At age 17, Bridget Park fills many roles: student, daughter, athlete, friend, teenager.
But it’s her role as sister that led to her debut as an author.
Bridget just published “Growing Young: A Memoir of Grief.”
Written over the last two years, the story is a courageous account of the 2008 suicide of her brother Austin when he was 14 and she was just 12.
“When I started writing it, I didn’t even think it would be published,” she said in a recent interview.
“I just put it all out there. I want to help people going through the same thing I went through. At the same time, it’s for people who see someone else grieving and don’t know what to do or say.”
Grieving did not come easily to the Bishop Manogue High School senior who lives in Reno with her parents, Jon and Molly Park.
“There were so many memories that I forced myself to forget. When I started really writing, and talking things over with my parents, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. Did that really happen?’”
She began writing at the suggestion of Emilio Parga, creator of The Solace Tree, a grieving center in Reno for children, teens and families.
“I just dove in head first,” she said.
As descendant of the pioneer ranching Park family, Bridget’s roots run deep in Carson Valley and Lake Tahoe.
When Austin died on Nov. 29, 2008, the Parks lived in Smith Valley.
Bridget was home alone with her brother that Saturday afternoon, and writes in heartbreaking detail about discovering his body, and the days that followed.
She said she hopes people won’t judge Austin.
“It’s very cruel how society portrays suicide,” she said. “I don’t want people to judge him. Nobody knows, only God knows what’s in your heart. I am not a suicide expert. I am not a therapist. I am just trying to open people’s eyes to the reality of suicide.”
Bridget knows the chapter will never be closed on Austin.
“At this stage, I am still grieving. I am busier than I have ever been. I have changed and grown so much in the past five years. I have to say to myself those five years did happen, and I have to make the best of it.”
As the memoir developed, Bridget’s mother put her in contact with author Tamara Leigh, a family friend, who coached her through the writing and publishing process.
The Parks self-published the memoir, Bridget said, to maintain creative control and distribution.
Two years after Austin died, the family decided memories in the Smith Valley home were too unsettling, so they moved to Reno.
Bridget enrolled at Bishop Manogue High School half way through her freshman year.
“It was the best decision I could have made,” she said.
She was looking for a clean break and a chance to start over.
“I love Douglas High School, and thought about going there, but there were too many people who knew my family and what happened to Austin,” she said.
At Manogue, she found herself confronted with the opposite situation.
“I was at a new school with 700 students and I was bombarded with questions. Part of me wanted to lie and say my brother died in a car accident, or that I was an only child,” she said.
Those were steps in the grieving process that Bridget has been able to put down on paper.
The Manogue family has embraced Bridget.
She is co-student body president and has been active with sports, including basketball, volleyball, cheerleading and cross-country.
Being with students who share her faith has provided Bridget with spiritual strength.
“My faith is the most imported thing to me. After Austin died, I asked God ‘why?’ I drifted away, but when you find God again, a whole new part of you is born again. Along the way I had an epiphany. The main reason why I moved to Manogue is because I can live and practice my faith with other kids who think the same way,” she said.
She’s headed for college next year, and hopes to major in journalism.
Bridget said she is overwhelmed by the response since “Growing Young” was published last month.
“My readers are amazing. It’s so heart-warming when they tell me this helped them. That’s my goal and it’s motivation to keep doing what I am doing. I am just so surprised. I had no idea it would be like this.”
Since the book became available on Amazon.com, Bridget has sold 200 copies. She ran out of copies at a recent signing at Bishop Manogue after selling 100 books.
Bridget is scheduled for a book signing 6 p.m. Dec. 10 in the lobby of the St. Gall Pastoral Center in Gardnerville
where she will have books available for purchase.
“People can stop by, and I will be happy to sign their copies if they already have them,” she said.
On Jan. 24, she is one of 22 speakers in the University of Nevada, Reno, TEDx talks.
Modeled on a national program, TEDx is program of local events to bring people together to share conversation and community.
Bridget, one of the youngest speakers, will share the podium with ABC news contributor Elizabeth Smart, who survived a 2002 child abduction when she was 14, and KTVN’s Wendy Damonte.
Bridget said she is energized by the opportunities to share her story.
“I have had a lot of experience public speaking,” she said, adding that she is a pep rally leader at Manogue. “The material comes right from my heart and the words just pour out of me.”
She believes her beloved brother would be proud of her accomplishment on her journey of self-discovery.
“I wish I didn’t even have a story to begin with,” she said. “But I think Austin wants me to succeed, and he would be OK with me sharing his life story. I hope I am honoring him in the best way possible.”