“With all he had striven for smashed in a single afternoon, he had an overwhelming sense of the fragility and contingency of life. He had never taken plans very seriously in the past. He could not believe in them at all now…” – Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on RFK

Like Robert Kennedy, I never spent much time in areas where doubt lived. Until the Winter of 2008, when like him, like too many others, life forced upon me that confrontation.  To those who read these posts regularly, I apologize from being absent for a few days. Sadly death and loss has come to visit many of those who I care for, and I have been struggling to find the right things to say to help.

Words are inadequate to take away the pain people feel at the times of their loss. But as I reread Robert Kennedy’s story, I have learned  again of a way out of the abyss we all have experienced. RFK did not have the benefit of his own example to draw upon. But through his life we can see how his journey can teach us how to survive disaster and take away a deeper and stronger faith.  

From the existentialists like Camus he found fatalism, coupled with the knowledge we each have an inescapable destiny. He also learned we each have a responsibility to define our best selves.  From his reading of Edith Hamilton’s work The Greek Way, he learned of the Greek ethos of man against fate. He came to believe that man, redefines himself by his choices each and every day. In the final analysis life was a sequence of risks. To leave them unmet through fear was to simply destroy one’s self.

It’s so hard to journey through a maze of pain, but each story brings many other sufferers insight and hope.  Robert Kennedy was now head of a great political family, and suddenly accountable only to himself. Ironically the qualities he had subordinated in the interest of his family, now rose to the surface. His concern, gentleness, idealism, under the alleged “ruthlessness” rose freely to the surface. He became his best and highest self.

Aeschylus wrote of ‘the antagonism at the heart of the world,’ and that ‘men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life…’  Mysteries of suffering underlie life. RFK’s great speech at on the night of Dr. King’s death summed up his journey after Dallas and what lay in store two months later.  “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”  Robert Kennedy understood Herodotus: “Brief as life is there never yet was or will be a man who does not wish more than once to die rather than to live.”

The fact that we search for comfort in other religions or philosophic traditions does not make us less faithful to our faith.  In RFK’s case Catholic teaching did not provide what he needed. In my search, the tragedy of necessity always has trumped the tragedy of unmet possibilities. It’s the difference between saying, “What a pity it had to be this way,” rather than the more unrealistic, “What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.”

Tragedy happens without reason. Some believe there is nothing in the universe that happens without reason.  For others tragedy seems yet another expression of what a chance event or occurrence can do in the world. For those who believe in a universe infused by God with purpose, tragedy represents both philosophical and an emotional crises. In those cases we are forced to come to terms with death and loss before we can truly resume our own existence.

In our darkest times, we each struggle with a fundamental question. Is there any sense to the universe? Faith claims there is.  Experience brings that terrible doubt. If we live in the belief there is a universe of pattern and purpose,  what purpose can the premature loss of a loved one serve, much less the loss of all our dreams. And we all ask the same questions Robert Kennedy asked after Dallas, “The innocent suffer— how can that be possible and God be just…?”


An older person who I love approached me yesterday and said, "I was watching you today. I'm going to give you the same advice I give to my kids when they need it: it's time  to remember “Breathe in and Breathe Out.”

I didn't ask her to elaborate. I acknowledged the wisdom and timeliness of her advice. She told me it was the sort of wisdom that comes with age, and she smiled and walked away.   My throat tightened and my eyes actually pooled with tears. So there it was. I'd wondered where it was.

I'd been fooling myself for a few years that it was stashed away in a place called "The Past" Instead it was laying out in the open the whole time. It’s called "stealth grief, " the phase of grieving that gets the least amount of attention. It's what happens when grief is no longer the open wound that is impossible to hide from. It happens when you have gotten through the aching, screaming pain, and when the good days finally outnumber the bad. It's stealth like because you never see it coming, and because arrives in ways not always recognizable.

Rarely in the midst of Stealth Grief, a shaft of light does cut through the darkness. It has happened only a few times, and it never coordinates with the times when I am missing someone,  though recently it did. I dreamed of someone lost, in one of those dreams that mix sorrow and joy.  For eventually you awake, and it is as if you’ve lost them again. With the passage of time, my subconscious has become aware that each person has truly gone,   and in my dreams I discuss this with my friends, which occasionally but imperfectly allows for an easier transition when I do wake up. 

The moral of this story is simple. One can learn to live with many things.  Do not believe for a second we should ever be expected to get over them. Ever. All we can do is use the time left to us the best we can.



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