When my birthday rolled around this year on November 22, I was reminded again of the significance of that day in history. It was on my fourth birthday in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and I remember it well.
I hadn’t heard the word “assassinate” before that day. The sorrow that gripped my family also gripped the nation. I didn’t like it. I wanted it to go away. But every day the television was awash in news stories as the nation prepared to bury our president.
Four days in history. Four days in mourning. Four days that shook our nation and the world, now commemorated 50 years ago.
My birthday link to the Kennedys left me with a fascination for this public family. I collected books and commemorative magazines over the years. The grief of the nation and the grief of the Kennedy family didn’t end with JFK’s death. Less than five years later we witnessed another horrific Kennedy assassination when Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s brother, was killed. Our nation grieved with the passing of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, JFK’s widow, in 1994. Then in 1999, the unthinkable happened when JFK, Jr. died in a tragic plane crash over the Atlantic. More sorrow. More grief.
There’s a song in Les Miserable called “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” that Marius, the sole survivor of the student revolt, sings after the heart-breaking massacre of all his friends. Two lines of that song stand out to me and aptly describe the grief of our nation. “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. There’s a pain goes on and on.” Haunting words in his unfathomable predicament—fighting his guilt while also embracing the newfound love of his soon to be bride, Cosette.
These words ring true to me as I think of the Kennedy family and their grief. How does a mother like Rose Kennedy live with the grief of losing two sons to the bullet of an assassin? She had already lost two of her nine children to tragic plane crashes in the 1940s. Surely this was “a grief that can’t be spoken.” Yet she survived and lived to a ripe old age of 104.
It takes an amazing amount of faith and perseverance to endure that kind of loss. As mothers we feel the pain of our children’s hurts and disappointments—from the pain of a scraped knee to the hurt and rejection of bullying words voiced in school. But we were never meant to watch our children precede us in death.
Thankfully I’ve never experienced that kind of grief. I can only provide prayer, compassion, and sympathy to those who have. Like Rose Kennedy, whose faith got her through the pain and heartache shared by the nation, we can turn to the God of all comfort when life turns tragically wrong and we enter into a season with “a grief that can’t be spoken.”
“For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” (Lamentations 3:31-33, NIV)
~ Ardis A. Nelson