Suicide & survival for the husband of Leanne Bearden
After crisscrossing the globe over the course of 22 months and stopping in 58 countries along the way, Josh and Leanne Bearden returned to the United States in December 2013.
On one hand, there was a sense of bold accomplishment and fulfillment in their lives, and yet there was an undercurrent of misery that had quietly started to wash away their foundation.
Today, four months after returning from their round-the-world trip, Josh finds himself alone in the journey of life. Leanne committed suicide in January at the age of 33. They had been married more than four years.
'We definitely fell in love very quickly'
To completely grasp the gulf of grief rending the heart of Josh Bearden, it's essential to take a step back to 2008, when Josh first met his wife, then Leanne Hecht, a one-time Homecoming princess raised in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, Georgia.
They met at a bar in Denver through some friends who asked them to join a group getting together.
"I didn't much pay attention to her, because I thought she was way out of my league," Josh said.
But Leanne seemed to think otherwise.
Josh recalled that at the end of the night, Leanne approached him. "Are you going to get my number or not?"
Josh said he was immediately smitten. He said he texted Leanne the next morning at 8 o'clock. He said from that day on, they talked every day.
'She was good at everything she did'
Their relationship quickly blossomed into what Josh presumed would be an everlasting bond. He beamed with admiration as he reflected on his wife's outer beauty, her wide smile and her glowing spirit. "Every time people saw Leanne, they... could see life in her. Leanne's special gift was making people feel good about themselves, and she was really good about that," he said.
Leanne was an avid runner. She completed nine marathons, including one during their trip around the world.
She sang in a band for fun and belted vocals with a raw power that belied her petite frame.
She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Georgia in 2003 with a major in child development, then moved to Denver, where she had a successful career in health insurance sales.
"She was great with sales," Josh said. "She had a really good reputation in the local health care market."
Although Josh wanted to wait a year to propose, thinking that was the right thing to do, his father convinced him not to wait.
After eight months of dating, Josh popped the question in a sushi restaurant in Denver. He was so nervous, he recalled, that Leanne asked if he was sick.
They were married Sept. 26, 2009, at the Denver Zoo.
'We started planning for the trip well before we were married'
As the son of a retired Army chaplain, Josh spent his younger years on the move. He attended his freshman year of high school in Seoul, South Korea. He graduated from Cole High School in San Antonio in 1992. He speaks fluent German.
In Leanne, Josh found a partner who also loved to travel and cherished learning about different cultures.
As committed as they were to each other, their commitment to a round-the-world trip was not far behind on their priority list.
They started saving for the adventure soon after their engagement.
Josh drove a "beat up" 1999 Mitsubishi Gallant. They also bought a scooter to help save on gas money.
"We saved and just scrimped," Josh recalled. "We ate at home. We just kind of became hermits. We didn't go out. We saved every single penny we had to make this dream happen."
After renting out their home and selling the '99 Mitsubishi, they hit the road March 3, 2012, lugging along only carry-on backpacks.
"Homeless, jobless and carless," they wrote as the opening words in their travel blog, goexplore365.com, which chronicled the winding road of their adventure.
First stop: Las Vegas. They marveled at their $22 a night hotel room.
"And yes, we did our routine bed bug check, and this place was clean," they wrote in the blog.
Humor filled many of the posts throughout their journey, as did a palpable perspective of passion.
The posted photos. They shot videos.
They smiled and laughed their way across thousands of miles.
The adventure started out west and crossed the United States, with a detour to Canada, covering 8,104 in less than five weeks.
At the end of the first leg of their odyssey, they playfully wrote, "We still like each other."
South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia
The international stretch of their adventure started in the Pacific.
They preferred spending a few weeks in each country as opposed to hop scotching across the map. They often slept in hostels along the way.
They spent some days visiting popular sights and other days finding hidden gems off the beaten path, meeting people, it seemed, wherever they went.
In Myanmar in August 2012, they talked excitedly about seeing "Dave," whom they met on their trip to the Komodo National Park in Indonesia.
In Israel in June 2013, they "hung out with Sarah for about an hour before heading on our way... Traveling teaches you to have an open mind at all times because you never know what you will stumble upon."
In Bolivia in December 2013, as their trip came to a close, they boasted about their dinner with "Jean-Francois and Marilyn, the French couple that we traveled with from Uyuni (the world's largest salt flat, located in southwest Bolivia.)"
"I don't think we ever argued about anything except maybe: no, that dinner is too much (money)," Josh said.
Josh's responses generally sounded clear-minded and came with a free-flowing pace during our 90-minute face-to-face conversation in mid-April in his hometown of Denver.
He often smiled or laughed as he recalled specific details of their adventure. He was sharing his story for the first time with anyone in the press -- the first time since the discovery of Leanne's body.
"We got along the entire time, and it really was a dream."
Josh & Leanne's great adventure
'I didn't know it was that bad'
As the trip neared its end, Josh started to notice subtle changes in his effervescent, upbeat wife -- changes that went unmentioned on the couple's travel blog. A dark and restive demon gnawed at the inner depths of Leanne, a demon that Josh felt gained strength from "physical changes" and "hormonal issues" she had been experiencing for months. She had dropped significant weight.
"I sensed the depression about two weeks before we came home. She said she was starting to feel really anxious about going home. I think she was just nervous about going back into normal American life," Josh said.
Josh recalled that social media actually made Leanne's anxiety worse. He stressed that everyone posts happy messages online and that when Leanne checked in on the Internet, all the social chatter ended up depressing her. "Nobody says 'I'm having a terrible day' on Facebook."
And yet, on the outside, Leanne soldiered on with a smile through the final weeks of the trip, which ended in South America. A photo on the couple's travel blog from Bolivia in December 2013 shows her with a beaming smile as she posed in front of a graffiti, spray-painted wall. Coincidentally, it read L + J = heart. "How fitting," they wrote on their blog.
"I didn't know it was that bad, as bad as it was," Josh said about the torment that was shredding her soul.
Leanne's final days
Instead of returning to Denver and immediately reintegrating into their busy American lives, Josh and Leanne opted to reconnect with relatives. When they arrived back in the United States on Dec. 17, 2013, they first stopped in Georgia and visited Leanne's family.
Josh said her depression "sidetracked" here because she was busy with family and friends.
After 6 days in Georgia, the couple traveled to San Antonio to spend the holidays with Josh's parents in northeast suburban Garden Ridge.
"She was so worried about us coming home and getting jobs and everything, so I was just trying to do everything I could do to stop her from worrying," Josh said. He characterized Leanne as fixated on the small stuff of life: reactivating their health insurance, registering their car with the state of Colorado, even filing their federal taxes, despite the fact they had accrued no taxable income over the course of their adventure. "She was really concerned about being secure," Josh said.
Josh had lined up an IT job back in Denver starting Feb. 1. He said Leanne had a lot of job opportunities as well, but "...for some reason she just didn't have any confidence in herself. She thought she had lost her skills while traveling and everyone had moved along tech-wise."
Josh's father, Will Bearden, also noticed Leanne "seemed very anxious about many things, even things that had a simple solution." He said she seemed very tired and somewhat distant. "She was reticent to join in any of the family holiday activities. This was totally out of character for her. She began to isolate herself."
Josh's parents attributed Leanne's unusual behavior to the rigors of extensive travel as opposed to the red flags of depression.
"Most people who are close to someone who has taken their own life question what they missed and what they could have done to prevent suicide. We are not different," Will Bearden said.
January 17, 2014: The walk
The day appeared ordinary to Josh Bearden. Leanne joined him for lunch around 1 p.m. Josh's parents were out of town for a conference that week. They had considered not going, but then "Leanne assured us that we should go. She even agreed to care for our dog while we were gone," Will Bearden said.
Leanne told her husband she was going to take a walk. Josh offered to join her, because they always took walks together. But she declined and told Josh to finish his work on the computer.
"She was always making sure everybody was happy. That's just what Leanne did. And ultimately, maybe, that was her downfall -- that she was so worried about making people happy that she completely overlooked herself," Josh said.
While Josh worked on the computer and finalized plans for their return to Denver, Leanne showered and then had her final conversation with her husband. It was a short exchange.
"She yelled up to me and said, 'Hey. I'm going to go for a walk.' I said, 'OK.' I said, 'How long are you going to be gone?' She said, 'About an hour.'"
"And then, word for word, I said, 'OK, babe. Take your time."
Josh said he thought her tone sounded different, but that he wanted to give his wife her space, considering her avalanche of worries.
"It was almost like she was at peace. It kind of haunts me a little bit -- just the tone in her voice -- because I've never heard that tone in her voice before."
Josh never saw his wife leave the house. But a landscaper working across the street told police that he noticed Leanne walk down the driveway in an aimless state, walk right and then stop at the end of the road, where she turned around, re-traced her steps and returned to the driveway.
At this point of the interview, Josh sucked in a deep breath and asked for a moment to collect his thoughts, his eyes moist, his tone somber.
"I'm sure she was contemplating what she was about to do, and then she turned around and headed left," he said.
After Leanne's "hour-long walk" turned into several hours, Josh characterized his reality as emotionally unhinged and psychologically unglued. He said he slept no more than three hours over the next six days. "I don't remember it. A lot of it was a blur."
Josh filed a missing person report three hours after Leanne failed to return from her walk, Garden Ridge police said. The family went on to hire two helicopters to fly over the hilly reaches of Garden Ridge that are inaccessible to volunteer search teams. Josh said he spent every moment possible looking for the love of his life.
His gut had told him Leanne had walked off and killed herself. She had left a note on their dresser. It was a piece of white paper. "I LOVE YOU SO MUCH," it said in bold, block letters. He assumed this was a suicide note, but he clung to a small ray of hope that perhaps his wife had decided to run away.
When the pieces of this confounding puzzle failed to fit, however, and Leanne could not be found, her torment turned into his agony.
"That was the worst nightmare of all time. I cannot imagine anyone having that experience. I would never want my worst enemy having that experience," Josh recalled as he recounted the search for Leanne.
"Everything started spinning out of control," he said. "During the daylight I would be digging through everything. Bushes... I was scouring all over the place. My buddies were scouring all over the place."
As the search for Leanne turned from days to weeks, Josh searched for answers with unflagging energy in places near and far. Search teams fanned across Garden Ridge and the nearby Hill Country with dogs, horses and drones. When those searches failed to produce any credible leads, the family hired a private investigator.
At one point, tips from the public put Leanne in Laredo. Another tip suggested she was spending time late at night outside a San Antonio-area Walmart. One lead directed the family to a homeless shelter in Austin, which Josh said he visited in person.
The family was two days away from spending $50,000 to hire bounty hunters to go to Mexico to find Leanne. "I was ready to burn the world down to find Leanne," Josh stressed with emphatic energy.
With her disappearance well-covered by local media in San Antonio, the family recognized the need to keep Leanne's story alive nationwide. "We just tried to keep the story going as best we could because we thought maybe she had had some sort of mental breakdown (and ran away)." So, the family turned its focus to network TV. Josh appeared on Good Morning America, CNN and Fox News, and newspapers as far away as the United Kingdom wrote articles about Leanne. Meantime, social media would soon turn Leanne's disappearance on its head with speculation that Josh had killed his wife.
"Imagine that you can't find your... who you consider with all your heart to be your best friend and the person that you love more than anything in the world. So imagine that you're in that position and then you have all these crazy people trying to say that you killed her. That really drove me crazy, because that is so unfair to do to a person who is just like in complete pain and just at a loss. I didn't even know what to do," Josh said.
Garden Ridge Police Chief Donna O'Conner stresses that Josh was never considered a suspect in his wife's disappearance nor a person of interest. "I have no doubt from our investigation that this was a suicide," O'Conner said. The autopsy in this case, released April 17, confirmed the findings of the Garden Ridge police.
'Just please help me find her'
Everything changed for Josh on the night of February 12 as he lay in bed, wrestling with anger flooding into his life. He directed his despair at God. "I was having a real hard time, because why would any loving being do this to such a loving person (Leanne)," he questioned.
He said he felt a sudden presence in the room, and so, for the first time since Leanne's disappearance, he appealed to a higher power to help him locate his missing wife.
"I remember saying 'God, Jesus, Vishnu, Allah.' I thought of every single God we ran across while we were traveling, and I said, 'Whoever is the right one, just please help me find Leanne. Just please help me find her.' I said that over and over until I fell asleep that night."
Fast-forward to the next day. Josh and his family had driven to the Rogers Ranch neighborhood off Loop 1604 in northwest San Antonio to follow up on a possible sighting. That's when the call came to Josh's father. Police told him there was a development and to immediately come home. "(The detective) said Leanne is no longer with us. We can't give you details (over the phone)."
It didn't take long for Josh to learn the truth. He saw news helicopters flying overhead in his neighborhood. He heard the police scanners come to life as law enforcement flooded this otherwise quiet stretch of Garden Ridge.
"It was a little stump and she kicked it out," Josh stated in a matter-of-fact fashion. "Supposedly, she did a real good job of tying the knot."
Josh opted not to see his wife's body, but he did ask to see the place where she hanged herself. It turned out to be a remote patch of backyard, less than a mile away from the home of Josh's parents. Search teams failed to cover this area during their numerous searches.
"There was nothing special about it. I wanted to see if the spot meant anything. And it didn't mean anything. It was just a place. I think she tried to find a place to do it where she would be hidden and no one would try to stop her," Josh said.
At times, Josh finds himself trying to rationalize the irrational. He said it "drives me crazy" that she took her life but left behind no obvious clues as to why. No additional note. Nothing other than Josh's backpack, which she took on her walk without his knowledge, packing it with a few energy bars, a bottle of water and three black trash bags.
"I was not prepared for this kind of thing," Josh said. "It was unimaginable to me that somebody would do that, especially Leanne, because she was so beautiful. She had so many talents, so many friends. I loved her to death. I would have died for her. I loved Leanne more than anything. I still do."
'I don't think there's anybody untouched by suicide'
Josh returned to Denver after burying his wife in Georgia. With their house under contract to renters, he is staying with friends. It seems to be a decision based less on convenience and more on comfort for a man wrestling with grief and wracked by guilt.
"I don't think there's anybody who is untouched by suicide, and if they are, stay in your little bubble and never come out because this is freakin' horrible," he said with a raised voice.
"I'm always going to feel guilty. That's never gonna go away. I know it's not my fault. Could I have stopped it? I think I could have. But could I have stopped it the next time, I don't know," Josh said.
If anything, it seems that Leanne resisted psychological help. "She insisted that she was 'fine' and was not open to counseling," Will Bearden said.
"She just had a mental illness. And I think what Leanne did in her mind might have been the most unselfish thing that she could have possibly done, because I think Leanne actually started to believe that she was holding people back," Josh said.
'This is where I come every single day'
On the picture-perfect, sun-kissed spring day spent with Josh, we retreated for part of our time together to a bench on the banks of Sloan's Lake on the northwest side of Denver. With the snow-capped mountains at our backs and not a cloud in the sky, I imagined better times for Josh when he regularly walked this lake with Leanne. It was their favorite park in Denver.
These days, he told me, he comes here for the exercise and to let his mind freely wander.
"This is where I come every single day, just to walk around and think about memories," he remarked.
He clutches those memories with a fresh perspective of grief and an inability to break the grasp of its agony.
He proudly wears his wedding ring.
Callers to his cell phone still hear Leanne's bubbly voice asking you to leave a message.
Even the clothing he wore on the day of our interview bore Leanne's strong influence.
Five years ago in Egypt, she had bought him his sunglasses, Josh recalled.
He traced his crisp blue shirt to a trip to India. He said Leanne helped him buy it after they were invited to a wedding there on the spur of the moment.
Shoes. Jeans. Belt. Leanne. Leanne. Leanne. Her imprint defined his past, and now in the wake of her death, Josh committed to make her legacy a strong influence on his future.
'Leanne was the face of depression'
A month after Leanne's body was found, Josh launched a nonprofit organization committed to depression awareness called Up Foundation for Hope. He set up a website for the foundation and applied for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status for the nonprofit. As a logo for the foundation, he chose a photo from their 22-month-long trip of a sunset in Indonesia, during which Leanne took her hands and rounded them into the shape of a heart. In the middle of her cupped fingers, the camera snapped a shot of the fading sun shining through.
"The one thing I want to shed light on, Leanne... You see, Leanne, she's got this smiling face. I think a lot of people had a lot of difficulty believing what she did. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were still some people out there who are doubting what she did, because Leanne was such a beacon of light, but you know what, Leanne was the face of depression," Josh said.
Josh says he wants Up Foundation for Hope to be able to help people like him who have lost a loved one to suicide. He also wants to remove the stigma affixed to those who take their own lives. "It's more of a sickness. It's not a selfish act. Look, if this person who had everything was so depressed and she actually thought that life was so bad that she had to kill herself, what is it like for someone who has real struggles, because we were not struggling," Josh wondered.
"We don't know how else to describe what happened other than to say it was a tragedy. But out of a tragedy can come triumph. May it be so," said Josh's father, Will.
'You don't choose a life, you live one'
"You don't choose a life, you live one," reads the caption at the top of the travel blog, kept by Josh and Leanne during their around-the-world trip. It's as if Josh presaged his future when they posted that axiom, although "living" seems excruciating for Josh at times these days.
"The grief and the loss are ongoing," Will Bearden said about his son. "We want to make things 'all better,' and we are helping him. But we can't do the one thing that we all want to do: undo the past."
Josh said the void of losing Leanne extends to unfathomable depths. He mentions the dreams they shared for their future.
"We were supposed to come back and start having a family, start having kids. I feel like I lost my whole family," said Josh as he wiped a tear from his eye. "There's a lot of unfinished business."
The next chapter
Today, four months after returning from his trip with Leanne, Josh finds himself in El Salvador. He's on a new journey. This time, he wants to heal his soul after losing his soulmate. "Every single time that I think about any memory, it always circles back to Leanne. It always circles back to 'She's not here anymore,'" Josh said. "I can't wait until the day my memories go back to Leanne and they don't lead to the ultimate."
In early May, after Josh gets back from El Salvador, he plans to travel to Georgia to see Leanne's family and the plaque on her columbarium. He says he remains closely connected and in regular contact with her family.
From there, he says he plans to fly to Spain to take part in an annual pilgrimage known as Camino de Santiago. He'll hike 520 miles alone through northwestern Spain, ending at the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in Galicia. Along the way, he plans to bury some of Leanne's ashes.
"I'm really hoping it's going to be a healing process."
SLIDESHOW: A Dad's Take: Q&A with Will Bearden
Know the Signs: Save a Life
The numbers are staggering. Nearly 1 million suicide-related deaths happen each year world-wide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 38,364 suicides in 2010 and an average of 105 every day.
While it can be difficult to recognize signs in a loved one, The Texas Suicide Prevention Organization urges people to recognize these signs that could help save a life
1. Preoccupation with death and dying
2. Drastic changes in behavior or personality
3. A recent severe loss (such as a relationship) or threat of a loss
4. Unexpected preparations for death such as making out a will
5. Giving away prized possessions
6. A previous suicide attempt
7. Uncharacteristic impulsiveness, recklessness, or risk-taking
8. Loss of interest in personal appearance
9. Increased use of alcohol or drugs
10. Sense of hopeleness about the future
If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are a number of resources to help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.
Download the Ask & Prevent Suicide app for life-saving information and in-depth resources for people at risk and their families.
Support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth can be found at The Trevor Project.