What Abraham Lincoln Teaches Us About Grief

Abraham LincolnOn February 24, 1862, Willie Lincoln, the third son of President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Lincoln, passed away.  He was twelve years old at the time of his passing.  He contracted typhoid fever, likely from impurities in the Potomac River, which was where the water for the White House at the time was supplied.  Willie lingered for days, his condition fluctuating, but near the end he became steadily worse.

Elizabeth Keckley, a freed slave, seamstress, and author, who was a personal confidant of the Lincoln’s, wrote of that final hour of Willie’s passing and the President’s response to it.

“The night passed slowly ; morning came, and Willie was worse. He lingered a few days, and died. God called the beautiful spirit home, and the house of joy was turned into the house of mourning. I was worn out with watching, and was not in the room when Willie died, but was immediately sent for. I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and earnestly, murmuring, ” 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 ! ”

Great sobs choked his utterance. He buried his head in his hands, and his tall frame was convulsed with emotion. I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes full of tears, looking at the man in silent, awe-stricken wonder.  His grief unnerved him, and made him a weak, passive child. I did not dream that his rugged nature could be so moved. I shall never forget those solemn moments—genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

It’s hard to picture the unimaginable sorrow that must have flooded Abraham Lincoln’s soul at this time.  The Civil War had not even reached a full year, and things had not gone well in the early stages for the Union.  The Lincoln’s had already lost two close family friends to the war, E.E. Ellsworth (who was the first Union officer killed in the war), and more recently, Edward Dickinson Baker, who was so close to the first family that they had named their late son Edward after him.  Now, already grappling with the responsibility of being the head of state at a time when the country was in its most severe moment of crisis, Lincoln had to contend with one of the most cruel blows life can give, the loss of a child.  Not only this, but he also had his remaining family to console; his wife Mary, who was so distraught that Lincoln feared she would have to be committed to a mental institution; and his sons, Robert and most especially Thomas, who was the youngest and took Willie’s death hard.

It’s no wonder then, that Elizabeth Keckley marveled at how deeply this affected Lincoln. willie lincoln He was a rugged individual, a true frontiersman, born in Kentucky and raised on the Midwestern prairies, learning from an early age the principles of self-reliance and gruff individualism.  Lincoln was no stranger to grief; he had suffered many disappointments and defeats, both politically and personally in his life.  And yet, in an hour when the entire nation was at stake, Keckley noted that the President stopped and allowed himself the time to grieve for his son.

Anyone who has lost someone close to them has some idea of the depths of Lincoln’s pain.  We may not have the weight of responsibility that Lincoln had on our shoulders, but this does not mean we cannot identify with how he felt in that dark hour.  What I admire most about Lincoln is that in his grief, he allowed himself to become open and vulnerable.  Keckley noted that his grief made him a “weak, passive child.”  Too many times, when coping with loss, we attempt to “be strong.”  We try to force down any hint of invulnerability and make an effort to adult our problems away, either by getting lost in work, or by entertainment, or some other distraction.  But Lincoln reveals to us that in our hour of sorrow, it is permissible to open yourself up and allow your grief to show.  He teaches us that no matter the weight of responsibility we bear, no matter how much genius we possess, no matter how strong others think we are, that we are, in fact, only human.

There is much to admire about Abraham Lincoln.  We remember him as the statesman, the commander-in-chief, the emancipator, and many other things.  But Abraham Lincoln was a husband and a father.  He dealt with the same struggles that many of us do, and despite his profound historical reputation for greatness, it is in this intimate, heartfelt moment from which we can draw our own personal lesson.  If a leader such as Lincoln realized the importance of allowing time to grieve, then it is an example I feel we can follow.  Lincoln understood the importance of  the words:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;”        Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3:4




About Nate

I'm a writer and speaker living in Edwardsville, Illinois. In addition to my blog, you can find my work at Washington University's online journal, The Common Reader, where I write about World War 1. https://commonreader.wustl.edu/authors/nathan-mohr/
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