WELLS, Maine — For mother Angela Stevens of Wells, this Christmas will look much different than Christmases of the past. It's her first since she lost her 18-year-old son, Trent Gibson, to suicide back in June. That was a moment she said was "earth-shattering."
"Your grief is as big as your love, so your grief is never going to end because the love never ends for that person you lost," Stevens said.
Stevens said Trent's death came as a complete surprise. She said she knew he was feeling stressed but had no idea those feelings had spiraled to the point they had. She said she has gone through a range of emotions, from grief and sadness to anger at the world.
"Somebody can be surrounded with love. Somebody can be so incredibly loved and still feel alone, unfortunately, and that’s the mental health part of it," Stevens said.
Stevens decided she wanted to put a tree in Trent's bedroom for Christmas this year and have family and friends send ornaments to hang on it. That idea evolved, and she decided to place the tree in her front yard instead, inviting community members to hang ornaments in Trent's memory, or in memory of loved ones they've lost to suicide.
Stevens said all she put on the tree were purple and teal lights for suicide and mental health awareness and a picture of Trent. Community members have done the rest of the decorating.
"For me, the tree has become a visual representation of support and love and reminding people that no matter what you’re going through, there’s somebody out there who has love for you," Stevens said, later adding, "At one point in time, we had cars lining down the street with people with ornaments."
Stevens said she has gotten the word out in part through a new nonprofit she began with her family and friends a few months after Trent died. It's called Stay; For Life and is designed to raise awareness specifically about men's mental health.
"We’re trying to help break the stigma that goes along with the expectations of men and all the pressure that gets put on them because society says that’s how it’s supposed to be," Donald Whitten, Stevens' fiancé and the treasurer of Stay; For Life, said.
Whitten said he has realized he has even been guilty of perpetuating stereotypes about men in the past. Now he wants to speak more openly about the issue.
"I’ve cried a lot lately, so it’s OK to do that," Whitten said. "Those are the kind of messages we need to get out there for people, so they’re not carrying that burden with them."
Erin Haye of Sanford is one community member who has hung an ornament on "Trent's Tree." She did so in memory of her father who died by suicide seven years ago.
"Holidays are tough for anybody who has lost somebody, especially by suicide, no matter if it has been six months, 10 years, 20 years," Haye said.
She said she's hoping to see much bigger systemic changes in the future.
"Just because you have some mental health issues, you’re not a bad person. We need to make sure the mental health system gets fixed in this country," Haye said.
Stevens said right now, Stay; For Life is running an initiative to buy and ship light therapy lights to people in need during the cold, dark winter months. To learn more or to donate, you can click here.
If you're in need of help, you can call or text the Crisis Intervention Hotline at 988.