Abraham Lincoln on Living with Loss: His Magnificent Letter of Consolation to a Grief-stricken Young Woman
On trusting that time will transmute the unbearable pain of grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.”
By Maria Popova
One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.
In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”
That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi.
A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to transcend one’s own experience, even at its most acute, and rise from the depths of personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter. Later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library), the letter is a masterwork of sympathetic solace on par with Einstein’s moving letter to the bereaved queen of Belgium.
Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.
Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.
Your sincere friend
Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on the messiness of mourning and learning to live with loss and Cry, Heart, But Never Break, an uncommonly tender Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, then revisit a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief.
Published October 24, 2016