Ashley Judd on the little things that helped her cope after her mother's suicide

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Ashley Judd has revealed how she's been dealing with her mother Naomi Judd's death. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Ashley Judd has revealed how she's been dealing with her mother Naomi Judd's death. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

It’s been a year since Ashley Judd walked into her mother’s bedroom and discovered she died by suicide.

Country music star Naomi Judd died on 30 April last year at the age of 76, but her actress daughter remembers it as if it was just yesterday.

In a recent interview Ashley (55) said she still suffers traumatic flashbacks from this incident, but added that the people closest to her have helped her to avoid having this memory overwhelm her.

The Kiss the Girls star is grateful for the comfort of her “chosen family” including her partner, Martin Surbeck, her close friends and mental health professionals.

She says that it’s the smallest gestures which make her feel better, like being held when she feels sad and making sure that she's eating.

“A lot of times, grieving people don’t know what they need,” she says.

“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 10am.”

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Ashley has given credit to her stepfather, Larry Strickland, and sister, Wynonna, for helping her grieve and heal. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

She says her stepfather, Larry Strickland, has also been a source of comfort and they’ve been cooking together and reading books about grieving.

Her sister, Wynonna Judd (58), has been using music “as her vehicle for both her grieving and healing”.

Wynonna was part of their mother’s band and they were due to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on 1 May 2022, but the day before the event Naomi died, leaving her daughters and her fans devastated. 

Wynonna and Ashley attended the Hall of Fame induction, but battled to control their emotions. “I’m unprepared to make a speech because I knew my mom would probably talk the most,” a tearful Wynonna said. “I’m so sorry she couldn’t hang on until today,” a weeping Ashley added.

“When we’re talking about mental illness, it’s very important to be clear and make the distinction between our loved one and the disease, " Ashley said a few weeks later when she appeared on Good Morning America.

"It’s very real. It lies. It’s savage. Our mother couldn’t hang on until she was inducted into the Hall of Fame by her peers. I mean, that is the level of catastrophe of what was going on inside of her."

“The regard in which they held her couldn’t penetrate into her heart, and the lie the disease told her was so convincing.” She described that “lie” as, “You’re not enough. You’re not worthy.”

Behind the facade of success, Naomi Judd lived with depression and pain her entire life. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The actress said her mother had died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and she hoped sharing details of Naomi’s death would help raise awareness for those who know people who might be suffering.

“I really accepted the love my mother was capable of giving me. I knew she was fragile, so when I walked around the back of their house and came in the kitchen door, and she said, ‘There’s my darling. There’s my baby’ and she lit up, I savored those moments. And every time we hugged and she drank me in, I was very present for those tactile experiences. Because I knew there would come a time when she would be gone.”

Naomi had been open about her depression and was an advocate for mental health awareness and suicide research. 

“Think of your very worst day of your whole life: someone passed away, you lost your job, you found out you were betrayed, that your child had a rare disease. You take all those things at once and put them together and that’s what depression feels like,” she once said.

“Nobody can understand it unless you’ve been there.”

Naomi's life was a mix of heady highs and desperate lows.

She was three when she was sexually abused by an uncle, an event she believed triggered her lifelong depression.

Naomi gave birth to Wynonna when she was 18, on the night of her high school graduation.

“I got pregnant the first time I had sex,” she said of her brief relationship with Wynonna’s dad. “Three months later, when I called him to tell him I thought I was pregnant, he said, ‘Well, tough luck, kiddo’ and he hung up the phone and we never heard from him. “I had to marry the town jerk to have a roof and a name.”

That “jerk” was Michael Ciminella, who moved Naomi and Wynonna from Ashland, Kentucky, to Los Angeles, where Ashley was born three years later. The marriage didn’t last, and Naomi was left to raise her girls on her own, working as a receptionist and living “a pay cheque away from the streets”. 

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Naomi and her daughters, Ashley and Wynonna. The family was poor until Naomi broke into the music industry. (PHOTO: Instagram/@ashleyjudd)

At 22, Naomi was raped and beaten by an ex-boyfriend who broke into her LA home. She fled with her kids to rural Kentucky, where they lived on social welfare grants while Naomi studied to become a nurse. 

Their financial situation was desperate: they had no electricity, phone, TV or indoor plumbing. After Naomi qualified as a nurse she moved with the girls to Nashville where she became head nurse in an intensive care unit. When she learned the father of one of her patients was in the music business, she gave him a homemade tape of her and Wynonna singing. 

That tape got them a record deal that would see them becoming the most commercially successful country music duo of the 1980s – with 25 singles, 14 No 1 hits, eight Country Music Awards, five Grammys and more than 20 million records sold. Ashley’s star was rising too. By the 1990s she had found fame as an A-list Hollywood star.

But despite their successes, disaster was always lurking. Wynonna’s life turned upside down when her mom and Michael divorced when she was seven.

The split was the reason she became addicted to food, she says, and her weight became a tabloid staple when The Judds were at the height of their fame. “I had been so alone those years of my life,” she told Oprah Winfrey of the years following the divorce. “I finally realised my weight was a symptom and not the problem. I used food to soothe and reward and I don’t do that anymore.”

Several years after the divorce she discovered Michael wasn’t her biological dad. “I think it does something to a child,” Naomi admitted. Ashley says she knew long before it became common knowledge. “I think not knowing the truth is what messed Wynonna up, rather than having found out.”

Ashley Judd shared photos of her mom when she work
Shortly after Naomi's death, Ashley shared photos of her mom when she worked as a nurse. (PHOTO: Ashley Judd/ Instagram)

Wynonna married businessman Arch Kelley III in 1996 and they had a son, Elijah, and a daughter, Kelley, before divorcing in 1998. In 2003 she married her former bodyguard, Donald Roach, but three years later he was arrested for sexually molesting a child and is serving a 25-year prison sentence. Two months after tying the knot in 2012 with musician Cactus Moser, a member of her group Wynonna & the Big Noise, he nearly died in a motorcycle crash and had to have his left leg amputated.

Wynonna says becoming a star after a childhood of poverty was a jarring experience.

“I literally went from the outhouse to the White House,” she told Good Morning America. “I travelled, I took friends, I rented jets. I loved the great rock star lifestyle.”

But she soon found herself needing help managing her money. Things got so bad she checked into a rehab treatment centre that specialises in helping people with money disorders. But that wasn’t the end of her troubles.

naomi judd
Wynonna and Naomi performed as The Judds, the most successful county music duo of the 1980s. (PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In 2017 her daughter was convicted on drug dealing charges and couldn’t attend her grandmother’s funeral because she’s still in jail. Wynonna, however, remains firmly on Kelley’s side. “I will tell you this. My daughter is the strongest Judd woman in our ‘herstory’,” she said in 2020. “She’s healthier than I was at her age. How she got there – that could have been me if I didn’t have music.”

And then there’s Ashley, who revealed in her 2011 memoir, All That is Bitter and Sweet, that she was a survivor of incest and sexual abuse. In 2006 she checked herself into a Texas rehab facility for treatment for emotional problems including depression, isolation and co-dependency on relationships.

“I needed help,” she said. “I was in so much pain.”

Ashley was one of the first actresses to speak out against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in the New York Times’ report on the producer’s history of sexual harassment.

“I lost career opportunities. I lost money. I lost status and prestige and power in my career as a direct result of having been sexually harassed and rebuffing [Weinstein’s] sexual harassment,” she told ABC News.

In 2021 Ashley shattered her leg during a research project observing bonobos in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She endured an excruciating trek through the wilderness until she could be airlifted to Johannesburg.

Meanwhile, her sister has vowed to keep the music alive.

“Though my heart is broken, I will continue to sing," Wynonna says.


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