Here’s another excerpt from Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. It constitutes a kind of case study of the grieving process — i.e., Bobby’s grief after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
The excerpt also offers an insight into human beings at their best:
I think often of Bobby’s grief over the loss of Jack. It veered close to being a tragedy within the tragedy. […]
He delayed returning to his duties as attorney general; he found it difficult to concentrate on anything or do substantive work. Hope seemed to have died within him, and there followed months of unrelenting melancholia. He went through the motions of everyday life, but he carried the burden of his grief with him always. […]
In mid-January 1964, while Bobby was still attorney general and before he made up his mind to resign and run for the Senate from New York, President Johnson asked him to visit the Far East to negotiate a cease-fire between Indonesia and Malaysia. He was to meet in Japan with Sukarno, the enlightened but volatile Indonesian president […].
Bobby’s official mission was to act as peacemaker; but Johnson also hoped that the assignment would lift his spirits.
Johnson, so often perceived by Bobby as an adversary, had on this occasion performed a valuable act of compassion. In Japan, Bobby and Ethel witnessed a tumultuous outpouring of friendship from the people, who wanted to show their respect and love for John Kennedy through Bobby’s presence.
I believe that the reception restored his faith that life was worth living after all.
I have grieved the loss of both a brother and a sister. I can relate to Bobby’s inability to concentrate, his loss of motivation, and that melancholia which spirals downward, at intervals, into darkest despair.
I learned to ride the tiger: to let it carry me where it would; to be patient with myself when I would break down in tears for very little provocation; to wait out the process until it had exhausted itself, like Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping George Foreman.
If there is any antidote for grief, it is the mere passage of time. That plus the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.
At Gethsemane, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. In the grieving process, the flesh proves surprisingly strong: bodily functions persist even while the spirit is utterly impotent. One day, you discover the unsuspected truth of that facile saying, “Life goes on.” Then your spirit may revive: you may return, by stages, to the ordinary business of living — partly in spite of yourself.
One morning I woke up and I knew
You were really gone
A new day, a new way, and new eyes
To see the dawn.
Go your way, I’ll go mine and
The sky is clearing and the night
Has cried enough
The sun, he come, the world
to soften up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but
To carry on.
(Stephen Stills, “Carry On”)
I don’t know about the “rejoice, rejoice” part, but the rest of that line is true — “We have no choice but to carry on.”
There’s another lesson to be found in the story of Bobby Kennedy’s recovery from grief. It has to do with human nature: that unseemly amalgam of terrible evil and inspiring goodness.