"You found the light in me that I couldn't find," she tells PEOPLE about her new love

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sam Gillette
May 01, 2019 04:41 PM
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Michael Benabib

After her ex-husband’s suicide in 2017, Jennifer Ashton learned to navigate grief and guilt while parenting their two children as a single mother. But the doctor and ABC News chief medical correspondent never expected to fall in love again.

“I was dealing with plenty of my own healing and recovery issues. I didn’t need a man to deal with on top of all that,” Ashton writes in her upcoming book Life After Suicide, which is exclusively previewed in the new issue of PEOPLE. “And I certainly wasn’t about to go into a relationship in which I’d be the emotionally needy one.”

That all changed after she met Dr. Todd Ellerin through a mutual friend last spring.

Jennifer, 50, explains in an interview with PEOPLE that falling for Todd, 49, was like a lyric she heard in Lady Gaga‘s A Star Is Born: “You found the light in me that I couldn’t find.”

The couple found each other as Jennifer was finding her equilibrium again after the Feb. 21, 2017 suicide of husband of 21 years, Robert C. Ashton Jr., sent her reeling. (A former thoracic surgeon, Rob jumped off of the George Washington Bridge 18 days after their divorce was finalized.)

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

The Ashton family
Jennifer Ashton

“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.’ ”

Jennifer is sharing her family’s journey — in her book, 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 Todd
Courtesy Jennifer Ashton

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Life After Suicide also tells the stories of other suicides and the lessons that can be drawn from their survivors. Ashton emphasizes that therapy was “huge” help to her and her children: Alex, 20, and Chloe, 19. 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.

Jennifer has also learned that she can love again— though she doesn’t plan on getting married.

  • For Jennifer’s full story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
Brian Doben

“It doesn’t matter if I ever remarry again. Right now, I’m against remarriage. It doesn’t matter though,” she says. “I’m in an amazing relationship that I hope to be in for the rest of my life.”

Jennifer says Alex and Chloe “really love” Todd, also a divorced parent, and he’s “never once” tried to be a replacement father for them.

“[Todd is] not the person I created these children with,” Jennifer explains. “I have asked him, ‘How do you think it would be if Rob were alive and you had to see him at hockey games and whatever?’ He said, ‘I actually think we’d be friends.’ I think that says a lot about him. It says a lot about Rob. I think he’s right. I think they would be friends.”

As for Rob, Jennifer says: “I think he’s at peace. I think that he is happy that we’re happy.”

Life After Suicide is out 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.