The kookaburras and minor birds usually greeted my brother, Martin, and me with a loud cackle as we ambled along the narrow path we’d made to and from the bus stop. On the afternoon of May 23, 1984, the silence was eerie. Even the surrounding gum trees seemed in on the secret; the usual rustle of their leaves absent in the stillness.
We stepped into our house and Mum’s red-rimmed eyes jolted me. In a distant voice, she told us maybe we should sit down; she has some news. I told her I was okay standing. Because of the mood, I knew whatever she was about to say wasn’t going to be good. How bad it really was didn’t register until she said, “Your father passed away this afternoon.”
My legs immediately went limp, and I flopped onto a nearby chair. Although the doctors had listed his official cause of death as a heart attack, Mum explained that he'd ingested poison with the intent of ending things. A few weeks earlier, my father had been diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder. When the neurologist told him, “You must stop working. Hand the car keys to your wife. You are no longer to drive,” Mum described Dad’s reaction as palpable. This once proud Italian had shrunk before her eyes.
When I reflect on the days following my dad’s passing, the only emotion I recall feeling was anger at myself for collapsing the way I had. I know now that I was deflecting. Something inside of me didn’t want me to deal with the shocking news I’d just heard. I would later come to think of this thing inside of me as my “monster.”
Young people often shut down rather than deal with their ‘monsters’
According to the World Health Organization, 700,000 people die by suicide every year and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for our youth. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, researchers compared the average number of suicides from 2015-2019 to the number of suicides from 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and found the rate of suicide among people ages 10-19 increased from 5.9-6.5%.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among children ages 10-14, according to The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When factoring in a statistic found in the American Journal of Psychology, the data is damning: for every death by suicide, the risk of another suicide in the family doubles. A fact my history does not dispute.
Part of the problem lies in communication. As teenagers navigate adolescence, it can be difficult for them to open up and talk about what’s going on inside. A study conducted by Emory University and the University of Rochester shows that teenagers who communicate their emotions are less likely to fall into depression or have suicidal thoughts. But they need to be encouraged by their parents or other adults in their life to do so. Unfortunately, for my family and many others like ours, the norm was silence. Rather than coming together and building a strong unit, we each went into our own little world, never talking about what happened and how we felt about it. Most traumatic for me was my eldest brother’s breakdown. Collapsing into depression, he didn’t get out of bed for months. In a span of a few days, I’d not only lost my father, but my brother, who had been my rock and best friend.
The author and her siblings with their parents.
Painful feelings come out in other ways
Looking back, I realize now that this “monster” inside of me translated my feelings of abandonment, betrayal and sadness into one, all-encompassing emotion — anger. Throughout high school, I was constantly fighting with my siblings and snapping at my friends. My rampant anger progressed to cutting myself and suicidal ideations. At 17, when my emotions seemed the most volatile, I found myself speeding along one of our dark rural roads determined to either slam into a tree or drive off a cliff. The only thing stopping me was my mum. I would picture what this would do to her and the rising guilt would defuse my anger. Even though home life was beyond chaotic after my father’s death, and mum was raising five children ages 13-18 on her own, she always made me feel loved and cared for. But because she never spoke about her emotions or ask us about ours, I continued to bottle everything up.
Around the time my eldest brother finally emerged from his depression, my youngest brother, Martin, suffered a psychotic break and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which his doctors equated to a delayed onset triggered by the trauma of our father’s death. In 1994, 10 years after my father passed away, Martin died by suicide.
My older brother, Paul, worked in a high skill/high danger environment. In 2003, he was the victim of a childish workplace prank that resulted in PTSD and ongoing mental health issues. In August 2013, he received devastating news that his best friend had passed away. The next day, Paul died by suicide. His sudden and unexpected death shook me to the core.
Making Friends With Monsters
Making Friends With Monsters
In late 2017, I was back home in Australia when a friend told me her ex had died by suicide two years earlier, leaving her with three daughters, ages 11, 14 and 20. She told me that the hardest part was when her daughters asked, “Mummy, why did Daddy do it?” because she had no idea what to say. This recurring theme of silence around suicide and the struggle to find the right words hit hard. On the long flight back to Los Angeles, I kept thinking, “If anyone can give voice to this silence, I could.” I felt as though it was my duty to help. That’s when the idea of writing Making Friends With Monsters was born.
Talking about suicide can help shatter the stigma
Because Mum was always honest about what had really happened to Dad, I’d never felt inhibited talking about my family history. I had no idea my siblings had buried the topic until in mid-2010, my niece (who was about 13 at the time), began asking me questions about Grandpa and Uncle Martin. Her initial queries were innocuous enough: What were they like? Was Grandpa a good dad? But then she asked me how they died and I paused. “What were you told?” I asked cautiously. “That Grandpa had had a heart attack and Uncle Martin was in an accident.” Not knowing what to say, I changed the subject until I could discuss this with my siblings.
To my surprise, they confirmed these stories. Because they didn’t know how to broach the topic, they thought it best to wait until the kids (who ranged in age from 5-13) were older. Once the silence starts, however, it’s hard to break. I would come to find out that Paul’s death by suicide was also not discussed.
The tools for navigating these tough conversations were not as readily available to my family as they are today. Had they had access to the kind of information we have today like this article from the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, I’m certain their approach would have been different. Experts suggest keeping things simple. For example, when children aged 6 and under ask about a death related to suicide, the authors recommend saying something like, “This person had a disease in their brain and it took over. They died and it is very sad.” Honesty is best because children are perceptive and can become anxious if they sense something serious is being hidden from them. My niece would later admit that she’d overheard enough to know that the adults were harboring secrets and was hopeful to get answers out of me.
In order to open up a conversation, I wanted Making Friends With Monsters to offer an easy and maybe even fun way for children to talk about their emotions. The idea that a third party—a “monster”—is really the one behaving badly creates distance between the child and the emotions driving their actions. That helps kids get perspective on their feelings. It’s hard to admit our truth when we are caught up in the middle of it. By looking at these big feelings from the outside, I hope to help children gain insight and understanding as to why the feel the way they do. I want them to know that it’s okay to feel any number of ways, so long as they don’t let that emotion consume and overwhelm them.
The cloak of silence no longer shrouds my family. By sharing my story, I am indirectly exposing theirs, and I am thankful to have their blessing to speak out. In the words of my sister, “Although nothing can be changed for us, we can impact changes for those who are experiencing now what we experienced then.” My hope is that those suffering from all-consuming emotions or suicide’s stigma will find a way to open up and feel heard, too.
Sandra L. Rostirolla's new book, Making Friends With Monsters is available from your favorite booksellers this April. This essay is part of a series highlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club — you can join the conversation and check out more of our favorite book recommendations.
Sandra L. Rostirolla
Sandra L. Rostirolla graduated from the University of Sydney with a BAppSc (Physiotherapy) and has an MBA from La Sierra University, Riverside, CA. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Sandra is an award-winning author who currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and rescue cat, Noodle.