Our support group meets on the second Wednesday of every month. At one meeting, held in the cramped upstairs of the local church, the power failed. The facilitator lit a candle and placed it in the center of the group. Sitting in a circle, we mourned our children and one another’s by candlelight as the summer night drove the oxygen out of the room and the shadows higher and higher up the wall.
This meeting was auspicious. It was the first in which M. and I were not the group's newest members. Two new couples had joined, starting me and M. down the path to veteran-hood. As each member of the circle told her story, one of the newcomers would interject, interrupt, and break in: her thirst to be understanding and to be understood so deep and parching, no amount of relating could slake it. The other new mother, having shared her story, said very little. She just looked around the room, listening, maybe searching our shadowed faces for what she will look like three months, ten months, two years down the timeline.
After that night, the group moved back to the upstairs library of a nearby synagogue. We are surrounded by books with titles like The Long War and Sands of Sorrow. Joy and Remembrance and We Had a Dream. And Babi Yar, which looks like Baby every time I light upon its spine. At each meeting, I hope there will be no new members. Every time there are, it is a reminder of a hard and disorienting fact: that after your babies die, and while you are at this point or that in the grieving process, other people’s babies die, too. This throws a hard light onto at least one self-deception of the bereaved: the world has not, in fact, stopped. It is spinning right along. Grief just makes you forget the motion for a little while—so long as you don’t happen upon other people as they are hurled over the side.
When M. and I were new to the group, maybe this is what we meant to the longer-standing members. I know when I first see the new initiates, that is what they mean to me. At the same time M. and I were say, driving to Phoenix, or walking in San Diego, or beginning therapy, or realizing how near the due date was, someone else was just then experiencing that first something’s-wrong punch of terror, crying their first anguished cry, or watching a little casket descend, rocking in the breeze like a bassinette, just as Gus’s and Zoey’s did.
Listening to the newcomers tell their stories, repeating ours, hearing the further-along members share the new, surprising shapes their pain has taken, I came to see that we are not a portrait of grief. We are a telescopic view.
Seeing where the new members are in their mourning and recognizing in where they are now a place you once were—this is not looking in a mirror; it is looking back in time. It is to peer through a lens into deep space, to see a cataclysm as great as the distance its light has crossed. It is to try to reconcile its fundamental gone-ness with its vital now-ness. And it bends the mind, because how could anything so violent and so exquisite, be the past? It is to see the after-effects of the Big Bang: not happening now of course, but to all appearances absolutely now.
This is as fitting an image as any, the Big Bang. It was a calamity that birthed a universe and forever veiled what existed before—hiding it not only from sight but also from imagining. Ask any of us there in that upstairs libary, each of us intimate with who the others have become, but still strangers to who they had been: what were our children’s deaths if not that?
What experiences have you had “mentoring” babyloss parents or with support groups? How did the experience of being a more established member of the community differ from being a newer one?