Ashley Judd Reflects on a Year of Grief
The actress and mental health advocate shares how she coped while mourning the loss of her mother, the country music singer Naomi Judd, who died by suicide.
Every morning before getting out of bed, Ashley Judd pulls out a fountain pen and begins writing in her journal, a practice she has been doing for decades that she calls “the routine.”
The shelves of Ms. Judd’s library are filled with her journals. But the entries look a bit different since the death of her mother, the country music singer Naomi Judd, who took her own life last April after a long struggle with mental illness.
“I might tell her about my day,” Ms. Judd said. “I might tell her how much I love her and miss her. It’s a way we stay very close.”
A few weeks ago, I met Ms. Judd at the Harvard Club of New York City — a gathering spot for alumni, decorated with crimson carpets and a variety of mounted antlers — where she had a lunch meeting that afternoon. (She earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 2010.)
Ms. Judd arrived 20 minutes late and was apologetic. It had been a late night, she explained; she had attended the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual gala and accepted an award for her work educating the public about mental health after her mother’s death. In her speech, Ms. Judd had opened with a racy joke that she said would have made her mother proud.
She recalled how her mother would often ask her two questions: “Have you brushed your hair? Do you have on underpants?”
“Tonight, I can answer one of those questions in the affirmative,” she said.
Ms. Judd grinned and the audience laughed, but as she began recounting memories of her mother, her grief became tangible.
“My mom showed me a lot of herself while she was hurting,” Ms. Judd said in her speech. “And there were times when I saw my mom in a way that’s very difficult for a daughter. But I had to have my own recovery and my own inner strength — and I had to know how to make the distinction between what was going on in her brain and the precious soul that was untainted and unaffected by the distortions of mental illness.”
On April 30 last year, Ms. Judd walked into her mother’s bedroom and found that she had harmed herself. Her mother was still alive at the time, but died later that day. Ms. Judd has called it “the most shattering day of my life.” Last month, she turned 55, her first birthday without her mother. But despite the difficulty of the past year, she has continued to travel, engage in advocacy, give speeches and write essays about traumatic grief.
When I asked her about this during our conversation, Ms. Judd looked down and closed her eyes, silent for nearly 10 seconds. She seemed to be steadying herself, searching for the right words.
“Grief hurts in a deeply particular way,” she said. “And isolation makes it worse.”
For many years, Naomi Judd’s mental illness went undiagnosed and untreated. (Her eventual diagnoses were post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, Ms. Judd said.) Naomi lived with wounds that stemmed from her childhood, Ms. Judd said, during which Naomi had experienced sexual abuse, teen pregnancy and the loss of her brother, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 17. During adulthood, Ms. Judd said that Naomi had faced addiction, domestic violence and crippling depression.
Ms. Judd says she had her own painful experiences during childhood, including rape, neglect and sexual abuse by a male relative, which are disclosed in her 2012 memoir. As a teenager, Ms. Judd said, she had lived by herself during two different years of high school while her mother and sister, Wynonna Judd, performed together as the country music duo The Judds.
“I grew up very isolated in my home, and I was the lost child in our family system,” she said.
This made for a dysfunctional and, at times, frustrating and painful mother-daughter relationship. “I came by my rage authentically,” Ms. Judd said. “I came by it naturally, and it was righteous anger.” It took time (and therapy) for her to build a more positive relationship with her mother. In her late 30s, Ms. Judd said she began to focus on the love that Naomi was capable of providing, rather than the things that her mental illness had prevented her from doing.
“I was powerless over my childhood,” Ms. Judd said. “The survival strategies I developed made my adult life unmanageable. When I took responsibility for those survival strategies, my relationships with both my parents transformed and healed.”
Working through the trauma
At first, Ms. Judd said, she was in shock over her mother’s death, which eventually gave way to grief. Last fall, she began having nightmares and weeping in her sleep, overcome by intrusive thoughts — flashbacks from the day of her mother’s death.
“Trauma took up all of the space inside me,” Ms. Judd said.
This was exacerbated by the fact that some news organizations published sensitive information from the family’s police report after Naomi Judd’s death, including text messages, a handwritten note and photos. (In response, Ms. Judd has urged legislators in Tennessee to pass “Naomi’s Law,” which would prevent medical records, police reports, interviews and 911 calls from a death by suicide from becoming part of the public record.)
She sought help from a therapist who specialized in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, also known as E.M.D.R. Two times a week, she would practice pulling up traumatic memories while following prompts to move her eyes in a specific way. This process, known as bilateral stimulation, aims to make memories less vivid.
Eventually, she said, she learned to store her memories in a safe place, as though they were located behind the cellophane of a scrapbook page. She could look at the book as needed, “instead of the memory being constantly free-floating in my mind.”
Although the intrusive thoughts still reappear on occasion, Ms. Judd said her “chosen family” has helped her cope. The group includes her partner, mental health professionals and a large network of friends.
When her mother died, one friend would snuggle and hold her hand as they slept. Others kept her fridge stocked with food.
“A lot of times, grieving people don’t know what they need,” Ms. Judd said. “To ask them, ‘What can I do?’ is sincere but overwhelming. It can be more helpful simply to act, and schedule yourself to take out the recycling or to show up to take the dog out every day at 10 a.m.”
As for her immediate family, Ms. Judd and her stepfather, Larry Strickland, whom she calls Pop, are especially close. They cook, discuss books about grief and, when they’re driving together, sing “old mountain songs” in the car. And she said she was proud of her sister, Wynonna Judd, who has used her relationship with music “as her vehicle for both her grieving and healing.”
Every morning, in addition to journaling, Ms. Judd says she reads spiritual texts to find wisdom and comfort. Some of her favorites include the books “Courage to Change” and “Hope for Today,” as well as the writings of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar.
James Finley, author of “The Healing Path,” is “a must,” she added. “I’ve learned so much from him. I mean, I knew this about myself, but he helped me articulate that the conditions of my life don’t have the authority to name who I am.”
In January, when her mother would have turned 77, Ms. Judd “gussied the house up” and threw a birthday party attended by 60 people. Guests included the seamstress who made her mother’s stage costumes and her mother’s housekeeper of 20 years, who cooked fried chicken with biscuits and gravy for the event.
They sang “Happy Birthday” and shared their favorite stories about Naomi.
Ms. Judd becomes emotional when recalling the quirky little gifts her mother loved to give her in recent years: Whoppers from Walgreens, a jar of Pond’s Cold Cream, a dessert with hot fudge from a local restaurant. The things themselves weren’t as important as the fact that her mother was thinking of her, she said.
“She was letting me know how well she knew me,” Ms. Judd said. “Because as a kid, she didn’t.”
On the day of her mother’s death, Ms. Judd reminded her “that all had been forgiven long ago and that she was so loved.”
“I know that she heard me.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Go here for resources outside the United States.
Christina Caron is a reporter for the Well section, covering mental health and the intersection of culture and health care. Previously, she was a parenting reporter, general assignment reporter and copy editor at The Times. @cdcaron