Ashley Judd has spoken up at greater length about the mental illness that led to the suicide of her mother, Naomi Judd, almost three months ago, and about the very different passages of grieving she and other family members have gone through, in an hour- long interview for the Spotify podcast “Healing With David Kessler.”
Judd and Kessler agreed that it was important for those in the audience who might be struggling with grief to hear from someone who is right in the throes of it, on top of the experts who have appeared on the podcast to address it from more of a 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 do so in community with lots of other people who have had very visceral recent losses, and I hope that this can be something that is useful.”
Variegation in grief was a primary topic of the podcast. “One of the things that I think we have done well as a family — meaning my pop, my sister, Wynonna and me — is we have really given each other the dignity and the allowance to grieve in our individual and respective ways,” Judd said Kessler. “And yet we’ve been able to completely stick together. So we can be at the same supper table and recognize, ‘Oh, this one’s in anger; this one’s in denial. This one’s in bargaining; this one’s in acceptance. I’m in shock right now.’ And we don’t try to control or redirect or dictate how the other one should be feeling at any particular moment.” Ashley said Wynonna is “in a pretty different place than I am right now. And we don’t have to be congruent in order to have compassion for each other. … I had to let go of this controlling notion that yours needs to look like mine. I mean, that’s really egocentric, isn’t it?”
As for where she, herself, is at, Judd said, “I think for the first 10 days I was in high-functioning shock, because there are all the things in our society that one attends to. … I’ve definitely experienced some denial in the form of just this numbness… I haven’t experienced anger yet. I imagine it’s in there. I don’t think I’m exempt from the stages of grief. And I one-huuuuundred percent have the depression.”
Judd said that her mother had sought help, but in her eyes, not always the right help, something she had given up trying to have any control over the years.
Naomi, she said, “walked with her better understanding of her mental illness for some years, because she did get a couple of correct diagnoses. And there was one particular thread of help on which she really wanted to rely very heavily. And there were a lot of other augmentations that could have been beneficial. and for whatever reason, those were not as attractive to her.”
Judd said she would disagree at different times with her mother about mental-health treatment. “There were times when she got excellent and expert professional help, and chose not to pursue that in the ways that I thought were better for her. And I had to respect her autonomy and give her the dignity of making those decisions for herself, even when I thought her thinking was distorted,” she said.
“I’m not the arbiter of right and wrong, and I resign from the committee that says you must accept my views. And then what that leaves me with, David, is my grief and the loss of my beautiful mother, and my discomfort over ‘What if this happens?… What if she doesn’t stay at this medical detox? What if she doesn’t get help with this place that treats dual diagnoses? What happens if she doesn’t go to these meetings? Oh my God. Now she’s fired that person.’ You know, it leaves me with my feelings of my responsibility, and that’s why I need my own recovery. And the best thing that family members can do for themselves is get their own help.”
Judd told Kessler that, for much of her life, Naomi’s illness wasn’t even recognized as such.
“I look back on my childhood and I 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 that she made that I understand were an expression of the disease. And I understand that and know that she was in pain and can today understand that she was absolutely doing the best that she could, and if she could have done it differently, she would have.
“And my most ardent wish for my mother,” she continued, “is that, when she transitioned, she was hopefully able to let go of any guilt or shame that she carried for any shortcoming she may have had in her parenting of my sister and me Because certainly on my end, all was forgiven long ago. What I know for myself is that it takes a robust recovery program to be the woman that I am today. And I want wellness and vitality and to have the greatest chance at happiness that I can. And my family just happens to come from a lot of grief, a lot of trauma. We’re pushing back against generations of hurt. And I believe it’s in me to do things differently.”
Judd and Kessler also spoke about different kinds of grief she had experienced earlier in her life, including sorrow after abandoning the belief that adults were dependable after she was sexually abused at age 7 and had her accusation dismissed by those she told. She also spoke of, in recent years, contacting a man 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 emphasized. “It was just gravy that he made his amends and expressed his deep remorse, because the journey with grief and trauma is an inside job.”
Other subjects addressed on the podcast related to her mother’s death included the language around suicide, like why it is important to say “died by suicide” instead of using the term “committed suicide.” And Kessler even called himself out for having used the word “triggered” in front of Judd, while acknowledging that those who deal with the issue professionally aren’t all in agreement that it should be banished.
“I was speaking at a national conference for therapists,” Kessler said, “and I took a poll of different therapists about whether we should still be using the word. And most of them said, yes, it’s the word that’s (most) commonly used. A lot of them have started using other words like ‘heightened emotions’ or ‘activated.’ But in using in conversation with Judd, Kessler said in 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 for you.”
Judd said she appreciated the host’s “humility as a professional, saying that you are learning and growing too. And I understand I live in a world that’s not going to accommodate my very understandable sensitivity around that word, and that I will need to take care of myself. … You know, my mother died by suicide with a gunshot wound, and I’m the one who found her and was with her and walked her home. And so this is exceedingly 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 lots of ways of modalities of working on the images and the graphics, but it’s gonna be with me for a long time.”
As an example of how things can suddenly kick in, Judd spoke of being in Germany recently with her partner and attending a Wild West-themed stunt show at an amusement park, being unprepared for her reaction when faux gunplay broke out at length.
“I mean, right now, I can feel my arms starting to go on fire even when I describe the memories,” she said. “I couldn’t get out of the audience because they had closed it due to the pyrotechnics that were going on. And I became so dysregulated, my breathing was rapid and shallow. I got as far away from the stage and the sounds of it as I could. I was hunkered down in the back. There was actually an exit, but my thinking was so flustered that I couldn’t even perceive it. And I immediately started texting with my community of girlfriends of support and my wisdom teacher. I put my earbuds in and put on soothing music, and I knew that it was up to me to try to get through this, and that I had some choices, but it did a number on me without my permission. You know, this wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have a moment here and revisit the moment of my mother’s… thing.’ This happened to me and escalated like the old supersonic jet.”
Judd found a metaphor to describe how she is currently compartmentalizing as she deals with grief. “It’s like Mom’s the furthest book down on the bookshelf in the library. So my daily life or my plans are the books that are closer — like, ‘Oh, I go to Switzerland on Saturday’ or ‘Oh, Brandi Carlile’s in town.’ And then there’s Mom, and I just have to kind of push the other books out of the way, and then it hits me again.”
Going forward, she said, “I believe it will add a few things to my life in terms of more mental health awareness advocacy. I already know from my speaking engagements, which I enjoy so much, that that’s a part of my life that brings me enormous meaning and connection, speaking about health and wellness — those types of requests are increasing, which is meaningful to me.” But, she said, these are still early days for processing the trauma, even as she picks up her humanitarian work with 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 a certain portion of the process. It doesn’t mean, oh, I don’t cry anymore, or ‘that part doesn’t hurt anymore.’ I think it’s the opposite of that, if anything.”
The podcast concludes with a reminder that the new three-digit number for the national suicide and crisis hotline is 988.