“Men of power sat around him. . . all struggling with their tears — great hearts sorrowing with the president as a stricken man and a brother.” Nathan Parker Willis on the Death of Lincoln
On February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of President and Mrs. Lincoln, died of typhoid fever. The openly mourning president would become a symbol of our nation’s grief as the Civil War began to take the lives of 620,000 soldiers over what remains the bloodiest four years in U.S. history.
Upon first seeing his dead son, President Lincoln murmured, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!” Willie was interred in a borrowed crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.
His coffin would accompany the president’s on a funeral train to Springfield, Illinois in 1865. This is a story of such profound grief that we can still feel the pain and suffering upon hearing it. Lincoln continues to teach us how to cope with tragic loss…not with a stiff upper lip, but with an unashamed embrace.
According to the United Nations World Population Prospects report, approximately 7,452 people die every day in the United States. Annually, some 37,000 people are killed in automobile accidents, another 45,000 commit suicide and 17,250 more are victims of homicide. There is no doubt that each of us will encounter, and deal with death on a fairly regular basis.
For Chaplains and First Responders, the chance of frequently facing such tragedy is imminent. It is so important for all of us to open ourselves to the reality that we will be called upon as intimate comforters for family, friends and others.
And it all starts with notifying loved ones. In order to be of any help to those who grieve we must be able to be with them without offering advice. In his book Compassion; A Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen called for us to be first and foremost, people of compassion saying;
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
If we are to abandon the stages of denial and impatience in the process of grieving, we must also be able to embrace the darkness of loss. This is not supposed to be easy. It requires a listening ear open to suffering with those in pain. It also requires sharing and experiencing personal sadness when grief comes to our own door.