A mother, a sister and her fight for a better life

Heather Demello and her niece, Serenity, hold on to each other in the room that she has devoted to her son, Dustin. Soon she will include photos of her sister as well.

Heather Demello and her niece, Serenity, hold on to each other in the room that she has devoted to her son, Dustin. Soon she will include photos of her sister as well. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Heather Demello holds on to her son’s dog tags in the room she has devoted to him.

Heather Demello holds on to her son’s dog tags in the room she has devoted to him.

Heather Demellow and her niece, Serenity hold on to each other in the room that she has devoted to her son, Dustin, and soon she will include photos of her sister as well.

Heather Demellow and her niece, Serenity hold on to each other in the room that she has devoted to her son, Dustin, and soon she will include photos of her sister as well. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Heather Demello has devoted a room to her son, Dustin, and soon she will include photos of her sister as well.

Heather Demello has devoted a room to her son, Dustin, and soon she will include photos of her sister as well. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor columnist

Published: 02-24-2024 10:00 AM

She sat in a room below a shrine of flags, medals and framed photos in honor of her son, next to the young daughter of her late sister.

The conversation shifted, moving from the death of Heather Demello’s son, Dustin Hall, a 21-year-old member of the Army Reserve who died by suicide in 2021, and Heather’s sister, 34-year-old Ashley Demello, who died less than two years later from diabetes, a death, Heather believes, that was related to the marathon battle Ashley waged against her addiction to heroin.

“It’s such a mystery,” she said of her sister’s passing. “I have so many questions.”

On Dustin, she said, “I wish he’d spoken to me before doing it. I wish that if he was struggling, he would have come to me.”

New Hampshire has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. Addiction, overdose and loss have ravaged countless families. The state continues to grapple with its mental health system, and how best to get timely help to those who need it. Efforts have been made to treat it like the illness it is and create a structured pathway to get help so people don’t have to suffer in silence.

Struggles with mental health cuts across all walks of life, but it has hit especially hard in the military. Nearly 250 veterans from New Hampshire died by suicide between 2015 and 2020, according to a recent report by the State Suicide Prevention Council and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Hampshire that uses data from the Veterans Administration.

Clarity is what Heather Demello would like. A clear picture.

Demello continues to resemble Ma Joad from the “Grapes of Wrath.” She was the family’s glue during a long, dark stretch, trying to help Ashley get clean, raising three of her own children and, essentially, her niece as well, and working full-time at Village Street Garage in Penacook.

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She still works there after seven years and says she loves her job, using it to keep her busy and steady, with a sense of purpose.

“We’re all going through something and grief is not easy,” Demello said. “It can be hard at times. Mental health is very big now for us. We’re all grieving, and I need to make sure everybody is okay.”

She paused.

“As well as myself.”

A new addition

Demello wants to talk about mental health and drug and alcohol abuse, two elements that once filled her life. She’s got full custody of her niece Serenity, who sat with us during our interview, shining a light, moving around the former living room-turned shrine with boundless energy, adding wise comments beyond her years.

She had trouble pronouncing “anesthesiologist.” That’s what she wants to do, though.

“Yes, I want to go to college,” Serenity said. “Me and my friend want to do it and we’re going to plan. She wanted to do that job, and I was thinking that it sounds interesting.”

Serenity also said she’d like to play basketball next year at Rundlett Middle School. She wanted to play this year but had to learn a hard lesson first.

“I didn’t get to do it this year because my room wasn’t clean,” Serenity said. “I went into my room and sobbed.”

“We set down boundaries,” Demello said. “Your room was messy. You should have seen that room. Really bad.”

It’s an example of Serenity’s new life. She has a strong parental figure who will help her learn and grow, follow rules and grow up healthy.

“That’s why I’m so hard on Serenity,” Demello said. “I began to hide the candy and sugar. I don’t want her to have diabetes. It runs in my family, whether it be passed to her or her children. It’s serious.”

Family fractures

Demello took Dustin when 3 years old and moved from Milford to Keene. His father battled his own demons and the relationship was failing. For Dustin’s sake, as well as her own, she decided it was best to leave.

“I knew he was struggling,” Demello said, referring to Dustin’s father. “There was no consistency for Dustin. I walked away.”

This was Demello’s life at the time. Worrying about others. Could her sister get clean? Could her children and her niece get the love and support they’d need?

Ashley was living in Florida, raising Serenity. State officials took Serenity away several times, placing her in foster homes.

“I was confused a lot,” Serenity said. “I didn’t know what was happening because I was like four or five. I just wanted to go back to my mom.”

Eventually, Ashley earned custody of Serenity back. She returned to New Hampshire and moved in with her sister, who had settled in Concord about 20 years ago.

Earlier in their lives, with a 10-year age difference, Demello loved playing the big sister role. In later years, she said she never truly knew if Ashley had relapsed or not.

“I don’t believe it ever went away,” Demello said. “I believe she found ways to cover it up.”

The power of Dustin

Dustin’s impact on his mother began in a profound fashion. As a baby and young child, he opened his mother’s eyes, forcing her to face responsibility for her first child.

“Raising Dustin changed my life,” Demello said. “Dustin was amazing, a great kid.”

He had always wanted to join the military. He signed up for the Army Reserve soon after graduating from Concord High in 2017. Demello said he seemed fine.

That changed, Demello said, when the Army insisted that all personnel receive a COVID vaccination. Dustin refused and never changed his mind, Demello said, despite being told that he would be discharged if he did not comply.

Dustin took his own life that day, just a few days before Christmas. Demello found him in his bedroom. She believes his death on the day the Army Reserve gave him an ultimatum wasn’t a coincidence.

“It’s hard not knowing because I never spoke to him about it,” Demello said. “But it all lines up.”

Remembering, moving on

A lot of significant pieces to Dustin’s life remain in the basement. A baseball. A blanket his grandmother made for him. A book he wrote in grade school. His video games. His cowboy hat and boots.

“I would bring up his graduation uniform,” Demello said, “but I just haven’t done that yet.”

She’s decorated what used to be the living room with other memories. Now, it’s Dustin’s room. His uniform with name tag and shiny buttons is framed on the wall. So is the American flag, folded tightly and placed into a traditional triangular frame at his funeral. There’s a poem and a photo of Dustin in his camouflage clothing. He’s wearing his dress uniform in another photo, the one that hangs on the paneled wall and shows him smiling, with a crisp white collar and tie.

Serenity said she tries to avoid the room that celebrates her first cousin. “I don’t come in here a lot,” she said. “I come in here to go to the kitchen, and I sit down here to play my games, which is not often. I’ll put my feelings towards my game so I wouldn’t think about it.”

There’s normalcy and love in their Concord home these days. At least as much as they can muster. Demello has a serious boyfriend who doesn’t do drugs. They go out for dinner on weekend nights. Serenity likes school and has friends.

The dark past no longer dominates their thoughts. But it’s always there.

“It’s not easy,” Demello said.

“No,” added Serenity, “it’s not.”

If you need help:

Veterans: To connect with a Veterans Crisis Line responder anytime day or night, dial 988 then Press 1.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

NH Rapid Response Access Point:Call or Text 833-7100-6477 for free and immediate, 24/7 access to mental health and/or substance use crisis support via telephone, text and chat services.