• Joey Miller

Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Father's Grief


Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, lived a life that was filled with many tragic events. He was only nine years old when his mother died, and at nineteen, his sister died while giving birth to a stillborn son—two events that reportedly devastated him. As the years passed, tragedies continued to strike. Lincoln experienced the deaths of three of his four sons—second born Eddie, a month before his fourth birthday; third-born Willie, at age eleven due to typhoid; and fourth son, Tad, of an unknown illness at eighteen. Yet, of all these losses, Lincoln himself confessed that the death of his son Willie—widely believed to have been Lincoln’s favorite child and most like Lincoln—was “…the hardest trial of my life.” [1]


Lincoln’s quote will undoubtedly resonate with every parent who has ever lost a baby or child, as there is no consolation for this type of pain. None. There is no future as had been anticipated and expected, and little comfort to be found in an incomplete past.


Much has been written about the grief experience of mothers and Mary Lincoln’s unashamedly public and prolonged mourning remains a topic of discussion today. However, fathers’ grief remains an underexplored area of researchperhaps partly because many men become withdrawn and stoic, avoid discussing their grief with others, and tend to focus on concrete, goal-oriented coping strategies like immersing themselves in their work.


While male grief may be far less visible and rarely as openly discussed as female grief, that does not mean that men are unaffected by these devastating losses. Rather, men and women simply grieve differently.


In the case of the Lincolns—and consistent with contemporary norms 160 years later—Abraham was much more private with his grief than his wife, although it was still witnessed and documented. George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, uses a historical basis to chronicle Lincoln’s profound grief during and immediately after Willie’s death. This includes Lincoln’s purported secret and deeply touching visits to the cemetery crypt where his son’s body was temporarily being held to hold him as he struggled to formulate an impossible goodbye.


That tender but heart-breaking image reinforces one father’s devotion, but also makes me consider how utterly helpless and alone Lincoln must have felt in those moments. Likewise for Mary, who was so grief-stricken, she remained in bed, not even able to attend her son’s funeral or burial. While both parents were grieving the same loss, their individual experiences were very different.


After losing a baby or child, all parents find themselves empty and achingstruggling to determine a way forward through complex feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion. However, most parents are unsuspecting of the deep loneliness that can exist when asynchronous grief reactions between two parents sometimes create further stress, disconnect, and even conflict.


As time passed following the death of the Lincolns’ son, the differences in their grief reactions became more and more apparent. Mary was increasingly inconsolable and devastated, remaining in bed for weeks. And Abraham Lincoln, like many fathers following the loss of a child, fully resumed his work.


I can’t help but wonder the impact this action had on the couple, and whether Abraham’s steadfast commitment to his work created tension within their marriage—as is commonly reported by parents in similar situations today when two individuals experience discordant grief reactions, and employ vastly different coping strategies, desperate to find some—any—relief or comfort in their continuing pain. This can lead to inevitable comparisons, judgment, criticism, and hurt feelings, with some women (erroneously) believing their male partners aren’t as affected by their grief, don’t care, or are “over it.” That’s just not the case.


Male response to grief remains misunderstood, although male coping strategies—as Lincoln evidenced—can serve to be very adaptive—productive even—in allowing one to feel useful, needed, and of some value again. While these pursuits do not replace or repair one’s identity as a parent, they can help reinforce other important aspects of oneself and create meaning and a sense of purpose—especially for men.


As Joshua Wolf Shenk expressed in his article “Lincoln’s Great Depression:”


With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing…The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.”


Further, “Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”[2]


In the case of Abraham Lincoln, we have a man who went on to carry the U.S. through the Civil War, preserve the Union, and become the “Great Emancipator” as he engineered the freedom of more than 3.5 million slaves in 1863—one year following the death of his son, Willie. These are each remarkable achievements on their own, yet are all the more impressive knowing they took place against the backdrop of his great grief.


Abraham Lincoln will always be remembered as a man of impeccable character and incredible accomplishment over the political, constitutional, and moral crises of the times, but his transcendence over his personal crises is no less significant or powerful.


The very public example of one father’s life after tragedy reinforces that male response to grief and instinctive coping strategies can be adaptive and meaningful. The potential for increased depth and wisdom after a loss exists for all grieving parents—both male and female—even though the path and pace to those ends will have inevitable differences.


Even if Lincoln’s instinctive coping strategies and decision to resume work responsibilities following the death of his son created misunderstanding or transient tension with his wife, the fact is, his marriage remained intact. And perhaps partly because both Abraham and Mary were unapologetically authentic as to the things most helpful to them both individually after losing their son.


As Lincoln himself said, “Life is hard, but so very beautiful” —a simple but impressive and inspiring outlook, especially knowing his history. Lincoln never denied his grief. Instead, he felt it and experienced it to his core—albeit privately—but he also worked tirelessly to find a path and a perspective through it in a way that ultimately carried him, his family, and his entire country forward. Lincoln’s presidency, his parenthood, his person, and his constant pursuit of progress and growth—despite his grief—will not soon be forgotten.

 

[1] James Morgan, Abraham Lincoln: The Boy and the Man (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1910), 287.

[2] Joshua Wolf Shenk, “Lincoln’s Great Depression,” The Atlantic, October 2005, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/lincolns-great-depression/304247.


Image: Alexander Gardner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons