On the surface, it seemed that Tyler Lambert, the son of the late Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato, had turned a corner at last. After struggling with depression for much of his young life, Lambert had moved back into a sprawling, Kellyville, Okla., ranch with his father, Plato’s ex-husband, hunting-show executive producer, Lanny, 47, and the two were collaborating on a series called Deep Woods Adventures. Lambert, a cameraman, appeared to relish the time he spent outdoors with his dad and frequently posted their videos on his Facebook page. “In Costa Rica having the time of [my] life!” he wrote in December. “Pura vida! See you soon with amazing footage.”
It was to be one of his last trips. On May 6, almost 11 years after his mother’s death and just three days before Mother’s Day, Lambert, 25, took his own life. “He had all the opportunities in the world, and we just can’t understand it,” his paternal grandmother, Joni Richardson, tells PEOPLE. “It’s just devastating.”
For Lambert, missing his mother was a lifelong struggle. After his parents’ 1989 divorce, his father was awarded custody, and the two moved from L.A. to Oklahoma to be closer to Lambert’s extended family. Meanwhile, as Plato’s substance abuse worsened, her visits to her only child became more and more erratic.”For hours before she was going to come, he would get so excited and run up and down the condominium,” Richardson says. “But she would not show and not call, and he suffered.”
When Plato fatally overdosed on pills in 1999, Lambert was not convinced her death was a suicide, as had been officially ruled. Soon, he began using drugs and alcohol himself, says Richardson, to “drown out the pain” of losing his mother. She adds his addictions resulted in two DUIs, several stints in rehab-and contributed to eight unsuccessful suicide attempts.
“He was sweet, giving and kind,” says his former nanny Mary Kaiser. “But drinking and doing pills [made him] different.” Still, Lambert showed some promise, an amateur songwriter and tattoo artist who loved water sports and skiing and who had plenty of girlfriends. But he never escaped the trauma of losing his mother.
“He had her name [tattooed] on his hand, on his arm and right across his finger,” his grandmother says. “He put her ashes in with the ink. He said, ‘I feel like mom is with me [now].'”
The night before he died, Richardson says Lambert, with his dad sleeping in another room, took 30 pills of the muscle relaxant Soma, 21 Ambiens and two Valiums but vomited before they could have an effect. “My son and I watched him like a hawk,” she says. “But he wanted to die, ever since [Dana] died.”The next morning Lambert seemed to be feeling better, even calling his grandmother and saying his overdose attempt was a “terrible” thing and to arrange a trip to see her at her other home in California.
An hour or so later Lambert told his dad he needed to nap. He went to his room and shot himself in the head with a shotgun.
“It’s tragic,” says Richardson who, with her son, will mix Lambert’s ashes with Plato’s and scatter them over the California wilderness. “We’ll finally unite them,” she says. “That’s what he always wanted.”