The Life and Death of Ruth Rhoden Craven and the Birth of Postpartum Support Charleston
Editor's Note: This is part four of a four-part series, airing every Friday, that retells the origin of our organization. (Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.) Some of the content may be disturbing, as it is a story of maternal mental illness and suicide. If you find that you need to talk to someone about it, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the days, weeks and months after Ruth’s death, Helena Bradford, Mary Anna Mullinax and Elaine Earl were devastated by their grief.
“For me, my first reaction was anger,” said Mary Anna, who was Ruth’s best friend. “I was so angry...I was on the phone with my mom, and I just fell to the floor. I remember the first words out of my mouth was, ‘How could she do that to him?’ I don’t know who that ‘him’ was; I don’t know if it was Joey or the baby. I think it was sort of Joey who I was thinking of at the time…I just feel like I went through the stages of grief with her. I had lost my dad; I hadn’t gone through the stages of grief like I did with her. Then that turned, for me, into severe depression. I thought about her every day. I’d go to work, I’d listen to music, I would think about her every day. There isn’t really a day that I don’t think about her.”
Helena, Ruth’s mother, stepped in to care for her grandson, Andrew, for the first few months in Lexington, S.C.. Joey Craven, Ruth’s husband, then moved away with Andrew to be with a family member.
Their thoughts were never far from Ruth and what they could do to channel their energy. Mary Anna found an iVillage mom’s group online and started asking questions.
“[I asked,] Could somebody please tell me what did this?” Mary Anna remembers. “I’m just looking for answers. And that’s when things sort of developed with Elaine.”
“I could not let her death be for nothing,” said Elaine, a friend of Ruth’s. “I was talking to another friend when I came up with the idea [of the Ruth Rhoden Craven Foundation]. Then I talked to Mary Anna, then we talked to Helena. Our intention was education for doctors and families, and a support group run by a psychiatrist. We felt then that if we helped one mother live through PPD, it would be worth it.”
“I know, personally, I had to do something with all that anger,” Mary Anna said.
Helena said the creation of the foundation was a salvation for all three of them.
In March 2000, the Ruth Rhoden Craven Foundation officially began. Elaine recalls having a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning, due to the freshness of Ruth’s death.
“In the beginning, I was gung-ho, telling everyone in my local Mom’s Club, helping anyone and everyone,” Elaine said. “It felt great, and it helped me deal with her suicide.”
Mary Anna said Elaine found a lawyer to help with the creation of the nonprofit and laid the groundwork for it. Helena worked on outreach, and Mary Anna focused on the support groups.
Mary Anna: “We did a lot. And it didn’t feel like it at the time, I guess. We got some support groups started. We did help some people.”
Helena: “Yeah, we did. Because one person -- at least one person said that if it had not been for you all, I wouldn’t be here.”
Mary Anna: “And that made a huge difference.”
Helena: “Absolutely. But it certainly wasn’t -- it didn’t take place of a daughter. It made lemonade out of lemons.”
Mary Anna: “Well, it gave her death meaning.”
Helena: “Not to be totally in vain...”
Mary Anna: “...And forgotten. You know, I think that was a big thing with us. Fundamentally, this was about her. And how someone who was financially secure, had a good loving husband…”
Helena: “...Had a good job, house was paid for, I think…”
Mary Anna: “...Had nothing to worry about. How could this happen? And you think of all the women who don’t have those things. And what can happen to them, too.”
Helena: “And who don’t have the support. The family support, or friends support. Particularly if they’ve had to move out of state, away from their families.”
Mary Anna: “Yeah, that was huge. And ah, and the stigma. Trying to get rid of that stigma. That was a big thing for us.”
Helena: “Still is.”
After the first few years, Elaine was feeling burned out. She was the first to leave the foundation. Mary Anna was next.
“Life just sort of takes you over,” Mary Anna said. “I remember talking to [Elaine] at the time, ‘I don’t understand. I just can’t go to another support group meeting. I just can’t sit there.’ And she said something to me that was the most intelligent thing that I’ve ever heard anybody say, and she said, ‘You’re done grieving.’ And I guess that sounds kind of selfish; but she’s right.”
Helena continued to lead the foundation and work with psychiatrists and other doctors to get the message out on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. But soon she found herself ready to hang up the reins and pass on the responsibility of the organization off to someone else. Soon after, the foundation was renamed Postpartum Support Charleston.
“The foundation has definitely made an impact,” Elaine said. “There are thousands of people, including doctors and nurses, who know more about PPD than they did before, and that’s because of the [foundation]. I hope it continues to be a beacon for new mothers and their families for a long time. I have learned so much about how to treat women who have PPD, and how to help them.”
Helena has been thankful that she has been able to maintain a good relationship with Joey, his second wife, Charli, and Andrew, who visit the area often when they are in town. Andrew is now 18, approaching the end of high school and has already joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Mary Anna hopes that Andrew knows how much he is loved among Ruth’s circle of friends and how much of his mother is embedded in his DNA.
“Joey, Charli and Andrew came and had dinner with us one night,” she said. “Andrew was just a baby, and all of a sudden he just breaks out in song. And I was like, ‘That’s your mother!’ She sang; she was in chorus. Now, after the Marines, he wants to go into music, and he sings now. And I thought, yeah, that’s his mom...
"And that’s another thing that drove a lot of the sadness and grief,” Mary Anna said. “That he would never know her and what a great person she was.”
In the fall of 2017, Postpartum Support Charleston reached out to the founders of the Ruth Rhoden Craven Foundation because we wanted to learn more about Ruth, her life and death and what motivated the founders to start their mission. We felt that Ruth’s story had been lost, and we wanted to retell it -- for the Charleston community and for her son, Andrew. We wanted to show everyone why we continue to #Stand4Moms and why we #Run4Ruth at our annual Moms’ Run 5K and Family Fun Day every Mother’s Day weekend.
More than anything else, we were struck that the founders wanted Andrew to know about his mother. That she had wanted him and that she did not receive the help that she so desperately needed. The founders remark with thankfulness, wonder and joy that he physically carries Ruth with him every day, through the strands of DNA that she passed on to him and for generations to come.
As mothers who have conquered our own struggles with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, we (Elaine DeaKyne and myself, Amber Allen) found parts of ourselves in Ruth’s story. We felt she could’ve been us in many moments. Too many women have already joined her in the sad statistics of perinatal suicide. That’s why Postpartum Support Charleston continues to fight for the 1 in 5 moms that are affected by this illness. We want to be a part of the push to improve maternal mental health in this country, and will continue our work here in the Lowcountry to ensure that all moms receive the support that they deserve.
Life would be much different if Ruth had survived her bout with postpartum depression. But like her mother said in the story, the founders made lemonade out of lemons. And Elaine and I, our board of directors and our amazing group of volunteers are going to continue the effort that they began.
This story is our love letter to them. And to Ruth.
Are you struggling through motherhood? Or do you know someone who is feeling sad, anxious or just isn't feeling like herself? We can help, through peer-led support groups and through our connections to local mental health therapists. No mom needs to suffer in silence. For more information, reach out to us at email@example.com.