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Today is President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 98th birthday, but he is forever fixed in memory as the handsome young President of Camelot–with the elegant wife and beautiful children–shot dead in Dallas at the age of 46. Some days are markers forever. We remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on 9/11, when John Glenn orbited the earth, when we first heard of Kennedy’s assassination.

Lev and I had been married less than a year. I was ironing in our upstairs apartment at 3102 Santa Fe, when Lev called excitedly and said, “Turn on the TV. The President has been shot!” Who can forget the photographs of Jackie in her blood-stained pink suit? or the funeral cortege? Jackie draped in black? Tiny John-John saluting his father’s casket? Television was still fairly new, and the public mourning for the President was probably more extensively telecast than any other death up to that point.

I did not realize until very recently how much those images have influenced Americans’ notions of how we should mourn. When I ask a recent widow how she is doing, she invariably responds, “I’m trying to be strong…but it’s hard.” I felt the same way, and eventually I began to wonder, Why do we think we have to be strong? Is that even healthy? Would I have healed faster if I had given in to my grief?

I asked Dr. Helen Harris those questions. She believes that this concept of “being strong” stems from Jackie’s televised strength in the public observances surrounding her husband’s death. Reinforced by the media, she has become the model for all of us. This is what is admirable and expected. And Caroline and John-John–those perfectly behaved, beautifully dressed little children. Our children and grandchildren should be just as composed. Harris pointed out, “The public didn’t see her when she screamed in the pillow at 2 a.m. Or John-John at 5 or 15, when his dad wasn’t there.” Harris noted in a followup email that there is also a religious aspect to showing strength in times of grief, “the notion that Christians are strong and celebrate the home going of their loved ones.”

But Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35). And Paul wrote the Thessalonians, “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 RSV) Paul didn’t say, “Do not grieve.” He said, “Do not grieve like those do who have no hope.”

Jesus comforted Mary and Martha with the words, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John 11:25, 26)

That is my faith. That is my hope. That is my comfort. But this doesn’t eliminate the grief. It simply makes it bearable. I will pass through the valley of the shadow of death. I won’t have to linger there forever.

Note: My May 7 interview with Dr. Helen Harris of the Baylor school of social work has evolved into a series of four blogs on different aspects of grief. Earlier blogs were:

Bereavement: “I’ve Been Robbed”;
Mastering the Storms of Grief;
What Do You Say When There Are No Words?