On February 11, 2017, Jennifer Ashton, M.D., now ABC’s chief medical correspondent and health editor, learned that her ex-husband, Rob Ashton, M.D., also a New York City doctor and the father of her two teenage children, had died by suicide. In the wake of Rob’s death, Dr. Ashton had a decision to make: disintegrate into a ball of anger and grief or step into the light of hope and love.
In her new book, Life After Suicide, Dr. Ashton talks about the highs and lows of the past two years, including the friends she lost and found, her deepening admiration for her children, and the ways in which survivors of suicide should band together. Here, in an interview with Woman’s Day, she offers new thoughts on going forward for anyone touched by loss.
When talking to someone who has lost a loved one, be mindful of the power of your words.
What I appreciated most, especially during the first weeks and months after Rob’s death, were the friends who didn’t just say, “Do you need anything?” That’s such a difficult question to answer when you can hardly think straight. Instead, they said, “Do you want to go to dinner next week?” It was a specific question, and they made it easier for me to say yes.
It also helps to be reminded by those in your inner circle that you’re not to blame for the suicide. The first thing my brother said to me when he came to my apartment on the day Rob died was “Jen, it’s not your fault.” I knew that rationally, but emotionally it has been hard for me to get there. People who have gone through trauma need help with logistics in the short term. Carole, the administrator of my practice and my Rock of Gibraltar, went with me to make cremation arrangements. I could never have done it by myself or put my children through taking me. Carole didn’t say, “Would you like me to go with you?” She said, “I will take you.” Other friends helped clean out Rob’s apartment and adopted his dogs.
On the other side of the coin, I didn’t appreciate when people asked, “What happened?” To me, that implied that they wanted to know how Rob had taken his life. It felt really voyeuristic. Other people asked if there had been any signs. I felt like they were saying, “Oh, you missed it. You could have saved him.”
And finally, there were those who felt compelled to tell me about their own experience with the death of a loved one that wasn’t a suicide. If it’s not a suicide, it’s not the same. It’s like apples and oranges.
The second year after a suicide can be harder than the first.
The first two weeks after Rob’s death were a blur. At first, it was pure shock. I wasn’t sleeping or eating. I felt like I was moving through cement. Gradually, I started feeling better. I went back to my medical practice after two weeks and back to ABC after six weeks. It was important for me to return to a routine. I called it a therapeutic distraction.
When the second year rolled around, I began to see that there were a lot of things I’d swept under the rug during the first year. I would cry easily and feel very sad at random times. A little bit of anger at Rob crept in. I was struggling with self-blame. I felt unsure of many decisions. One thing that helped was a discussion with my therapist about “multiple truths.” That means that you can feel opposite ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time without one of those feelings negating the validity of the other. You can be experiencing the worst, most gut-wrenching grief and still laugh or feel something positive or even fall in love, and it doesn’t diminish the depth and sincerity of your grief. As my therapist emphasized, it’s not choosing grief or laughter, it’s accepting and not judging the fact that grief and laughter can and do coexist.
Remember that you’re the parent.
As a doctor, I was aware that when children go through severe trauma, they shouldn’t see their parents completely disintegrate because subconsciously, that tells them they have no one to take care of them.
Chloe was 17 and Alex was 18 at the time, but my sole concern, especially those first two weeks, was to show them a strong mother who was not falling apart in front of them. Even now, more than two years later, I don’t use them as my sounding board about my feelings and struggles. I have other people — my friends, my brother, my therapist, my boyfriend—who fill that role for me. It’s not my kids’ job to take care of me. It’s vice versa, regardless of their age.
It’s important to talk about what happened, to help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.
A rabbi I talked to for the book told me that if someone in a faith-based community has cancer, everyone jumps in to help out, but if someone says they’re depressed, people whisper about it. As a society, we have to stop that. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know a single person who had died by suicide. Now a study estimates that 135 people are affected by each suicide, which means that even if you haven’t been directly touched by one, someone close to you might have been. We have to open the lines of communication. That’s why, as a doctor, I ask patients about their mental health, and that’s why I wrote this book. It’s less about prevention and more about what to do if someone around you dies this way.
Find a way to honor the person who died.
Everyone who shared their story with me has found their own way to cherish the spirit of the person they lost. To take a tragedy like suicide and turn it into a celebration of life is the biggest demonstration of love that they could show.
When Rob and I talked about our final wishes, he was very adamant that he did not want a funeral. He wanted to be cremated, and for me to use whatever amount we would have spent on a funeral to take the kids on a trip someplace where our family had happy memories. He was always crystal clear on this issue. So in March 2017 the kids and I packed our bags for Jamaica, where we had spent several family vacations. Nothing we do will bring him back, but I’d like to think we came home holding a little less grief and a little more peace.
Talking to Teens About Suicide:
Dr. Ashton navigated her ex-husband’s death with her then teenage children, Alex and Chloe. “Suicide brings on a unique, complicated form of grief,” she says. here, Joanne l. Harpel, president of Coping After Suicide, an international authority on suicide bereavement, offers ways to help teens cope.
- Clarify the Cause: Let teens know that suicide is almost always the result of a complex mix of factors rather than a single event such as a breakup or bullying. It can be related to a sometimes undiagnosed mental disorder such as depression.
- Allow Curiosity: Young people may want to focus on the graphic details. acknowledge the method of death, then shift the focus to how the suicide has affected them.
- Give Them Space: Don’t push teens to talk. Let them know you’re available and that you’ll check in periodically.
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