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Tom Hamilton came into my life when I was five years old. Tom was funny, smart, handsome, and very cool. He drove a white Mustang; he had a sailboat named Punkin. He married my mother when I was six. They took me with them on their honeymoon in Germany. He raised me as if I were his.

Tom and I had an adversarial relationship for a good chunk of my life. Mostly it was in jest. I told him it was wrong to become a Broncos fan just because we moved to Colorado. (I still believe that! Go Cowboys!) I told him his job was boring and I would never get a job sitting in front of a computer all day. I was wrong; that’s exactly what I do. He knew I hated lima beans but when he cooked dinner, he often included them and told me to “eat your vegetables like a lady.” I knew he hated beets so when I made dinner, there were frequently beets. I regularly rolled my eyes at his awful, but very clever, dad jokes. I secretly loved them and told a lot of them to my own son.

We had some serious fights too. I hurt him with my words a lot as a teenager. I didn’t consider how hard it was to be a stepparent. I didn’t appreciate how much he loved me. I’m so grateful that we had a chance to strengthen our relationship in my late teens. When I became pregnant with my son at 20 years old, I was so scared of his reaction, but he was so incredibly supportive and kind. He let me make mistakes but was always there when I needed him. He loved my son so much. They went everywhere together. They were best buds.

I can’t remember the sound of his voice anymore. But I will never forget how he loved me. 

We lost Tom to suicide March 25, 2004; nine days after his 53rd birthday, one day before my 25th. I had him as my stepfather for nineteen years. It wasn’t long enough.

When we lost Tom, everything felt lost. He was the rock of our family. We didn’t know anyone who had lost someone to suicide, so we just didn’t tell anyone that was how he died. I didn’t think anyone would understand and I didn’t want anyone to think or say terrible things about my stepfather because of the shame some people still feel around suicide and mental health.

So, we grieved alone… we grieved alone until Father’s Day in 2012, eight years after his death. We were sitting at a local parade, and someone handed my sister a flyer for an Out of the Darkness Walk in Omaha hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. My sister turned to me and said, “We need to do this for Dad.”  

So, I went home and read all about AFSP. I registered us for the Walk, and to be a volunteer, and found that the local chapter was looking for board members – and because I never do anything halfway, I applied for that, too. Through AFSP, I found a community of people who understood my grief, who understood the depth of my pain and who understood my desire to do something positive with my biggest hurt. I have been volunteering with AFSP ever since. 

This year I will have lived my life longer without Tom than with him. But he is with me every time I tell his story, train a suicide prevention class, visit with a suicide loss survivor, and attend an Out of the Darkness walk.

I advocate for suicide prevention and tell the story of my stepfather over and over because when he left this world for some reason, he believed he didn’t matter. He was wrong! I will spend the rest of my life proving to him that he mattered to me and to so many others.

I also advocate for suicide prevention because I know there are so many people who have thoughts like he did. I volunteer with Healing Conversations so that I can be the person my family and I needed after we lost Tom to suicide. I speak out about mental health so that everyone knows that it’s okay to not be okay – but that it’s not okay to stay that way. We must talk to each other about mental health and suicide because even the people who we think are the strongest or the happiest might be struggling and afraid to admit it.

So today, for Tom, have a real conversation about mental health with the people you love and let them know they matter, and they are not alone.