book launch event. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

The book is available for free digital download from VCU Scholars Compass. Hardcover physical copies are available at Chop Suey Books, and proceeds go toward scholarships for VCU sculpture and painting undergraduate students.

The book is also the subject of an immersive, interactive installation currently on display at The Anderson gallery, featuring works by Donato and Gaustad. A public reception will be held at the gallery Friday, Sept. 10, from 6 to 9 p.m.

As “Someone’s Missing … and I Think It’s Me,” came together, Gaustad said, she shared an early version with her repeat Uber driver, Trevino, who lost his wife to breast cancer around the same time Gaustad lost Donato. His feedback, she said, gave her motivation.

“When he picked me up the next time he said, ‘I’m not giving that book back,’” she said. “He said, ‘If I’d seen that book on the Barnes & Noble health shelf, I would have gotten it because it makes me feel less alone. Even my children didn’t understand.’ So I wrote that down and I put it on my studio wall and every time I’d think, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ [It would make me think] ‘No, you’re doing this. This is what you wanted for yourself. This is what someone else found useful.’”

Monroe asked Gaustad if there was any advice she wishes she’d received while dealing with Donato’s illness and death, and described how she thought Gaustad was “extraordinarily hard” on herself during that time.

“You were constantly saying, ‘I need to do more. I need to do more.’ As though you felt like you could fix him, as if there was just one more thing, one more vitamin, one more change in diet. That there was something that you should do,” Monroe said. “You were so hard on yourself.”

Gaustad agreed, saying that her advice for those who have lost a loved one is: “Don’t do what I did.” She did not go to a grief group, she said, she stopped going to counseling and she found herself second-guessing every decision.

“I just thought ‘I’ve had enough grief. I just want to live,’” she said. “I have this little thing … that I found in my studio where I’ve written in very pale pink, ‘There is no beyond, only loss.’ It’s in the show. I just put it there and you can hardly see it. But sort of everything in the show is just as I found it. And I still feel like that. I think there’s life with loss. You don’t get beyond it. There’s life with loss.”