Responding to Loss by Suicide: The Beautiful Example of Ashley & Wynonna Judd

*Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide.

For the past several weeks, I have been quietly grieving the headlines rolling across our news feeds. Chelsie Kryst. Katie Meyer. Sarah Shulze. Lauren Bernett. And, on April 30th, Naomi Judd. All of them beautiful, talented women. All of them lost to suicide.

What the world does not need is another commentary. We know our mental health resources are not enough. We know that the stigma needs to end. What we do need are more people using the language of mental health and suicide that is helpful, empathic, and compassionate. Last week, Ashley and Wynonna Judd did that beautifully. I’m honored to highlight them.

Anne Rulo Responding to Loss by Suicide: The Beautiful Example of Ashley & Wynonna Judd

Offered below are reflections and excerpts from Ashley’s May 12th interview with Diane Sawyer (video here) as well as the formal statement released by the family on the day Naomi died. Each contains powerful words about the experience of mental illness and losing someone to suicide.

  • “My mother is entitled to her dignity and privacy.” With the Judds’ very public platform, there is some information they could protect and some they could not. Even without a public platform, many people who lose someone by suicide find themselves the subject of curiosity or, at worst, gossip. She did a beautiful job of highlighting this tension that so many families face. In response, she offered what she had to and protected other details that will remain their private memories.

  • “She was seen and she was heard in her anguish. And, she was walked home.” Gracious. This may be the most succinct way I have ever heard someone talk about supporting someone who suffers from mental illness. Whether we saw warning signs or not, for all who have lost someone to suicide, please consider it wasn’t that our love (or theirs) wasn’t enough. In fact, it may be that love let them live longer. Even with their mother’s life ending the way it did, they know they loved her well.

  • “When we are talking about mental illness, it is important to be clear and make the distinction between our loved one and the disease. It’s very real…it lies…it’s savage.” “Our mother couldn’t hang on until she was inducted into the hall of fame by her peers. That was the level of catastrophe of what was going on inside of her because the barrier between the regard in which they held her couldn’t penetrate into her heart. And the lie that the disease told her was so convincing. The lie that you are not enough. That you’re not loved. That you’re not worthy. Her brain hurt. It physically hurt.”

    If the earlier quote encapsulates supporting someone with mental illness, this one is about understanding it. As a therapist, I have sat with several people who wanted to end their lives. Did I think that was the solution? Of course not. Could I understand why, in the pain of their circumstances, they wanted to? Absolutely. The experience of mental illness is quite literally a filter that turns positive messages and experiences on their heads. And, in some forms, it is mentally, emotionally, and physically painful. It needs empathy. She clearly articulated her mother’s years-long struggle to survive in that condition. This is likely why she used the phrase, “…my mother chose not to continue to live” and in the formal statement as a family, “We lost our mother to the disease of mental illness.”

  • Toward the end of the interview, Ashley read a letter from her sister, Wynonna. “I need to take some time to process and I need this time to myself. I’m not ready yet to speak publicly about what happened. So I know you understand why I’m not there today. We will do this piece differently…I’m here.” I loved this so very much. They are handling the loss of their mother differently and honoring the other’s choice to do so. People can journey together through loss in very different ways while still serving as support for one other.

Ashley’s interview closed by doing two things I have seen people do over and over again when they lose someone to suicide. She highlighted her mother’s incredible qualities. She reveled in the memories. In effect, she offered what so many survivors say, “Please don’t forget what an incredible person they were.” “Don’t let their exceptionalness in life be canceled by the manner of their death.”

The other thing she did was ask people to seek help and offer resources, which is exactly how I will end as well. While many people have the experience of feeling suicidal at one point or another, many get the help they need and never feel suicidal again. There are local resources you can access through work EAP, insurance, or self-pay. There are online resources like BetterHelp, TalkSpace, and Faithful Counseling. There is a national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255 to talk or to chat. And, in July 2022 a national three-digit number (988) will connect anyone who needs to talk to local, trained helpers who can help someone through a crisis.

Reach out if you need help and reach out if you think someone else does too. And, thank you, Ashley and Wynonna Judd for how you’ve honored your Mom and undoubtedly helped others. I hope your grief journey is blessed by the great love you showed her and that which she shared with you.

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash, used with permission

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