Complicated grief

On Feb 11, 1968, in the midst of his presidential campaign, Robert F. Kennedy came to Putney School, where his daughter was a junior, to speak at our Sunday night meeting. For the curious, here’s what he said.

To be candid, his remarks weren’t earth-shaking. They were about what you’d expect from a guy who’d given a thousand such speeches and had a lot of other things on his mind. That snowy night, he offered us an idealistic, sixties-style trumpet call to service, and a trite one, even for the times. Reading it after all these years, I’m not surprised that I don’t recall a word of it.

What I do recall—vividly—was his charisma. That really was earth-shaking. It wasn’t just the journalists clustered by the podium, the kitchen crew leaning against the back wall, or the senior boys dangling from the rafters. No, it was more than just the thrill of the crowd. The room was electric when he was in it.

Also seared in memory is the envy I was feeling for his daughter. Earlier that day, happening by the main building, I’d seen her greet him, and the affection between them seemed almost palpable. Envy had been eating me ever since. Also, naturally, guilt for the envy.

I let myself off that hook now; given what had happened to me, such feelings were inevitable. But at the time, I could share them with no one. My story was more unpleasant and bizarre than those around me could imagine, or wanted to. No one had a clue; so, with typical adolescent bravado, I tried not to show it.

Sitting in that old auditorium, its benches turned sideways to accommodate the crowd, what I felt more than anything was: alone. Who among us could’ve imagined that only a few months later, his daughter would suffer the same kind of hurt I’d suffered?

As she departed that dark June morning 44 years ago, I glimpsed her face, puffy with tears, and my guilt rushed back. And behind it, the pain. I felt just how she was feeling. I was reliving it all.

I knew that the extra decade she’d had with both parents would make a big difference. I knew that her life was not going to slip off the rails as a result of this tragedy, the way mine had. Strange, how little difference this knowledge made. My entire brain felt like an antenna tuned to the Grief frequency.

I did not go to my mother’s funeral; at six, I was deemed too young. No one ever sat down to discuss her death with me, either. No one. Not once, not even to break the news; my ten-year-old brother had to do that.

My mother and I were very close. I loved her deeply. I’d been offered no opportunity to mourn her, ever. One glimpse of my schoolmate’s stricken face, and a tsunami of undammed grief carried me off.

I spoke no word of condolence to her; not then, not ever. My grief cut me off at the knees; who could slog through a bog of guilt after that? I’ve regretted my silence ever since.

In this cynical, knowing age, the senator’s call to service sounds triter than ever. Even so, he had a point. So here let me be the poster child for grief counseling:

You can’t avoid grief, you can’t escape pain. If you’re alive, sooner or later, something’s going to hurt. When it does, you must face it. Helping you do that is one of the main purposes of a funeral.

The death of someone you love is painful enough in the moment. Reliving it for the rest of your life is not the option to sign up for. Take my word for it.