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  • Writer's pictureMichael Vinton

"How are your parents?"

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

My journey to find my place after a suicide and how support from strangers might be the best medicine

Young siblings (two boys and a girl) enjoying ice cream at kitchen table.
(Left to Right) Jimmy, Michael and Jennifer

After my brother died by suicide in late August of 2020, this was a question that I was often presented with in conversation when referring to my loss. “How are your parents?”

As a parent myself, I am all too familiar with the adage “There is no greater loss than the loss of a child.”. But why were they asking me how my parents were doing? What I heard, in their subtext, was, “Your parents lost a child. So, how are THEY doing?” Truth be told, I never did come up with a way to answer other than to say. “They are coping the best way they know how.” And that was the truth – for I now know that there are no guidelines or rules to grief. It hits us all in very different ways, at very different times for very different reasons.


Honestly, what I wanted to say was, “I’m hurting, every day, for my brother. I miss him terribly. It’s the single most significant loss of my life and I hate it. I hate it.”


My siblings and I share a unique story, probably because it is our story. My brother, Jimmy, and I were born two years apart. Our birthdays separated by only one day; mine first on the 29th and his on the 30th. We shared many things together throughout our lives; we shared beds when we were younger, we shared rooms as we grew older, and we shared friends almost always. Our younger sister was born, as a surprise, when I was 5 years old and she stole my limelight. But the three of us stuck together, stronger than ever.

When I was 11 years old, our maternal grandmother, who lived with us and nurtured us as we grew passed away from her battle with stomach cancer. A dreadful curse for someone who was so passionate about food. Her absence in my family was devastating. So, my parents, with the help of hospice, put us in children’s therapy.


At one particular meeting, the therapist or counselor, I can’t remember which or who, had us draw a picture of a dream that we recently had that included our grandma. My brother drew the Grand Canyon and explained that in his dream of her, she had fallen off the ledge and was bouncing from the bottom to the top to let us know that she was okay. An interesting dream I’ll say, but nonetheless it was funny and cute, so we all laughed. It definitely contrasted with my dream which was more of a re-lived moment from growing up with grandma. I was in her bathroom showering and singing, and she was making her bed. She was happy.


Suicide will leave people with nothing to say; not knowing what to say. Like others, family members are left feeling abandoned, embarrassed, ashamed, and confused. I spoke with my brother on the phone for about an hour the day he died. We don’t live on the same coast, so phone calls were frequent, and FaceTime was necessary. He was struggling. I knew that, but he had a plan in place to get help. So, I did what I thought I could do, I tried to make him laugh. I told him that I would come visit him in the hospital after he voluntarily admitted himself to the psych ward. I told him that he would get through this and that everything would be okay.


Before our phone call ended, I made him promise me that he wouldn’t hurt himself or anyone else. He promised. Jimmy and I never lied to one another; we always gave our word even if it hurt. There was no way my brother would die by suicide, I was convinced.

 

Amongst the grief and the “shoulda’s and woulda’s”, I was overwhelmed by the lack of support that I gave him during that call. I should have done more. I could have done more. He was my brother, the only one that I’ll ever have and what wouldn’t I do to help him?


My family and I committed to going to therapy, once again, for the simple fact that we didn’t know how to face this: Suicide.


Jimmy was a married, middle-aged man; does this happen to people of all ages? My therapist kept recommending that I find a local suicide support group to try out. However, I had seen many movies in the past, that depicted support groups and I was NOT interested in sitting around and listening to other people talk. Least of not, over doughnuts. But after a few months of therapy, I drifted over to the Didi Hirsch website and made a call.


During my initial intake call with Didi Hirsch, I found myself speaking with a survivor. An exchange that I was not prepared for, actually. I found him warm and inviting and after a few minutes, I began to open up. Then the tears started to fall, and I had found my place.

I knew then that speaking to someone who was also a survivor was what I needed. He understood. He knew. My first support group call was over Zoom (they still currently are held virtually) and before me was a room of judgment free, open and caring individuals who got to share in this horrific tragedy.


We discuss and find the commonality in each other’s pain. We are there for each other when the outside world no longer understands or can be supportive. I had found my place.


Grief takes us all down different roads and no one road is better than the other. A very wise and beloved Queen once said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” While my family quickly finished up their journey in therapy and didn’t seek out support groups as a means for help, I continued onward. But I had to remove my judgment from their process. Instead of questioning why they left therapy or why they didn’t join a support group, I had to decide how to connect with them. So, I began to talk about my learnings. I share with them my process and in turn; I hope it helps them to heal too. I speak about my brother as much as I can. Because I miss him, and I will always love him no matter what. That is my job, as his brother and as his friend.


I am now three years into my journey having lost my brother Jimmy to suicide. I still attend support group calls regularly. I participate as a committee member for another affiliated suicide support group. And in the fall, I hope to train to become a group facilitator for support calls. It’s important for me to help others, be of service and listen to their experiences. Support can come in many ways, a phone call, an email or even just asking how someone is doing. It costs us nothing but can change so much to just show support.

So, find your people. They may not be your family members or your neighbors or your co-workers. They may just be the stranger in your Zoom call who understands and nods when you cry for your loved one. They may just be that brother who lost his brother after their last phone call. Just maybe...


 

On January 1st, 2021, my daughter, husband and I traveled to the Grand Canyon on New Year's Day. The view was breath taking and snow was still on the ground. As the sun set and it began to get cold, I found a sweet little spot with a few pine trees overlooking the edge. I dug deep into the bag that I carried which held my brother Jimmy’s ashes and I tossed him into the Grand Canyon. I hope he and grandma are having quite a good time!



Resources: If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available.

Call or text 988, or text MHA to 741741. For more information about suicide, please visit here. For more information about grief, please visit here.

For more information about support groups, please visit here or call Mental Health America of Illinois at (312) 368-9070.


About the author: Michael Vinton is an actor, stand-up comedian and business owner. He lives in Sherman Oaks, CA, with his husband, Tony, their two children, and Australian Shepherd mix, Annie.

A family at the Grand Canyon with their pet dog.
(Left to right) Michael, Annie, Tony and Zanna at the Grand Canyon

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