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‘I will forever be grateful for the kindness of people’: Gratitude, faith and service follow in decade after loss of youngest son

Paul and Ann Hawkins credit faith and gratitude for pulling them through after the death of their youngest child 10 years ago. They turned to serving others and often comforting people in grief.

Their son Tommy Hawkins died Sept. 3, 2011, from dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart, just two days before plans to drive him to college at age 19. As the recent Labor Day weekend marked a decade, the couple said they still reflect on gratefulness about having him in their lives. He was raised on the South Hill with four brothers and two sisters. The Hawkins children excelled as distance runners at Ferris High School and beyond.

Ann Hawkins said she still remembers the kindness from the Spokane running community, neighbors and many others reaching out personally to them about their son. Talking to parents after the loss of a child is never easy, she said, but it does bring comfort.

“Most people say, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ It doesn’t matter; I think the worse thing is to say nothing,” she said. “The thing I try to say that brought us comfort is, ‘We love you, we love your family, we will miss him or her, and we are so sorry.’ Acknowledge their grief.”

It’s raised awareness when around others that “you don’t know what somebody’s going through,” she added. “You don’t know if they’ve just experienced a huge loss. It’s not easy; it’s a process. You never get over it, but I will forever be grateful for the kindness of people.”

Often, it can be therapeutic to encourage someone to describe their loved one, added Paul Hawkins, a retired principal owner at Hawkins Edwards Inc., a Spokane commercial real estate company.

“The best thing family and friends can do for someone who has lost someone is just ask them, ‘Tell me about your son or husband or wife. Tell me their story,’ and let them just talk,” he said.

“That is great therapy. I never tire of talking about Tom. It makes me feel better. It keeps him alive, but it keeps everybody alive. I think people just need to talk. It’s not a fun transition, but it’s life.”

He said they’ve had chances to tell stories about Tommy that might inspire others, including on a mission to Tasmania in 2017 as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They mentored missionaries around age 19 and also supported people in the town of Deloraine.

Today, the couple oversee the justserve.org program for the Spokane Stake of the church offering volunteer sign-up options open to anyone in the community. Paul Hawkins said after Tommy’s death, they at first wrestled with the why, but, if anything, their faith got stronger.

“I had a really good friend who came by the house the week after Tom passed away,” he said. “He asked me, ‘Does Tommy’s passing strengthen your faith or weaken your faith?’ I said, ‘It strengthens my faith because we had Tom for 19 years.’ He was a blessing to us, and because he was such a good son and a blessing to us, I remember him, and I want to be with him some day.

“I think that in the world there needs to be a certain amount of gratitude. We lost Tommy, but we didn’t really lose him; he’s just someplace else. He was the last of all these kids. We actually spent two or three years just with Tom because everybody else was gone. We used to say, ‘When you leave, Tommy, you’re going to miss us.’ He’d say, ‘No, you’re going to miss me.’ This would go back and forth, back and forth, and in the end, I think he won.”

Their belief in God’s plan and eternal life helped, Ann Hawkins said. This past summer, she said they comforted parents of a 3-year-old who died from cancer. “We believe that there is a plan for everyone,” she said.

“This was the plan that the Lord had for Tommy, and someday we’ll understand why, but we believe because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we’ll be together again with him as a family. A lot of Christians do believe that, but that brings a tremendous amount of comfort.”

Their youngest son’s qualities included determination, drive and kindness.

He was the captain of the cross country and track team his senior year at Ferris, and he started his own lawn care business. With that, he saved $15,000 for school at Brigham Young University in Rexburg, Idaho.

Growing up, he watched brother Isaac win six state titles and run for Stanford. Sister Emily won a state title in cross country and ran for Boston University. Sibling Peter was on a team that won state titles and ran for Montana State. Brothers Paul and Ben saw cross country team successes.

“Tommy comes through this whole history of runners, and he’s good, but he’s not great,” his father said. “His team doesn’t win the state titles, but Tommy worked as hard as everybody else did. He had heart, so he would put in the time, work and persevered like everybody else did, but the accomplishments weren’t his.”

Tommy tried at the beginning of his senior year to catapult ahead in one key race to land on the varsity team, but didn’t place high enough.

“He came to me after the race, and he goes, ‘I think there is something wrong with my heart. It’s not working right; it was hard out there,’ ” Paul Hawkins said.

“I said, ‘Well, you’re trying to run 3 miles back to back at sub six-minute pace; that is a hard thing to do. Your heart is going to get strained,’ not knowing that a year from then he would be dead.

“But it was kind of a precursor that OK, maybe the mechanics of this body weren’t working like it perfectly should have. But Tom never got discouraged; he never said ‘I’m quitting.’ He was made the team captain.

“Tom took what he could do and worked. He starts his business. When he’s coming out of high school, he’d earned more money than any of his brothers and sisters.”

When Tommy invited a girl to senior prom, he learned that she was making a large banner for Mother’s Day. Their son decided that he’d create one for their front gate on Mother’s Day 2011, his last one with his mom. Ann Hawkins saw it as they were leaving for church, with large letters saying, “I love my Mommy – Tom.”

It was a special moment among many, she said, before the unexpected. “That Labor Day weekend, he’d gone on a bike ride up to the top of Mt. Spokane with his dad, and then later that day coming home from the store, he was driving and kind of went slowly off the road up into a yard and passed out in the car.”

Emergency workers and then hospital staff worked to revive him without response, his father added. Most of his siblings were home that weekend. “In some ways, it was a blessing it happened here and didn’t happen as he was in college his first week,” Ann said.

Paul Hawkins said a passage in Isaiah refers to being chosen and refined in the furnace of affliction. There are obstacles in life, to refine and make you stronger, he said. “Life is going to be difficult, so take it as a challenge. There’s a refining process.”

Son Peter Hawkins, cross country coach at Pasco’s Chiawana High School, starts the year telling athletes about Tommy. Ann Hawkins said he describes that regardless of running success, there’s more. “The person next to you may or may not be here next year,” she said. “Life changes, so be kind to each other. Encourage each other.”

“And be grateful for what you’ve got when you’ve got it,” Paul Hawkins added. “Gratitude takes away bitterness. It takes away anger. It takes away discouragement. Gratitude solves and cures so many problems.”

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