When he was just nine years old, Abraham Lincoln’s mother died after a brief illness. In his presidential years, his eleven-year-old son, Willie, died from typhoid fever.
What kind of agony is born of losing a child whilst in charge of repairing a nation at war? I’m not sure we’ll ever know.
But when his longtime friend, William McCullough, passed, he wrote this letter to McCullough’s young daughter which gives us some insight into how he kept moving:
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
There is a certain mindset, a certain new perspective, that’s born of deep grief, especially grief experienced before you may have expected. The kind of grief that comes from losing a parent, friend, or child young. Or even the kind that comes out of nowhere.
Even in Lincoln’s time when life expectancy was low due to rampant disease, insubstantial medical knowledge, and a nation at war, I’d imagine that the heartbreak he felt just as pervasive. Just as permanent.
And so, it is his loving, kind, and open perspective that sheds light on how we, too, may move forth after losing someone we love:
First, he says: you must accept that “sorrow comes to all.” In due time, at varying degrees, it will come for each of us. Sorrow, as Lincoln terms it, is universal. By whatever means it comes to you, in whatever timeframe, you can find solace in the universality of the experience. The other factors, such as who, when, where, and how, are unfortunately partially left to probability and other factors out of our control.
Second, that relief comes with time. “You are sure to be happy again,” he writes. Grief and depression are blinding to hope that life may continue on, that joy may resurface at some point. Lincoln drops truthful cliche knowledge bombs on that blindness: “time heals all wounds.”
Third, that there is something that’s born of grief/sorrow that you could not experience otherwise. Something as Lincoln asserts is “of a purer and holier sort.” There are discoveries to be made in grief — such as a deeper meaning, some purpose, and a dose of transcendental knowledge. Our role is to be open enough to let these dark experiences change us.
These are three of the major components of what I’d call a “Grief Mindset” or the beliefs required to make grief both manageable and meaningful.
Lincoln was the master of this. He did what I think we should all aim to do. He channeled his pain and grief into serving something greater than himself. He used a bad thing as fuel for a good thing. The magic of transmutation.
It is only when we follow Lincoln’s lead — codifying the lessons and harnessing them for good — that we can be okay again.
For grief is kind of like a catapult.
It pulls you back for awhile, with the intention of launching you forth once again.
If only you’ll let it.