TIME

UNITED BY GRIEF

Parents who lose a child to a school shooting discover a bond that transcends ideology
Seven parents of seven dead students. From left: Pamela Wright-Young, Melissa Willey, Andrew Pollack, Darshell Scott, Tom Mauser, Nicole Hockley and Darrell Scott

MITCHELL DWORET AND MELISSA WILLEY have never met and don’t have much in common. Dworet, whom everyone calls Mitch, is an outgoing real estate agent from a busy part of Florida; Willey is a reserved stay-at-home mother of nine from a small town in southern Maryland. But one thing unites them: both had kids on a high school swim team, and now both of those kids are dead.

Dworet’s 17-year-old son Nicholas was killed during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February. Soon after, some parents of other children who had been victims of gun violence contacted Dworet, offering him support, guidance and understanding. A month later, 1,000 miles north in Maryland, Willey’s daughter Jaelynn, 16, was shot to death by a fellow student at Great Mills High School. When Dworet heard about it, he contacted Willey on Facebook. “I felt like I should reach out,” he says. “I wanted to pay it forward.”

An invisible network of similar threads connects hundreds of grieving parents across America. The connection is not formal. There is no organizational structure, no listserv, no roster of names. But their bond is strong enough that they often describe themselves—glibly but also in earnest—as “the club.” There is only one criterion for membership: you sent a child to school one day and then never saw them again because of a bullet, leaving you with pain, loss and perhaps even other shattered children. “It’s a club you spend your whole life hoping you won’t ever become a part of,” says Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan, 6, was killed in the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “But once you’re in, you’re in.”

Hockley learned quickly what being part of that community can mean. Just a month after Dylan’s death, a group of parents and survivors of other school shootings flocked to her small town to show their support for a foundation she was launching in honor of the kids killed at

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