A couple of months after Luke died, Josh and I found ourselves standing tentatively in the doorway of a large meeting room at a nearby church. This was a local chapter meeting of Compassionate Friends, a national nonprofit that serves families who have lost a child—an organization to which no one, ever, has wanted to belong.
I was unsure about this venture. Luke’s death was still fresh. I was sinking in a pit of tarry grief and wondered if hearing the dark tales of others wouldn’t drive me deeper into the gloom. Looking around the room, I was surprised by how many people were milling about—nearly 20, by rough guess. I did a quick mental calculation. This was just one of three local chapters, and each likely only represented a fraction of people who had lost a child. The sad tribe of which we were now a part was larger than I had ever imagined, if I had had the courage to imagine it at all.
We sat down in folding chairs arranged in a circle, balancing plates of broken gingersnaps and chubby, orange fingers of carrots in our laps. A woman with kind eyes and frizzy gray hair pulled into a bun introduced herself as the meeting facilitator and asked that we introduce ourselves and our lost loved one, a chain of sorrow that grew heavier with each new link. Most of the crowd were regulars who had been attending the meetings for years. The children they mourned would have been adults by now, some deep into middle age. I felt conspicuous and out of place, like Josh and I were newlyweds crashing a golden anniversary celebration.
As my turn approached, my heart began to slam itself against my rib cage, the buttons on my shirt quaking from its anxious wallops. I remembered how, when Hannah was a newborn, I had attended a breastfeeding support group, complaining of the pain and nuisance of oversupply. When the circle of women started to describe hours attached to the gaping maw of a breast pump, scrupulously counting success by each dripping milliliter, I realized mine was a problem that did not elicit their sympathy. Now, I worried that this group of parents, those on the other side of their children’s lives, would judge our loss of Luke at just 16 months old as lesser in some way to theirs, that they would think my grief was a lighter shade than theirs.
“Hi. I’m Jennifer. This is my husband Josh. We lost our son Luke about two months ago.” There was a collective gasp from the room. The woman sitting next to me reached over to squeeze my arm. A man directly opposite dropped his head into his hand.
A few seats to my right sat three elegant, older women holding hands. Each had lost a teenaged child: one to a car accident, one to sickness, one to suicide. They were so striking, so stoic, a bulwark of female friendship pushing against a ceaseless tide of pain. The middle link of this catena cleared her throat and leaned toward me, never letting go of her friends’ hands.
“After my daughter died, I wanted to get a button made,” she said in a fervent stage whisper. “Like one of those campaign buttons, you know? But mine would say, ‘My daughter just died.’ In all caps. I needed people to know that.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Seventeen years later, I still wish I had that button.”
I felt a warm pulse of validation. Losing Luke felt like it had rearranged the very atoms of my being, but I had no scars to signal as much. Strangers still expected me to go when the traffic light turned green, to choose a floor when I climbed on an elevator, to answer “Paper or plastic?” at the checkout line. I longed for a free pass, for some way of telling the world, “I’m sorry I’m a little slow today. My son died, you see, and I’m not sure I didn’t die with him.” Six-and-a-half years later, I still wish I had that free pass.
After the introductions, parents whose children would celebrate a birthday that month were invited to speak. In singles and couples, they passed around photos and told stories of their child. One mother shared a poster she had made for her daughter’s 17th birthday. The photos were grainy and worn; the hairstyles they featured all feathered and hairsprayed. The other members of the group oohed and aahed over baby pictures. They chuckled at funny stories and asked questions about high school photos. I sat silent and uncomfortable, an anthropologist in a strange land. This was behavior I hadn’t seen before: people speaking freely, even happily, about a dead child. Yes, there were tears, but there was laughter too. Somehow, on their own or with one another, these people had found a way to let light into the black holes of their loss.
After one man finished sharing a story about his son, a marine who had died while on active duty, he looked across the circle to Josh and me.
“I’m so sorry,” he said with pleading eyes. “I’m sorry that you had such a short time with your son. To lose a child is terrible. But at least we—he reached over and patted his wife’s knee—we have 23 years’ worth of memories to sustain us.”
It was the gentlest and most generous of offerings. I had been afraid this group would believe my suffering was not as black as theirs, that Luke was not as great a loss. But now, this man, one who had suffered one of life’s most unimaginable cruelties, was saying not just “You have suffered, too” but “You have suffered more.” Of course there was simply no way of, nor any point in, comparing. Grief carries both no weight that can be measured and all the weight of the world. But what I really heard behind his words was: “I acknowledge your pain. I know it is greater than anyone will ever know.”
There were a surprising number of those kinds of “at leasts “ around the circle that night, small oblations extended from one sufferer to another.
“At least it went quickly. . . .”
“At least we had the chance to say goodbye. . . .”
“At least . . . at least . . . at least. . . .”
And as I listened to others’ stories, I too, was calculating the fortunes of my own loss:
“At least Luke didn’t know what was happening to him.”
“At least I was with him at the end.”
Several years after that meeting, I was driving in my car when a story came on the radio about Vantablack, the “blackest black” in the world. That there could be different shades of black was difficult for me to wrap my mind around. At home, I looked it up online and was startled at how my eyes did an uncomfortable little two-step trying to process what they were seeing. Not a color, really, just the complete absence of light.
Amidst my Google results was a news story about a man at a museum falling into an 8-foot hole painted in Vantablack as part of an art exhibit. Because it absorbs 99.96 percent of the light that hits it, an object painted in Vantablack shows no depth. The museumgoer had mistaken the dark well for a flat black circle in the middle of the floor.
I thought back to that Compassionate Friends meeting, each of us offering condolences to fellow souls lost in the stygian forest of grief. There in the dim murk of our experiences, we recognized, however tacitly, that there were indeed different shades of black. And in the end, as we bumbled around in our darkness, we reached out to one another, trying to avoid falling down the hole where there was no light at all.