What Jackie knew about grieving children: Morristown reflections, a half century later

Jackie Kennedy leads Caroline and John-John at JFK funeral 50 years ago. Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House photographer.
Jackie Kennedy leads Caroline and John-John at JFK funeral 50 years ago. Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House photographer.

Editor’s note: We were transfixed for four days by a streaming replay of the original CBS coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago. Jackie Kennedy was a tower of strength, who seemed to draw some of that strength from her young children. Morristown resident Donna Gaffney reflects on how we can apply lessons from this brave woman to the age of Newtown. Donna’s article, originally published by the National Alliance for Grieving Children, is reprinted with permission.

What Jackie Knew: Children Grieve

By Donna Gaffney

The black and white images were somewhat grainy on our small Admiral television but I can still see them very clearly- Caroline and John, Jr. standing next to their mother, watching the horse drawn caisson carrying their father’s casket.  Jacqueline Kennedy gently holding her children’s hands, leaning over and whispering to them.

Those four days in November were filled with a heaviness I had never known before.  There were deaths in my family but I didn’t attend any funerals.  In my house, we didn’t talk about death or dying at all.  We fit in nicely to the mid-century American ethos. Denial ruled.

But November 1963 was different for us.  I remember my mother crying, a rare event. Gathered in front of our television, we talked about how hard it was to lose a father, especially for small children.

Jackie offered my mother, our family and perhaps the country, a powerful teachable moment.  The First Lady became the mother to a grieving nation.   She showed us that children grieve and they should be a part of these important rituals, important for our life history and for our healing.

Jackie Kennedy leads Caroline and John-John at JFK funeral 50 years ago. Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House photographer.
Jackie Kennedy leads Caroline and John-John at JFK funeral 50 years ago. Photo by Abbie Rowe, White House photographer.

Fifty years later, I still appreciate the message Jackie Kennedy offered us. In 1963 there was much talk about how courageous she appeared during those four days. No one has addressed, then or now, that the choices she made on behalf of her children were far ahead of what we knew about childhood grief at that time.

What did we know?  Not enough.  Only decades earlier Piaget had first described how children think. Their worldview was dramatically different, he told us, from that of the adults in their lives.  During the war years, Anna Freud, psychoanalyst and daughter of Sigmund, studied young children’s responses to loss.  She called it grief, but thought it was short-lived.

How long did children grieve?  The experts debated.  Was grief normal or could it trigger emotional disturbances?  John Bowlby, the architect of attachment theory, emphasized that the importance and reality of children’s grief and mourning had been long ignored.

One year before JFK’s assassination Dorothy Barclay wrote in the New York Times, (Questions of Life and Death, July 15, 1962), that adults avoid talking to children about death because kids just ‘don’t understand”.  And adults, devastated by their own grief, are unable to listen to the children around them.

How could the First Lady navigate such uncertain waters for her own children during this very public yet very personal loss? And when she herself was severely traumatized. We know now, some thirty years after the introduction of the PTSD diagnosis, how trauma shatters us.  Just inches from her husband’s head when he was shot, she saw his mortal injuries. She protected his body and sheltered him, cradling and covering his head.  She knew he was dead.  She was also mourning the death of her infant son, Patrick, who had died in August.

Like many people who witness trauma, Jackie was able to make decisions and function.  Sometimes post-trauma behaviors look like stoicism and calm.  Trauma survivors tell us they are afraid to let go, fearing they’ll never regain control.

Chaos, confusion and miscommunication erupted on the afternoon of November 22nd.  Caroline was going to her first sleepover at a friend’s home but was abruptly returned to the White House.  Radios were quickly silenced but no one could be sure how much the children might have heard.  Helicopters coming and going and crowds gathering at the White House gates puzzled Caroline and John, Jr.  Fearing for the safety of the First Family, the Secret Service hurried them to their grandmother’s home.

While on Air Force One Jackie made crucial decisions for her children. Knowing they should not be disrupted and needed to sleep in their own beds, she had Caroline and John, Jr. returned to the White House.  Jackie hoped to tell her children about their father’s death. She also vowed not to leave her husband’s side.  Concerned that Caroline might hear about her father before she returned, Jackie requested their longtime nanny to sensitively appraise the children’s needs.   The nanny told Caroline that night.  Jackie returned to the White House just before dawn.

Jackie asked the new President if her family could have more time before moving out of the White House. Johnson agreed. She also asked him if the children could remain at the White House School until the end of the term; he agreed to that as well.  She showed extraordinary presence under pressure.

From Saturday to Monday Caroline and John, Jr. were at Jackie’s side.  They wrote letters to their father, attended the funeral mass at St. Matthew’s, and said their final goodbyes.  When John, Jr. became restless, he was taken to the back of the church like any other energetic three year old. He was not banished or ever far from his mother.  The children did not walk from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s but rode in a car not far behind Jackie. Later the children visited the President’s grave with their mother.  Caroline kneeling at her father’s flag-draped casket and John, Jr.’s proud salute are among the most stirring images of our times.

John, Jr. turned three on the day of the funeral; there was a small family celebration for him that evening.  Often grieving families feel they cannot celebrate birthdays, holidays and other special events; the pain is too great.  Yet by eliminating meaningful rituals, like birthday parties, losses multiply for grieving children.

A half-century after the assassination of John F. Kennedy we have made progress in understanding children’s needs around death, but have we done enough?  We are better at talking with children about death, especially at times of public tragedy, like September 11th or the Newtown shootings.  What about the less-publicized losses that happen every day? The deaths of parents, siblings, and friends? The National Alliance for Grieving Children lists community programs and camps in nearly every state.  Call them safe havens, these are places where kids can be with new found friends, other kids who are hurting just like they are.

Children need time to integrate losses into their lives.  As they grow and mature, their grief remains but they will find new and different ways to heal.  Children do not “get over it.” We need to be aware of childhood grief; responsibility falls to every one of us who has a child in our life.  We also know that we are not defined by our losses but they do become a part of us, our history.

Jackie Kennedy knew the importance of history, for her nation, for her children.  She also embraced the importance of ritual. The choices she made during those painful days in November 1963 helped her children begin, what we now know, is a life-long grieving process.  She understood that children grieve and need to be included when those they love die.

This is what Jackie knew.

Donna Gaffney of Morristown is an advanced practice psychiatric nurse and psychologist who works with grieving families and communities. She is Advisor for Education and Research at Project Rebirth in New York City.  Dr. Gaffney is the author of ‘Seasons of Grief, Helping Children Grow Through Loss.’  She also sits on the Advisory Board of Good Grief in Morristown.

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