Eric Braeden believes that his longtime Young & the Restless costar Kristoff St. John, who died on Sunday at the age of 52, “succumbed” to the sadness he felt following the tragic death of his son four years ago.
“He was deeply, deeply caring about his son and deeply wounded by his son’s death,” the actor, 77, tells PEOPLE.
St. John and ex-wife Mia’s son Julian died by suicide on Nov. 23, 2014, at the age of 24 following a lifelong battle with mental illness and struggles with drug addiction.
“I think we all sort of tiptoed around what obviously weighed most heavily on his heart and his soul — and that is the death of his son,” Braeden says. “How do you discuss something so fundamentally tragic as that with even a friend? You don’t want to touch that wound.”
Though Braeden says he thought St. John was “trying to cover his pain” after his son’s death, he still had a “strange foreboding that eventually those demons would haunt him.”
“I mean, how do you live with that?” he says. “How do you live with the death of your son or your child? It’s unimaginable, I don’t even want to go there. As soon as you begin to empathize with that and begin to think about that, you understand his pain.”
The most moving — and painful — memory Braeden has of St. John is from the time he gave the eulogy at his son’s funeral.
“That was one of the most moving moments I’ve ever been a part of,” he says.
RELATED: Late Actor Kristoff St. John Tweeted About His Son’s Suicide 2 Weeks Before He Was Found Dead
Despite times of tragedy, Braeden remembers happy moments spent with St. John, too — especially those involving St. John’s dog, Brando, whom he got after his son died and would bring to work.
“The dog was hilarious,” he says. “He came into my dressing room and said, ‘I got to introduce you to my new friend, Brando.’ It was hilarious. He would just let him roam around in the studio.”
While doing scenes together, Braeden says he and St. John laughed a lot.
“He was a wonderful actor to work with, he was so damn good and so instinctive as an actor,” he says. “He had empathy. I think good actors all have empathy. He was just one of the good guys. You didn’t have to say much for him to understand. He was one of the essential pieces that made our show successful.
Behind the scenes, Braeden says St. John “alluded” to his struggles but that they didn’t get a chance to talk about them much because they would be busy learning their own respective pages of dialogue between scenes.
“Like all the good actors on the show, he was right on it,” he says. “He knew his stuff. Doing daytime is far harder than theatre or nighttime or film. Far harder. People have pages of dialogue to run and what we do as actors is we memorize it to the point that it becomes real. That sounds easy, but it’s difficult. He was a master at it. He did it with an ease, and he was a master at it — that’s all there is to it.”
St. John had played Neil Winters on the Young & the Restless since 1991, and Braeden says the impact of the loss will be felt by everyone on the crew of the CBS soap.
“That will hit us all at different times,” he says. “It just suddenly hits you, a memory comes up. I sat in my car this morning and it was raining outside and I was sitting there quietly reading Tweets from fans. It hit home, I tell you. He was a beloved character.”
“People loved him,” he continues. “Colleagues loved him, the crew loved him, I don’t think a person that he worked with didn’t love Kristoff. He was just a great guy — funny, intelligent [and] always would listen to what anyone had to say about anything.”
The coroner’s office previously confirmed to PEOPLE that St. John was found dead at a home in Woodland Hills. He was pronounced deceased at 4:02 p.m.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department, a death investigation took place at around 2:05 p.m. for a possible alcohol overdose at the 2300 block of Morea Way. According to TMZ, which first reported the news, the actor’s body was found after one of his friends went to check on him at his home.
Braeden describes St. John — who is survived by his fiancée, Kseniya Mikhaleva, as well as his daughters Paris, whom he shares with Mia, and Lola, whom he shares with ex-wife Allana Nadal — as a “respectful, honest, man’s man” who also “liked pretty women.”
“You could talk sports with him and talk about the opposite sex with him,” he says with a laugh. “He was a man with enormous depth.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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