Tammy Cunningham is no stranger to the complicated nature of grief. More than 20 years ago, her two-year-old son, Tony, was killed in a car accident. And on December 1, 2011, her husband, Noel Cunningham—a well-respected philanthropist and owner of the now-shuttered Strings restaurant—took his own life.
It took Tammy almost three years to find her footing again after Noel died. For months, she experienced panic attacks; she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be doing with her life or why she was stlll alive at all. (After her son’s death, Tammy says she attempted suicide.) About a year ago, she says she awakened from the “coma trauma” and began working with the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners (RMCP), Colorado’s 24/7 crisis and peer support line. “I wanted to make a bigger difference and share my story if it would help,” Tammy says.
Lived experience, as the suicide prevention community refers to it, can help reduce the stigma and shame that continue to surround the issue of suicide, as well as offer hope to those dealing with mental health issues and suicide ideation. “I was totally affected by the stigma [surrounding suicide],” Tammy says today. “I didn’t want people to think lowly of Noel.” Though she initially hid his cause of death from the media, Tammy eventually went public with the information.
Tammy recently closed the Cunningham Foundation that she and Noel founded—but she’s found a new way to give back to the community and honor her late husband. Her handmade Hope Jewelry line—a collaboration with RMCP—features women’s and men’s bracelets as well as a necklace, all crafted from dark brown or black leather, silver, and metal. The circular charm on each of them reads “You are not alone” on one side and features RMCP’s crisis line phone number on the other. Make a donation of $100 or more to RMCP, and you receive a bracelet or necklace (your choice) in return. Whether you’re purchasing it for yourself or gifting the jewelry to someone you’re concerned about, Tammy created the Hope line as a “nonthreatening, loving way” to start a conversation about suicide or depression or any other mental health issue people are dealing with. “It’s almost like a medical bracelet,” she says.
Today, Tammy is still working through her grief and the complicated emotions that often accompany suicide. And while she’ll always miss her husband, she has found happiness in her newfound mission. “It’s healing [to me] to know I can make a small contribution to help [other] people reconsider. All of us need to not feel alone.”
She has also recovered a connection to Noel in continuing their shared mission of “loving the world.” In doing so, she continues her husband’s legacy—and perhaps gives others the opportunity to discover their own.
Donations can be made online or by mailing a check to RMCP, PO Box 460695, Denver, CO 80246.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call 1-844-493-8255. Find more Colorado-based mental health resources here.