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Fourteen months later
Elise shuffled into the church fellowship hall and cast a wary gaze around the assembled group. The rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee scented the air, lending a warmth and welcome to what she expected to be a most uncomfortable environmentsharing her grief with strangers.
One of the women seated in the circle of chairs spotted her standing in the doorway and called to her. "Hello. Are you looking for the grief-support meeting?"
Elise took a reinforcing breath and nodded.
The woman stood and waved her closer. "Please, come join us." As Elise approached the circle of chairs, several of the men stood, as well, greeting her with smiles and nods of welcome, and the woman who'd spoken first took her hand and patted it. "My name's Joleen Causey. I'm the group facilitator. Welcome."
"Thanks. I'm Elise Norris." She gave Joleen an awkward smile, and when the facilitator motioned to a seat next to her, Elise sat on the folding metal chair. As the others introduced themselves in an onslaught of names she didn't even try to remember, she scanned the faces of the group gathered in the small circle and gripped the edge of her chair. Several elderly ladies gave her curious glances, two gentlemen with gray-streaked hair nodded in greeting, a couple about her age clutched hands and sent her wan smiles, and a raven-haired man she estimated to be in his early thirties met her gaze and flashed her a strained crooked grin. "Jared Coleman," he said.
Other than the couple who clung to each other's hands as if their lives depended on it, Jared Coleman stood out simply because he was at least twenty-five years younger than any of the other members. She wondered briefly whom he'd lost and how he'd wound up in this group.
She'd been told about the group by a neighbor who attended the church that sponsored the meetings. For six months, Elise had worked on gathering the nerve to attend this grief-support program. For someone who'd been looking out for herself most of her life, who had established her independence from an early age and prided herself on her efficiency, reliability and self-sufficiency, seeking help had felt like a defeat. But when the one-year anniversary of Grace's death passed, Elise had still been moving through her life in the same fog of pain and denial as she had the first week. While she knew she'd never forget the child she lost, she had to come to grips with Grace's death so she could move on in her life.
"Don't feel like you have to talk tonight if all you want to do is listen," Joleen said. "But if you want to talk about what brought you here today or anything else that's in your heart, please feel free. We're here to listen and support you however we can." She flashed another warm and encouraging smile, tucking a wisp of her blond hair behind her ear, and Elise nodded.
"I came tonight because " She took a deep breath. " Just over a year ago, my daughter died right after birth."
Across the circle, the young wife gasped. Elise's gaze darted to her, but the woman was sharing a sad look with her husband. A prick of envy poked Elise. At least this woman had someone to share her grief with. In the past months, Elise had felt more alone than ever.
Elise squeezed her hands into such tight fists, her fingernails bit into her palms. "I only had a few minutes to hold her before " She paused, feeling a knot forming in her throat. "Anyway, I'm just having a hard time handling it."
"Of course. Many people say losing a child is the hardest death for a person to experience. But you're not alone." Joleen gestured to the rest of the group. "We're all here to help each other."
Elise forced a thin smile of acknowledgment then stared down at her lap. She hadn't talked with anyone about Gracie in months, largely because she couldn't get through even a simple comment without getting choked up. And the instant her eyes got teary, her neighbors or her colleagues at the Lagniappe newspaper, where she was a staff photographer, would back away with stricken expressions, as if they expected her to dissolve into wailing histrionics.
Knowing that her grief made other people uncomfortable chafed. Since when was there a time limit on compassion for a person's loss? But since talking about Grace was difficult anyway, she'd soon learned to avoid the topic of her daughter. Would sharing her feelings about Grace and the unfairness of her loss be any easier here?
"We lost our baby, too."
Elise jerked her head up and looked at the man who sat clinging to his wife.
The wife had her mouth pressed in a tight line as if struggling not to cry, but her eyes held Elise's. In an even tone, the husband continued, "It's been six months now, and while coming here" he gestured with his head to the group "has helped, it's still hard, really hard, for both of us to deal with. So while I won't pretend to know what you are feeling, because everyone grieves differently, we know at least something of what you're going through."
The wife bit her bottom lip and nodded to Elise.
"My son Sammy died fifteen years ago," a white-haired lady next to Elise said, patting her arm, "and I still think of him every day. It gets easier with time, but a mother's love never ends."
Elise swallowed hard, fighting back the stranglehold of emotion rising in her throat. If she allowed her tears to come now, she was afraid she might not be able to stop crying. Had coming here been a mistake? How could she relive the horror of that day, the crushing sense of loss over and again by coming to this group every week?
When she scanned the faces around the circle again, her gaze met Jared Coleman's. His dark brown eyes were locked on her, and an odd expression of guilt or uneasiness shadowed his face.
"Do you and your husband have any other children?" Joleen asked, and it took a moment for Elise to realize the question was directed to her.
"Oh, I I'm not married. And no, no other children."
Joleen gave her a sympathetic look. "I see. Well, the loss of a child can be hard on a marriage. Divorce, sadly, is common following such a tragedy."
The young woman across the circle nodded. "Greg and
I have promised each other to be open and honest about our feelings. This group is part of our strategy to make sure our marriage survives."
Elise shook her head. "No, I mean I was never married. I" Elise stopped when the eyebrow of one of the older women across from her raised in judgment. She didn't owe this group an explanation of her personal choices. A pulse of anger for the woman's haughty attitude helped Elise get a handle on the burgeoning tears in her throat. Taking a deep restorative breath, she folded her arms around her midriff and sat back in her chair. She stared at the floor near her feet, second-guessing her decision to attend the meeting.
Joleen apparently read Elise's body language for what it was, a disinclination to say any more on the topic, and directed the next question elsewhere.
"Jared, earlier you mentioned that you'd had an especially tough day last week. Would you like to tell us what happened?"
Without raising her head, Elise angled her gaze up from the floor to glance at Jared Coleman. He met her eyes briefly before clearing his throat, shrugging a shoulder dismissively and shifting in his seat. "Um, I " His gaze darted away, and he cracked the knuckles of one hand with his other.
His restlessness and reluctance to speak intrigued Elise. Especially since his guilty furtive glances toward her told her his discomfort sharing with the group centered on her presence. She made a point of averting her gaze, hoping to make him feel less on the spot.
"Isabel took her first steps last Wednesday," Jared said at last.
Around the circle, several of the women cooed.
Elise tightened her grip on her sleeves. First steps? Clearly Isabel was a baby. About one year old.
The same age Grace would have been had she lived.
Like a fist to the gut, a shot of renewed grief landed a sucker punch that stole Elise's breath. She sat very still, keeping her gaze on the floor, but she felt Jared's eyes watching her.
"As happy as I was about her walking," he continued, "it just brought home to me, again, all the milestones Kelly will never see."
Now the women around the circle made noises of empathy and shared sadness for Jared's revelation.
Elise made a few mental calculations. Jared was here alone. He apparently had a one-year-old daughter. Was the absent Kelly his wife?
He said no more about the situation, letting his feelings about the event go unspoken. In the ensuing silence, one of the older women launched into a story about missing her late husband during the holidays and family celebrations.
Elise hazarded a glace across the circle and found Jared's attention on her again. Instead of jerking her gaze away, as if she'd been caught peeking at something forbidden, she held his stare. More than grief over the story he'd just shared, she saw concern and guilt in his dark brown eyes. Guilt?
She was still pondering the reason behind his odd expression half an hour later when the group dismissed for refreshments. Elise had no appetite for the cookies on the table by the exit, but her mouth was dry, and she decided to stop for a cup of lemonade before she left. Her pause at the refreshment table gave Joleen a chance to catch up with her before Elise made her escape from the awkward meeting.
"I'm so glad you came tonight," she said, placing a hand on Elise's arm. "I hope you'll come back. Talking about your experiences and your feelings gets easier with practice, and having the support of people who understand what you're going through is invaluable."
How could anyone really know what she was feeling? Her grief seemed so personal.
Elise forced a smile. "Thank you." She made no comment on whether she'd return. The jury was still out on that. Even the little she'd said tonight had been painful to share. She drained her lemonade quickly, hoping to make a hasty exit before any other members of the group caught her in an uncomfortable conversation. Tossing her empty cup in the trash, she spun on her heel to leave and almost collided with a broad chest belonging to a man with dark brown, soulful eyes.
"Hi," Jared said with a quick flash of a lopsided grin.
"Oh, uh hi." Elise's heartbeat performed a stutter-step. He was much taller than she'd expected, and this close to him, she could smell a tantalizing hint of sandalwood.
He rubbed his palms on his jeans once before sliding his hands in his pockets. The rattle of keys told her he was fidgeting. "I'm sorry if I made you uneasy or caused you more pain tonight."
She blinked at him and furrowed her brow. She wasn't sure what she'd expected him to say, but an apology was not on the list. "Pardon?"
"Talking about my daughter." He gave an apologetic wince. "When the Harrisons joined the group." He hitched his head toward the young couple still chatting with an older lady at the circle of chairs. " Kim would get upset when I talked about Isabel. I thought, maybe, since you'd lost your baby hearing about my daughter would be especially difficult." He pressed his lips in a taut line of regret. "If it was, I'm sorry."
Elise could only stare for a moment. His sensitivity to her pain was thoughtful and also.frustrating.
"I, um " She shook her head in disbelief. "Thank you, but I don't expect you to censor yourself to protect me. Sure, it hurts to hear about other people's kids and think about what might have been, but that's not your problem."
He shrugged and frowned. "Maybe, but I'd hate to think you decided not to come back because my stories about Isabel upset you. Losing my wife was hard enough. I can't imagine how hard it would be to have lost Isabel, how difficult it must be for you and the Harrisons."
Pain shot through her chest, and she murmured, "It's been hell."
He pulled one hand out of his pocket and flipped it up in a gesture that said she'd proved his point. "And I don't want to make it worse."
She nodded, swallowing hard to force down the knot of emotion that had worked its way up her throat. "I appreciate that. But how selfish would it be of me to expect you not to say what you needed to about your daughter, if it helped you work through your own grief for your wife?"
He lifted his chin and cocked his head as if her comment caught him off guard.
Before he could say anything, she raised a hand. "Besides, I get a little tired of people avoiding mention of babies, and especially Gracie, my daughter, as if pretending she never existed would be easier for me, when really it's their own awkwardness they want to avoid."
She heard the bitter edge in her tone and bit the inside of her cheek. She hadn't meant to snap at him. Her frustrations with her coworkers and neighbors weren't his fault. But instead of taking offense, he smiled and nodded.
"Exactly. I get the same thing from my friends concerning my wife. As if any talk of spouses is suddenly taboo. I hate it."
His response surprised her. Something warm unfurled in her chest, releasing a bit of the pressure that squeezed her lungs. When was the last time someone had actually understood the tangled emotions she had over losing Grace? Even this tiny connection to Jared made her feel a little less alone. "Your wife must have died recently if Isabel is only a year old."
He nodded. "Nine months ago. Isabel was five months old when Kelly was killed by a drunk driver."
A spark of outrage fired through her. "A drunk driver. It's bad enough to lose someone to disease or an accident, but when another person's carelessness is to blame that's" She shook her head, fumbling for the right word to voice her dismay.