Dr. Jennifer Ashton on 'Life After Suicide': ‘The recovery for me was definitely in stages'

ABC News' chief medical correspondent talks strength after tragedy in new book.

May 23, 2019, 10:05 AM

ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton is sharing the story of her ex-husband Rob's suicide and how it affected her family in her new book, "Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community After Unthinkable Loss," in hopes of helping others heal after a similarly unthinkable tragedy.

As a doctor, it is much easier for me to be the one helping than it is to be the one asking for help. I much prefer being the one giving the healing advice than one receiving it. Also, despite my very public role in national media, I am actually a very private person, especially when it comes to something that I could associate with weakness, vulnerability, imperfection and failure.

So when it came to my own healing from the suicide death of my ex-husband, and the father of my two teenage children, the thought of speaking about my pain and grief publicly was terrifying.

Unfortunately, when suicide hit my family in 2017, I perceived this tragedy as the quintessential example of all of those negative traits -- and I obviously realize that I couldn't have been more wrong. But still, even though I knew rationally that losing a loved one to suicide does not make the survivor weak or a failure in any way, emotionally, I felt otherwise.

PHOTO: Jennifer Ashton family
Dr. Jennifer Ashton with her children, Chloe and Alex, and her late ex-husband, Rob.
Courtesy Jennifer Ashton

So when I was asked to speak from the heart about how suicide has affected my family after the suicide of Kate Spade, I was filled with dread.

You see, I had become pretty successful in my life, personally, at projecting an image of strength, perfection and health and wellness. And when I say projecting, I mean projecting not just to the outside world, but to myself.

I did that because I was always so scared of the alternative. But if I had to speak publicly about how imperfect, how vulnerable I felt after Rob's death by suicide, I felt as if I was risking the very essence of who I was.

What got me to do it? My kids. Chloe and Alex told me I had a responsibility to use my platform and my voice to speak to and for the millions of people who were going through the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.

It's estimated that for every death by suicide in the U.S., 135 people are directly affected. This translates to over 6 million people a year. That's more than 20 million people in just the last four years alone.

After I spoke about our loss on GMA in June, 2018, I heard an outpouring of relief and support from other suicide survivors -- by email, text and on social media. Many thanked me for giving their pain and grief national attention. They told me that my courage gave them courage. They shared their stories of healing with me, to offer comfort in my own journey. They offered help and they asked for help.

They, and my children, asked me to write this book.

I realized, with the help of mental health professionals, that in order to heal, you need to feel. I was taught that if you bury feelings of shame or anger, or if you resist addressing those feelings, they will persist.

I learned that grief is an expression of love, and that pain is a part of life, but suffering is optional.

I discovered that talking about my feelings of weakness, failure and guilt actually allowed me to feel free from the façade of perfection for the first time ever.

By sharing my story and the stories of others in my book "Life After Suicide," I have started to heal from the trauma of suicide. I am far from an expert, and part of me feels as if my pain will always be massive.

I accept both of these realities. I'm still learning everyday.

PHOTO: The cover of Dr. Jennifer Ashton's book, "Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community After Unthinkable Loss."
The cover of Dr. Jennifer Ashton's book, "Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community After Unthinkable Loss."
William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers

It is my hope that this book, and my podcast, will trigger a much-needed dialogue about mental illness that we desperately need to have in this country, but mostly, I hope that it brings comfort to those suffering in silence and in the shadows.

Bringing comfort to those in pain is why I became a doctor, and it is the greatest tribute to Rob's spirit (as a physician) that I can think of.

Proceeds from the sales of the book will be donated to Vibrant Emotional Health, which administers the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other programs related to crisis response and emotional well-being, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

If you or someone you know needs to talk, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).If a person says they are considering suicide:

  • Take the person seriously
  • Stay with them
  • Help them remove lethal means
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7
  • Escort them to mental health services or an emergency room
  • "Life After Suicide: Finding Courage, Comfort & Community After Unthinkable Loss" is available on May 7.