The mother of two reveals how her family coped after her ex-husband's tragic death

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sam Gillette
May 01, 2019 08:30 AM
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Michael Benabib

Eighteen days after Jennifer Ashton’s divorce from her husband of 21 years was finalized, Robert C. Ashton Jr. jumped from the George Washington Bridge.

Her first instinct was to blame herself.

Opening up for the first time about the shock, pain and healing after Rob’s death on February 11, 2017, at the age of 52, the ABC News chief medical correspondent and doctor recalls in an exclusive interview for this week’s issue of PEOPLE, driving over the George Washington Bridge herself that morning.

“I was on my way to Soul Cycle that morning. I missed Rob by maybe 10 minutes, which is beyond a sickening thought to me,” says Jennifer, a 50-year-old mom of two, who is sharing her family’s journey — in the book Life After Suicide, which releases on May 7, and a podcast of the same name launching today — in hopes of helping fellow survivors find their own path to healing.

Jennifer and Rob
Michael Menabib

Jennifer recalls feeling content that morning about what she and Rob called their “evolved” divorce.

“I was thinking with pride that we had really done our divorce well,” she says. “I was thinking about the rest of my life and excited for everyone’s future.”

That changed when she got home to her apartment in New Jersey — her son Alex, 20, was home from college with the flu — and three Port Authority detectives came to the door.

The lead detective insisted that Jennifer let them in and that she take a seat.

“He said, ‘I’m very sorry to tell you, but we found your name on the remains of…’ he didn’t even finish the sentence,” Jennifer recalls. “I collapsed onto my knees and, as I was collapsing, I heard him say, ‘Your husband.’ I became completely hysterical. I started screaming, ‘No, no, no, no, no.'”

The Ashton family
Jennifer Ashton

She continues: “Alex came out of his room and said, ‘Mom, is it grandpa?’ I said, ‘No, it’s daddy. It’s daddy.’ ”

As shocked close friends and family gathered at her side that afternoon, Jennifer recalls feeling “in a thick fog.” But she vividly remembers being alone with her brother at one point.

“I finally said to him exactly what I was feeling, and what I imagined everyone was thinking — ‘This is my fault,’ ” Jennifer writes in Life After Suicide, excerpted in PEOPLE.

“He put his hands on my shoulders, looked directly into my eyes, and said, ‘Jen, you’re a doctor, I’m a doctor, Rob was a doctor. He would have done this married to you or not married to you. Divorce doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide. The reality is, you cannot let this destroy you.’ ”

Rob seemed to anticipate that Jennifer would agonize with guilt. He left three suicide notes, one each for his ex-wife and their children, Alex and Chloe.

For Jennifer’s full story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands this Friday.

Brian Doben

“The only thing that I’ll share from my note is his first line, which said, ‘First no one is to blame,’ ” Jennifer tells PEOPLE. “It speaks to how well he knew me.”

In her book, which also tells the stories of other suicides and the lessons that can be drawn from their survivors, Jennifer emphasizes that therapy was “huge” help to her and her children. The three of them met with a counselor the day after Rob’s death and continue to check in regularly — “for maintenance,” she says.

They learned from the therapist that the “normal” responses to suicide include blame, guilt, shock, anger, despair, feeling rejected, and being haunted by what-ifs. But Jennifer says she feels no anger:

“Rob loved Alex and Chloe more than he loved himself. For him to leave them shows how much pain he was in. How can you be angry with someone for being in pain?”

Life After Suicide will release on May 7.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.