Monday, February 20, 2012

On this, President's Day

A friend, and fellow bereaved mother, had the following posted as her facebook status today:

In the words of US President Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower, writing about his son, Doug Dwight, "Icky," three years old, who died at Camp Mead, Maryland. In President Eisenhower’s autobiography written in 1969 (49 years after Icky died), he stated, "With his death a pall fell over the camp. When we started the long trip back to Denver for his burial, the entire command turned out in respect to Icky. We were completely crushed – it was a tragedy from which we never recovered. I do not know how others have felt when facing the same situation, but I have never known such a blow. Today when I think of it, even as I now write of it, the keenness of my loss comes back to me as fresh and terrible as it was in that long, dark day soon after Christmas, 1920."

It fits perfectly with my mood lately. Sometimes as a bereaved parent, you feel alone in your thoughts. When I am happy holding my four month old daughter, or loving on my 3.5 year old son, guilt sets in that Ellie isn't here. Of course I am lucky they are here and love them. Of course, I would never put them in Ellie's "shadow" as some have warned. But at night, when the kids are finally asleep and as I listen to my husband's deep, slow breaths, my thoughts return to Ellie. I will never be the same person I was before and I cannot simply "move on" or "get over it." It was recently suggested that I "move on" for the sake of my living children and that my grief may negatively affect them and/or our relationship. What a horrible thought. Can you imagine never mentioning your child again? When they go to college, is it out of sight, out of mind? When you go out for a date night, do you forget you have children? Yes, these are different situations, but the premise is the same. They are always with you, in your heart. I can't imagine internalizing this pain nor could I imagine life repressing my memories or Ellie's existence. I have given birth to three children and lost two before given that chance. I think my children will become more compassionate people knowing they had a sister who died. They will hopefully not take life for granted. They will know how much they were loved and wanted. They will see our tears and know it is because we love our children so very much. 

So, in honor of President's day, I thought I would do a little research on how these powerful people reacted to the death of their children. Even during a time when children died often to disease, they were in the public eye. How did they deal with their grief?

Martha Jefferson lost a child before marrying President Thomas Jefferson, and five of their seven children died before maturity. She died four months after the death of her last child. Very few documents remain in her handwriting, but one can attest to her pain of loss and hopes of seeing her children again. She quoted Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy:

Time wastes to fast; every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity 
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return-
more. Every this presses on-
and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, 
every absence which follows it
are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!

I often see people chastising others on facebook for quoting people; the sayings having some importance on their lives. Amazingly 200 years ago, a bereaved mother couldn't sum up her pain and turned to the words of another, just as we still do today. 

Abraham Lincoln lost three of his four children (two before his assassination and one after). It is said his wife, Mary Todd, never regained her sanity. And it is reported that Abraham Lincoln, not traditionally a very religious man, came to God after the death of one of his sons. After his beloved "Eddie" died, an unsigned poem was published in the Illinois Daily Journal. the first stanza of "Little Eddie" reads:

Those midnight stars are sadly dimmed, 
that late so brightly shown. 
And the crimson tinge from cheek and lip,
With the heat's life form has flown.
The Angel of Death was hovering nigh, 
And the lovely boy was called to die.

Benjamin Franklin's son, Frankie, died of small pox at age four, prompting him to become one of the eras biggest proponents of inoculation (a lot more primitive way of receiving vaccines, obviously). Mr. Franklin took his tragedy and pain and made it one of the focal points of the rest of his life. Rumors that a failed inoculation led to the child's death may have led to his advocacy. Either way, the death of his child forever changed him and prompted him to help others.

While in office, John F. Kennedy's son, Patrick, was born prematurely and died two days later. After Patrick died, the Kennedy's spent many summer weekends at their Cape Cod residence. 

The list continues: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge...Even recent presidential candidates including John Edwards, John Kerry, and Rick Santorum have lost young children. 

One of my favorite quotes is by Ms. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential candidate, John Edwards. After her 16 year old son was killed in a car crash, she quit practicing law and turned to philanthropy. She so perfectly said, "If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who's important to them, and you are afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn't forget they died. You're not reminding them. What you're reminding them of of is that you remember that they lived, and that's a great, great gift."

On this President's Day, I remember and say aloud the names of all those children I know that have gone too soon. And I scream, "Eleanor."