Heather Armstrong's partner opens up about her death, online hate and the grief of losing a loved one to suicide
The writer dubbed the "queen of mommy bloggers" died by suicide at age 47.
Heather Armstrong was considered a pioneer when she began writing online in the early 2000s about what she described as the then-largely unspoken realities of motherhood, as well as the struggles with her two kids, her husband and her mental health, and her battle with alcoholism.
Two decades later, Armstrong's death in May at age 47 shocked those who for years visited her website, Dooce.com, for community and authenticity that they didn't feel they were getting elsewhere.
The hundreds of comments on the Instagram post announcing Armstrong's death stand as a memorial to the woman who earned the moniker the "queen of mommy bloggers," in a time long before content creators and "momfluencers" were a thing.
"As a 47-year-old with daughters similar in age, her voice was one of refreshing clarity in a time when mothers and women needed it. When I needed it," one commenter wrote.
"As I scroll through the comments and see so many of my digital friends, I can't help but think that you were the original, Heather," wrote another. "You brought us all together. Our virtual girls club. You were always so honest, and funny, and real. I feel like I've lost one of my dearest friends."
Those who mourned her were also mystified that Armstrong, a mom of two, died by suicide, that someone who helped so many had succumbed to the very struggles about which she wrote so authentically.
It's a mystery that Armstrong's partner of six years, Pete Ashdown, said he has spent the past four months since her death trying to piece together.
"When you lose somebody to suicide, you turn into somewhat of an investigator trying to figure out all of the confluences that came together to cause a person to do such a thing," Ashdown told "Good Morning America," adding of what he's endured: "The mental torture that I have gone through, wondering if I could have done something to prevent this outcome."
"Losing Heather is the hardest thing I've ever had to go through," he declared.
In losing his partner to suicide, Ashdown joined a demographic no one wants to join, but one that is growing.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, with nearly 50,000 deaths due to suicide reported in 2022, an increase of nearly 3% from the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among women, suicide deaths increased by nearly 4% from 2021 to 2022, with the largest increase among white women ages 45 to 64.
Mental health struggles and online hate
Armstrong's last entry on Dooce.com, posted on April 6, 2023, celebrated both 18 months of sobriety and her daughter's 18th birthday.
But Ashdown said Armstrong had recently begun drinking again, a relapse he believes was a "core motivator" of her decision to take her own life. Ashdown said Armstrong also suffered from side effects of years of taking prescription benzodiazepines to help her mental health.
"Heather had a history of depression and the alcohol did not help with that and the side effects from the benzodiazepines did not help with that," Ashdown said. "She was a perfectionist, and the converse of being a perfectionist is that when you make a mistake, you are very hard on yourself and feel a whole lot of shame ... and she was very hard on herself."
The irony, of course, is that Armstrong made a lucrative career out of writing publicly about her own imperfections, and the imperfections of motherhood. Her 2010 book, "It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita," was a New York Times bestseller.
In her earlier years of blogging, Armstrong wrote about her brief stay in a mental hospital for treatment of postpartum depression, and credited her blog audience with helping her get through that period of her life.
"Blogging about it saved my life," Armstrong told "GMA" in 2009. "I really think that the support I got from all those amazing readers was part of the reason I decided to check into the hospital, and that hospital stay saved my life."
She also said she saw how opening up about her depression helped others, telling "GMA" at the time, "I have gotten so much feedback from people: 'Because of you I finally admitted I can't get through this myself and I sought help.' That's why I do this, and I can die happy."
Ashdown recalled that some of Armstrong's most honest and vulnerable writing had focused on the devastation left behind by suicide.
"She wrote about the damage that suicide causes, and she understood the damage that suicide causes firsthand because she had a friend who lost her fiancé in the exact same way," he said. "She saw that directly and wrote a number of blog posts about people who believe they are a burden, and people that believe that everyone would be better off without them are lying to themselves, and that the devastation that is caused by committing suicide is always there and is vast and deep."
Ashdown said he believes Armstrong's writing about suicide helped "a lot of people," and said he has heard accounts to support that belief. But in Armstrong's darkest time, he noted, it wasn't enough to help herself.
"Heather wrote about these things with such rawness and such honesty, and yet, in the end, I don't think she remembered any of it," Ashdown said. "I think she was so in pain and in such a well of shame."
In her later years, as the women's media industry that she had helped create evolved into sponsorships, videos and influencing, Ashdown said Armstrong held true to her first love, writing, and painfully saw her career decline due to a lack of readership and advertising revenue.
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For a woman who helped so many people find community and togetherness, Ashdown said Armstrong was also greatly affected by the hate she received online.
"Heather was an early celebrity of the internet, and she also took an incredible amount of abuse from people on the internet who hated her, who said horrible things about her writing and her appearance," Ashdown said. "That was, for a very sensitive woman, very hard for her to take."
Reflecting on her death, Ashdown said he feels Armstrong is a "casualty" of the negativity that pervades the internet today, saying, "I feel like those critics, those trolls are complicit in her death because they did so much damage ... that hurts more than you can imagine."
Finding a silver lining in a death by suicide
Ashdown said that while Armstrong struggled with depression for most of her life, for the past decade or so there was a more “constant thread” where she spoke about suicide as an “inevitability.”
Still, Ashdown said, Armstrong would talk about the two of them having a “long life together.”
“She would talk about how she would never leave me alone,” he recalled. “She expressed her love for me, and I expressed my love for her, the morning of her death."
Looking back now, Ashdown said he can recognize signs of Armstrong's worsening state of mind in the time just before her death: "In retrospect, it's easy to see her decline, her detachment, but as it was happening, I really didn't think it was anything that would lead to her death."
Ashdown said Armstrong seemed "rudderless" at times, had lost her passion for writing and began to skip things that they loved doing together, like going to concerts. She also expressed feelings such as that she had no friends, or that her life had no meaning.
After her death, Ashdown said Armstrong received an outpouring of love and support, showing that her life was indeed full of meaning.
"I know Heather would have loved the press coverage," Ashdown said with a laugh. "You know, I believe that she probably saw it and was happy."
Ashdown also said that in all seriousness, he hopes the spotlight on Armstrong's death has reintroduced people to her work, and that his speaking out will show the devastation left behind by suicide. He said he also hopes it puts a spotlight on the mental health crisis in the U.S., and the dire need for more funding and more support to address it.
"The silver lining I hope here is that through her death, people who need help have been exposed to Heather and are reading Heather's books and may find a way out that Heather was unable to see," Ashdown said, adding, "I think that that talent of hers to be raw and honest, but also engaging, is a rare one, and that's what drew people to her."
He continued, "I remember so many times, especially on the book tour, but just random encounters where people would come up to her in tears and express that she had saved their life through her writing, express their thankfulness for her honesty and her wit in what she did. I've never seen anyone connect to people's hearts in the way Heather did."
Even amid his own deep grief, Ashdown said he has experienced moments of "beauty and joy," which ultimately is what he hopes people take away from his and Armstrong's story.
"One of the hardest things for me to take in her death is that even in the last four months of living without her, there have been so many points of beauty and joy and growth that I wish she could have seen," Ashdown said. "And that's also something for people who consider suicide ... just realizing that even in the next 24 hours, something may happen that is extraordinary and beautiful."
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org. Free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You are not on your own.