More than 120 people take their own life every single day. But it’s something people still have trouble talking about. Dr. Jennifer Ashton’s ex-husband Rob committed suicide in 2017. Read below for our conversation about her new book Life After Suicide, and why she’s “no longer afraid of pain.”
Katie Couric: Like so many, you had feelings of guilt and self-blame after your ex-husband’s suicide. What did your brother say to you to help you realize that of course this wasn’t your fault?
Dr. Jennifer Ashton: He really helped to teach me that I couldn’t let this huge tragedy completely destroy me, and I couldn’t continue blaming myself. He said, “Jen, you’re a doctor, I’m a doctor, Rob was a doctor. He would have done this married to you or not married to you. Divorce doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide.” Suicide is an irrational act, by definition.
You not only had to deal with the loss of your ex-husband, but you also had to help your kids as they faced the loss of their father. Talk about that experience.
My kids are so wise and they’re so strong. Especially in those first twenty-four hours, and in every moment since then, I have been laser-focused on holding it together and taking care of them, rather than adding to the nightmare they were going through. I didn’t want them to feel like they had to take care of me on top of that, and I was so scared of them seeing me fall completely apart. So I knew, especially after talking to my brother, that I couldn’t let Rob’s suicide destroy me; I was the only parent my children had left. “You can’t let this destroy you” became my mantra. My kids were my sole reason for putting one foot in front of the other, and I knew that my number-one priority had to be supporting them in this unimaginably tough time. I knew I needed to be strong for myself, yes, but mostly for them.
And it was your kids who convinced you to share your story and write this book. What did they say to you?
Alex and Chloe kept saying, “You’ve got to speak up about our experience and help all these people who don’t have a voice. Sharing our story can help a lot of people who are going through the same thing.” After I spoke publicly following Kate Spade’s suicide, the response was massive. People said that they finally felt heard. As a doctor, I am much more comfortable giving help than asking for it. So that, in combination with my children’s urging, convinced me to share our story.
You’ve said that you worried about speaking publicly “about how imperfect [and] vulnerable” you felt after Rob’s death. Why was this such a fundamental fear of yours?
I realized that in order to heal, I had to address just how weak, flawed, vulnerable and imperfect I felt, following Rob’s suicide. I felt that I had gone my entire life trying to achieve every goal I had set for myself, in an attempt to be perfect—not for the sake of public optics, but for my own optics. Starting to share our story, I realized that the only way to do it was to start from scratch, and face everything head on. If I didn’t do this, wouldn’t I be participating in, maybe even condoning, the same stigma that Alex and Chloe and I found so offensive and unfair? I would read statistics about how the suicide rate is rising, how it’s the second leading cause of death in the world for young people aged fifteen to twenty-four. I would think of the hundreds of people who reached out to me after my GMA appearance, when I finally stopped hiding and spoke up as a fellow suicide survivor to the huge heartbreaking, heartbroken community.
The book includes the stories of others who have experienced suicide in their lives. What have you learned from these fellow survivors?
I’ve learned so much from them. Like Jane [mother of Tyler Clementi who took his life after being bullied online], for example, I’m in awe that she found the strength not only to just keep living, but also to do something productive and proactive, and something that honors Tyler’s memory. She’s helping others which likely helped her heal and recover (as much as healing and recovering are possible after losing a child). I learned about the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth, from TAPS Vice President, and suicide survivor, Kim Ruocco. This reflects the potential to have an enriched appreciation for life, deepened relationships with others, and a new passion for being that can follow trauma. My children and I all feel that we are experiencing it.
You’ve done so much work in healing yourself and your family after this unimaginable tragedy. What would you most like people to know who are dealing with the sudden loss of a loved one from suicide?
Please take it from us—you’re not alone. We know what you’re going through, because we have gone through it and are still going through it. We know you’re going to make it out of the darkness, because we’ve been on that journey too. My mantra has become, ‘if you want to heal, you have to feel.’ I am no longer afraid of pain. As the saying goes, pain in life is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. Many of us are still finding our way. But in the end, we’re all in this together. Together we can help one another heal.
*If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.