Scott Ruddy’s shoes sit neatly next to the front door, and his coats hang in the front hall closet of the house that he and his wife, Karen, built from the ground up. It’s their dream home in Yardley, Pa.: rustic yet modern, with sunlight beaming through the windows, lighting up the big, open space—perfect for raising their 10th grader, Kyle, and 8th grader, Erin, and their husky, Micky. They also loved the fact that it’s near the trails at Washington Crossing Historic Park and Bull’s Island Recreation Area, where Scott and Karen loved to ride their bikes.
“Bike riding was our thing,” says Karen. It made the high school sweethearts, who’d been together for 30 years and married for 18 of them, happy. It helped them put aside the stresses of their careers—Scott’s as a Philadelphia police officer and Karen’s as an actuary working on pension plans—and just be. It reminded them of what was most important: each other, and the family and life they’d built together.
Which is why, 11 months after they moved into this house they’d built—and 6 months after Scott walked into the woods at Bull’s Island Recreation Area and shot himself—Karen can’t bring herself to move his shoes and coats.
“I still can’t believe it,” she says. “I still feel like he’s going to come home.”
Too Much to Bear
Scott always wanted to be a cop. His dad was a cop. Both of his brothers are cops. So, when he was accepted into the Philadelphia Police Academy in 1993, Karen wasn’t surprised. “Being a cop ran in the family,” she says. “That’s just what he wanted to do.”
As a first responder, Scott saw some pretty terrible—sometimes gruesome—things: car wreck survivors being raced to the nearest emergency room, shooting victims, drug deals gone bad, and so many homeless children—kids the same age as his own—living on the streets. In 2008, he was the first on site after his friend, a fellow police officer, was shot in the head at a Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a moment that stands out to Karen as one of the most intense and painful in the early years of Scott’s career. “He took that officer’s kids to the hospital—it was awful,” says Karen. “And that was followed by three or four more police deaths—all officers he knew. He was never officially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], but I would say he was dealing with it.”
In 2009, Scott asked for a transfer to the Philadelphia Police Marine Unit, where he patrolled the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers as a police diver. He received his certification in black-water and ice diving so he could pull bodies up from 50 feet under. Karen saw the work changing him, but it was difficult for him to talk about it. He turned to alcohol to cope and was in Alcoholics Anonymous off and on since 2010. Every so often, he’d disappear and send Karen text messages that would make her wonder if he was going to end his life. “But I was always able to communicate with him,” she says, adding that this contributed to stopping him.
Until January 19, 2017. Scott had been in rehab for 10 days. He’d disappeared on January 9, and Karen had called one of his brothers, as well as his lieutenant, as part of an intervention. He was taken to the hospital to be evaluated and given a choice: Be admitted to a psychiatric hospital or attend rehab. That’s how he ended up at an addiction recovery facility for a third time. “He didn’t want to be there,” says Karen. “They gave him antidepressants. He had the shakes. And at the end of my first visit with him, on January 14, he asked if he could kiss me goodbye. You’re not supposed to have any contact in there, so he got me in a corner and gave me a kiss. As I walked away, he didn’t take his eyes off me. Every time I turned around, he was still there, just staring at me until I drove away.”
Five days after that visit, Karen got a call from a counselor at the rehab center telling her that Scott was missing. It was around 11 a.m. and the kids were at school and Karen was at work. The rest is one big, awful blur, says Karen. When she got home from work, the police and her brother-in-law—who looks just like Scott—were at the house helping Karen try to locate Scott, though it was too late. A jogger had found Scott’s body. The kids came home from school, and their uncle broke the news. “My daughter was upset with my husband before he went to rehab. When she got home from school that day, she walked right by my brother-in-law because she thought it was Scott,” says Karen. “She thought she was giving her dad a little bit of an attitude. When she heard what happened, she was just destroyed.”
Scott’s letters to each family member were brief, saying that he couldn’t handle the pain anymore and that he would always love them.
“I know he loved us,” says Karen. “He just had challenges that he wasn’t able to handle himself. I wish I would have forced him to talk about it more. I wish I would’ve sat on that couch with him a little bit more, or when the alarm went off and he’d tell me to ‘snooze it,’ I wish I would’ve stayed there a little bit longer.”
Forging a New Future
Slowly, Karen and her kids are trying to move forward. They’re seeing a counselor, who’s been helpful in establishing a new normal for them. Erin is still dealing with the impossible heaviness of the last interaction she had with her dad—an argument. And Kyle is a “closed book” and prefers not to talk about it, says Karen. “Recently, I told Kyle I was afraid to leave them alone, and he said, ‘Mom, Dad had a disease. I don’t have it. I want to live.’ So, that made me feel better,” she says. But it’s still hard.
It’s hard being back at work, with everyone looking at her like they don’t know what to say. “I asked my boss to let people just address Scott’s suicide with me because I need to get it out,” she says. “When people don’t act normal around me, it makes it harder for me to cope, and prompts me to think that maybe I did something wrong. That’s when I start going into guilt mode again.”
It’s also hard when well-meaning people ask her how her husband died. “I feel like answering, ‘None of your business. He’s dead. Why are you asking me to relive that?’” she says.
Spending time with friends and family has helped—particularly when they offer up seemingly little things that feel huge, says Karen. “It’s the stupid things, like I wasn’t the cook—so my brother’s been showing me how. He’s also showing me how to use the weed whacker,” she says. “Those are the things you just don’t think about.”
What’s helped Karen the most has been meeting another widow through a Facebook support group. This woman also lost her husband, a first responder, to suicide just 2 months before Scott died. They often talk and compare notes about how to cope with difficult days like his birthday and Valentine’s Day. She also has two kids, a boy and a girl, just about a year younger than Kyle and Erin. “She truly understands what I’m going through,” says Karen. “Connecting with her has been so helpful.”
Karen knows she’ll probably sell her house once the kids are out of high school—it’s too painful—adorned as it is with hopes of easier, happier times they’ll never get to live, and haunted by the demons Scott wasn’t able to battle anymore.
But in spite of the pain, the family is soldiering on. The certificate on the kitchen counter shows that Erin ended the school year with four quarters on the honor roll, and Karen couldn’t be prouder, considering the obstacles her daughter has faced this year. Karen, Kyle, Erin, and their husky, Micky, will take it one day at a time, trying to forge new memories as they continue to mourn the tragic loss of their father. “That’s really all we can do,” Karen says. “But we have a lot of support and people who love us, and that helps.”
Out of the darkness
On October 1, Karen and Erin will participate in one of the Out of the Darkness Walks, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), in support of Cops for Life, a team created by the Philadelphia Police Department to raise funds and awareness related to police suicide.
Between 15 and 18 percent of police officers suffer from PTSD. In 2016, there were 102 police suicides, 91.5 percent of them committed with department-issued firearms. AFSP puts on fundraising walks in nearly 350 communities nationwide. Go to afsp.donordrive.com for more information or to find a local walk.