Ashley Judd has opened up about the mental illness that led to her mother’s suicide, Naomi Juddalmost three months ago, and about the very different grieving times she and other family members went through, in an hour-long interview for the Spotify podcast, Healing With David Kessler.
Judd and Kessler agreed that it’s important for those in the audience struggling with grief to hear from someone who’s in the thick of it, in addition to the experts who have appeared on the podcast to bring it up from more of a handle distance. “It’s scary to be vulnerable and transparent and to talk about acute grief and suffering in real time,” she said. “And I certainly know that I’m doing this in the community of many other people who have been going through some very visceral losses lately, and I hope that this can be something useful.”
Diversity in grief was a main theme of the podcast. “One of the things I think we’ve done well as a family — that is, my dad, my sister, Wynonna and I — is that we’ve really given each other the dignity and permission to go in our individual and respective ways grieving,” Judd told Kessler. “And yet we were able to stick together completely. So we can sit at the same dinner table and realize, ‘Oh, this one’s angry; this one is in denial. This one is in bargaining; this one is in acceptance. I’m in shock right now.” And we’re not trying to control, redirect, or dictate how the other should feel at any given moment.” Ashley said Wynonna is “in a pretty different place than I am right now. And we don’t have to be congruent to have compassion for one another. … I had to let go of this controlling notion that yours must look like mine. I mean, that’s really selfish, isn’t it?”
As for herself, Judd said: “I think for the first 10 days I was in high-function shock because in our society there’s all the things you care about. … I’ve definitely experienced some denial in the form of just this numbness … I haven’t experienced anger yet. I assume it’s in there. I don’t think I’m exempt from the stages of grief. and I one-huuuundred percent have depression.”
Judd said her mother had sought help but not always the right help in her eyes, something she had given up over the years to have any control over it.
Naomi, she said, “went a few years with her better understanding of her mental illness because she got some correct diagnoses. And there was one particular auxiliary thread that she wanted to rely on really, really badly. And there were plenty of other augmentations that could have been beneficial. and for some reason these weren’t that attractive to her.”
Judd said she would disagree with her mother about mental health treatment at various times. “There were times when she received excellent and knowledgeable professional help and chose not to do it in a way that I felt was better for her. And I had to respect her autonomy and give her the dignity to make those decisions for herself, even when I thought her thinking was distorted,” she said.
“I am not the arbiter of right and wrong and I am resigning from the committee saying you must accept my views. And then what leaves me, David, is my sadness and the loss of my beautiful mother and my uneasiness about, ‘What if that happens? … What if she doesn’t stick to this medical detox? What if she doesn’t get help at this place that treats dual diagnoses? What happens if she doesn’t go to these meetings? Oh dear God. Now she fired that person.” You know, it leaves me with a sense of responsibility, and that’s why I need my own recovery. And the best family members can do for themselves is let them help themselves.”
Judd told Kessler that Naomi’s illness was not even recognized as such for much of her life.
“I look back on my childhood and realize I grew up with a mother who had an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness,” she said. “There are different behavioral expressions, interactions, flights of fancy, choices she made that I understand are an expression of the disease. And I understand that and I know that she was in pain and I can understand now that she absolutely did her best and if she could have done it differently, she would have done it.
“And my dearest wish for my mother,” she continued, “is that in making the transition, I hope she has been able to let go of any guilt or shame she may have had about any shortcomings in the upbringing of my sister and I. Because on my side everything was long since forgiven. What I know for myself is that it takes a robust recovery program to be the woman I am today. And I want to have wellness and vitality and the greatest possible chance of happiness. And my family happens to come from a lot of grief, a lot of trauma. We defend ourselves against generations of hurt. And I think it’s within me to do things differently.”
Judd and Kessler also spoke about different types of grief she experienced earlier in her life, including grief after she gave up believing adults were reliable after being sexually abused at the age of 7 and her allegation was rejected by those she told. She also spoke of contacting a man in recent years who she said raped her in the 1990s and convincing him to sit down with her to have a conversation about “restorative justice.” “I didn’t need anything from him,” she insisted. “It was just gravy that he made his amends and expressed his deep regret because the journey of grief and trauma is an inside job.”
Other topics raised on the podcast related to her mother’s death were the language surrounding suicide, such as why it’s important to say “died by suicide” rather than using the term “committed suicide.” And Kessler even chastised himself for using the word “triggered” before Judd, while acknowledging that those who deal professionally with the issue don’t all agree that it should be banned.
“I spoke at a national conference for therapists,” Kessler said, “and I did a poll of different therapists to see if we should still be using the word. And most said yes, that’s the (most) common word. Many of them have started using other words like “elevated emotions” or “activated.” But speaking to Judd, Kessler said on the podcast, “I looked at your face and I realized what I had said and how I had used a word that was so activating and heartbreaking to you.”
Judd said she appreciated the “host’s humility as a professional who said you also learn and grow. And I understand that I live in a world that doesn’t do justice to my very understandable sensitivity to that word, and that I need to take care of myself. … You know, my mother committed suicide with a gunshot wound, and I’m the one who found her and was with her and brought her home. And that’s why it’s so difficult for me. And as you helped me understand, it’s not just trauma and it’s not just grief — it’s traumatic grief. And I have many opportunities to work on the images and graphics, but it will stay with me for a long time.”
As an example of how things can suddenly take off, Judd spoke of how she was recently in Germany with her partner attending a Wild West stunt show at an amusement park and was unprepared for her reaction when a lengthy gunfight ensued.
“I mean, right now I can feel my arms starting to burn even as I describe the memories,” she said. “I couldn’t leave the audience because it was closed for the pyrotechnics. And I became so unregulated that my breathing was rapid and shallow. I got as far away from the stage and its noise as possible. I huddled in the back. There was indeed an exit, but my mind was so confused I couldn’t even perceive it. And I immediately started texting with my community of supportive friends and my wisdom teacher. I plugged in my earbuds and put on soothing music and I knew it was up to me to try and get through this and that I had a few options, but it did a lot to me without my permission. You know, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a moment here and revisit my mom’s moment… thing.’ That happened to me and it escalated like the old supersonic jet.”
Judd found a metaphor to describe how she currently closes herself off when dealing with grief. “It’s like Mom is the book at the bottom of the bookshelf in the library. So my everyday life or my plans are the books that are closer – like “Oh, I’m going to Switzerland on Saturday” or “Oh, Brandi Carlile is in town”. And then there’s Mama, and I just have to sort of get the other books out of the way, and then it hits me again.”
Looking ahead, she said: “I think it’s going to add some things to my life in terms of mental health awareness. I already know from my speaking engagements, which I thoroughly enjoy, that speaking about health and wellness is a part of my life that brings me tremendous meaning and connection – these types of inquiries are increasing, which is meaningful to me .” But, she said, these are still early days for coming to terms with the trauma, even as she resumes humanitarian work at the United Nations and other organizations overseas.
“The word integration comes to mind. I think softness comes to mind,” she said. “Healing is not about abandoning any particular part of the process. It doesn’t mean, oh, I’m not crying anymore, or “that part doesn’t hurt anymore.” I think it’s more the opposite of that.”
The podcast concludes with a reminder that the new three-digit number for the national suicide and crisis hotline is 988.