Greg Ludlam knew his wife, Elizabeth, was stressed, as was he, as many people are. Careers, a young family, the difficulty making ends meet in California: The Rohnert Park couple had plenty to deal with.
Ludlam swears, though, that he observed no signs Elizabeth was on a path to suicide. “I didn’t see that coming at all, in any way,” said the mechanical engineer and widowed father of two.
Some men in his situation might have good reasons to speak as little as possible about their wives’ deaths. Ludlam is of a mind that openly discussing what he believes was haunting Elizabeth — postpartum depression — may save lives by honing the awareness of new mothers and fathers, and the professionals who serve them.
Ludlam is reaching out to nursing instructors, hospice counselors and medical practitioners, asking that they educate him and examine if more might be done to prevent other families from suffering the tragedy that struck his family on June 2. His wife, a Massachusetts native, was 39.
“Something’s got to come out of it that’s positive,” he said, “or I won’t feel like I did what I needed to do.”
He’s also collecting stories from other families familiar with the struggle that he endures, in hopes the telling of those tales might improve the likelihood others will recognize a new mother’s crisis, and act.
Though he lost his wife three months ago, Ludlam is just now speaking publicly and finalizing plans for a Sept. 9 memorial service. He’s had to work out how to tell his 9-year-old, Emma, the truth about her mother’s death and to prepare Elizabeth’s other relatives and her friends and her co-workers at Redwood Credit Union, where she was a project management specialist, for the airing of her suicide. Emma’s little brother, Ethan, isn’t yet 2.
Their dad said a Memorial Hospice counselor assured him a child Emma’s age needs to know the truth, and can handle it. Ludlam drove Emma to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital to show her where her mom died, explaining that people get sick in various parts of their bodies and that Elizabeth was not well in her mind.
Suicide is rare among new mothers, but self-destructive thoughts are not. Research by psychologists at Boston University found that ideas of suicide are common among the estimated 19 percent of new moms who suffer from postpartum depression, which can linger for two years or more after a birth.
It never occurred to Greg Ludlam to use his wife’s name and “depression” in the same sentence, much less her name and the highly stigmatized “suicide.”
“One of the things I loved about her was that she was always happy, smiling, trying to help people,” he said.
After her death, he searched through his shock and grief for answers. It was largely the process of elimination that led him to believe she’d suffered silently from postpartum depression.
“Nobody can make a definitive statement,” Ludlam acknowledged. Elizabeth’s pediatrician concurred it was the likely cause, he said.
Ever since June 2, Ludlam has scoured his memory for warning signs he might have missed. He understands parents’ natural tendency to focus most of their attention on the children, but he wonders if he might have noticed something in Elizabeth’s behavior had he been more mindful.
He asks himself, were he more aware of depression and suicidal tendencies, “Might I have picked up on signs?”
Ludlam yearns to direct his grief into something productive. He is compiling accounts from other families that have experienced depression and suicide, and asking health professionals if they can identify opportunities to improve awareness and preventive care.
Ludlam is open to talking to new parents or others about what he has learned since he lost his wife.
He also imagines himself working with or raising money for a nonprofit committed to preventing suicide. He’s well aware that Sept. 5-11 is National Suicide Prevention Week.
In addition to him, Emma and Ethan, Elizabeth Ludlam is survived by her father, Stanley Orzel; sister, Shannon Letendre, and brother Stanley Orzel Jr., all of Northampton, Massachusetts.
A memorial service is at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Prelude restaurant at the Green Music Center, on the campus of Sonoma State University.
Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.