Beth Zimmer Carter, a volunteer with TAPS, attended the organization's 11th annual seminar on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.
Hundreds of people who attended a seminar for military suicide loss survivors on Saturday received support, resources and comfort. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, kicked off its 11th annual National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort in Phoenix on Friday.

“We only grieve because we love, and love never dies,” said TAPS Founder and President Bonnie Carroll, who opened Saturday’s seminar. Between 600 and 700 adults, as well as around 150 children, were expected to attend the conference, which ends Monday. The children participated in “Good Grief Camp,” an age-appropriate alternative to the adult-oriented programs.

Kim Ruocco, TAPS’ vice president of Suicide Prevention and Postvention Program, largely focused on a road map the organization created to help suicide loss survivors work through their emotions and start the process of post-traumatic growth.  “Many of us get so stuck and we spiral into ‘how did this happen?’ and ‘why did this happen?’ and ‘what could I have done?’” Ruocco said, adding that the road map would hopefully prevent that from happening.

Ruocco’s husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, died by suicide nearly 15 years ago, she told the audience.  “I didn’t realize how sick he really was,” she said. “When he died, it turned my world upside down. I felt like I was burnt to the ground and had to start over completely.”

Ruocco hadn’t told her children the details of their father’s death immediately, but that changed one day a few weeks afterward when she was driving with her young son in the backseat.  “Mom, I think I killed dad,” Ruocco recalled her son saying.  Her son said he thought he’d killed his dad by salting nachos after his father told him not to the previous Christmas. He thought his dad had died from heart problems caused by him salting the nachos his father later ate, Ruocco said.   “Kids, if things don’t make sense, will make it about them,” she said.  Ruocco pulled over, crawled into the backseat with her son, and told him the truth.  “Dad’s brain wasn’t working well,” she recalled telling her son. “He’d been in so much pain that all he could think about was ending the pain. He’d somehow convinced himself we would all be better off without him.”  Ruocco said immediately after her husband’s death, she asked herself what more she could have done to save him. Eventually, she came to accept his death and grow through it.  He was really sick and I did the best I could with the information I had,” she said. “I will use everything I’ve learned to try and save a life and….heal others.”

Spreading awareness, offering resources

Jennifer Ashton, chief medical correspondent for ABC News, also addressed the crowd. Her ex-husband, Robert Ashton, died by suicide in 2017, weeks after the pair had “amicably” divorced after more than two decades of marriage, Ashton said.  She said she felt “blindsided” by his death, but focusing on helping her children through the tragedy kept her going.  As a doctor, Ashton said she asked herself how she missed any signs that her ex-husband was struggling.

She and her children began going to therapy shortly after her ex-husband’s death and continue to go regularly.  “This is now part of the rest of our lives — not just when it’s bad or we’re struggling,” she said. “Just like we get our blood pressure checked, we check in with a mental health professional.”  Ashton referenced data by the National Institute of Mental Health saying that around 47,000 people died by suicide in the United States in 2017. She also referenced data finding that 135 lives are directly impacted by another person’s suicide, adding that means approximately 6 million lives are affected by suicide each year. Ashton said after being encouraged by her children, she hoped to use her public platform to spread awareness and offer resources to those who are considering suicide and suicide loss survivors.

‘We are living the lives he wanted us to live’

Though the feelings of sadness and emptiness still linger after her ex-husband’s death, Ashton said she and her children have grown immensely in the last two years.  “We’re more committed to causes we care about, more passionate about life, we feel that every day we are honoring dad’s spirit and his memory,” Ashton recalled her children telling her shortly after their father’s death. “We are living the lives he wanted us to live.”  Ashton told the crowd that living after a loved one’s death by suicide doesn’t have to include being “angry at the world” or crying all day, every day. She said those who died would want their family members to keep living their lives and allow themselves to experience happiness and joy again.  She added that she and her children often reflect on memories and wish he was still with them, but they do not focus on his death.

The power of peers who help others

Beth Zimmer Carter, a TAPS staff volunteer, lost her son to suicide almost five years ago.  Christopher Carter was a U.S. Army Ranger who served four years and four deployments to Afghanistan, she said. He was handsome, funny and musical. He made others laugh and “deflected” his feelings, Carter said.  He died by suicide while on active duty, prompting Carter to immediately begin campaigning for suicide awareness and prevention.  “I kind of jumped in with both feet,” she said.

Carter happened to run into Carroll in Washington D.C. on an advocacy trip and learned more about the program and went to her first TAPS seminar three years ago.  “There was just this connection that you just can’t describe,” she said. “It’s like going to a family reunion where you haven’t been with that family in 10 years but immediately you walk in the room and they know you and you know them intimately.”  Carter said she was grateful to those who were further along in their grief journey who were willing to share their resources, comfort and support with her as soon as she stepped in the door at her first seminar.  “There is nothing in therapy, nothing from a professional….nothing can prepare you or support you like the power of peers and peers who have now taken that extra step to help others.”

‘It opened me up so much’

Dana O’Brien lost his grandson Daniel, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, to suicide in July 2009.   “He was lovable, he was giving, he was a very good, outstanding Marine,” O’Brien said. “We loved him so, so much.”

He found out about the program through his youngest son and now serves as a peer mentor in the organization. O’Brien served in the Vietnam War and said being active with TAPS has not only helped him mourn his grandson’s death but also those of his comrades he lost during that war and the trauma he’d been carrying in the decades since.

“It’s opened me up so much that I’m able to talk to strangers, I’m able to share the love, I’m able to go out and hug people,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien now travels to different military bases to share his stories and offer resources to help servicemen and women cope with the trauma they may experience.

The hardest trip he ever took, though, was to South Carolina to speak to the people in the unit his grandson was in at the time of his death.  Though it’s been tough, O’Brien said his journey with the program has helped him grow immeasurably and has helped him have more hope, optimism and faith.  “There’s always going to be a brighter day ahead,” he said. “You may not think so, but if you wake up tomorrow and your feet hit the floor it’s going to be a good day.”

Where to get help

If you or a loved one needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Mercy Care’s 24-hour crisis line at 602-222-9444. 

TAPS: The program can be reached at 800-959-8277 or online at