December 29, 2020

Reflecting on Grief at President Lincoln’s Cottage

Abraham and Mary Lincoln were parents to four sons, only one of whom lived past the age of eighteen. The trauma they experienced as a result of child loss molded them both, seeding new fears and deepening their empathy and emotional endurance.

Willie Lincoln was the second of the Lincolns’ four sons to die in childhood. Eddy Lincoln died in 1850 at age three, so the family had been torn apart by grief once before, but when Willie died in the White House, the tragedy was on national display. Mary Lincoln’s powerful grief spilled over the Victorian confines that society found acceptable. She longed to get away from the bustle of the White House and find a place to grieve privately. She wrote to a friend, “When we are in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us.”

Enter the Cottage on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home, a tranquil, hilltop Gothic revival house, three miles from the White House. President Lincoln’s Cottage, as it’s called today, is the museum where we work and where the Lincolns decided to spend the summer following Willie’s death. Here the Lincolns found the quiet they craved. This was a site of sadness, healing, and moments of transcendent joy for the Lincolns. They returned for the next two summers and had planned to return in the summer of 1865, but Lincoln was assassinated in April.

“My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so.”

Abraham Lincoln

In 2019, President Lincoln’s Cottage—also a National Trust Historic Site—began planning a groundbreaking exhibit on grief and child loss to bridge the Lincolns’ experience with grief after losing their children with the experiences of modern families grieving the loss of their children. In an age where we are uncomfortable talking about death, loss, and mourning, this exhibit aims to break that silence and share the reflections of families’ grief and love. Grappling with grief is more important now than ever, as families around the world mourn the death of loved ones in the pandemic as well as the kinds of intimate social interactions that came before masks and six feet of separation.

The exhibit was developed by Callie Hawkins, our director of programming at President Lincoln’s Cottage. Callie is herself a bereaved mother, having lost her son Coley in 2018. The close connection she felt to the Lincolns in a shared place of sorrow and love was a part of her inspiration for the exhibit.

I sat down with Callie and asked her some questions about the exhibit.

Views from the exhibit Reflections on Grief and Child Loss  at President Lincoln's Cottage

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

Entrance to "Reflections on Grief and Child Loss" at President Lincoln's Cottage.

Thank you, Callie, for sitting down with me today. Thank you also for putting together such a powerful exhibit that will mean so much to so many people, for sharing your own grief to break what can be a deafening silence, and for giving other suffering families the space to tell their reflections.

I'm curious about the origins of the exhibit. When visitors reach Lincoln’s Cottage, one of the narratives in the main tour is about the role the Cottage played in helping the Lincolns address the grief following their son’s death. Why was it important to build out that story in a separate exhibition?

Hawkins: Lincoln’s humanity looms large in the Cottage, and one of the most special things that I think people experience when visiting this place is Lincoln, the president AND private man.

It’s literally part of our mission to “reveal the true Lincoln,” and we cannot fully appreciate Lincoln’s presidency without cultivating a deeper understanding of who he was as a person, specifically as a husband and father. The loss of their children—Eddy in 1850 and Willie in 1862—changed the character and course of both Lincolns’ lives and was one of the reasons they sought a bit of quiet on these grounds.

Talking about the depth of this loss is critical to helping our visitors understand the events that shaped Lincoln into the person we remember today, yet surprisingly little has been written on the Lincolns’ grief and the extent to which it molded them both. Dedicating an entire exhibit to this topic brings this aspect of their lived experience to the fore and provides space to explore it more fully than we can on the Cottage tour.

The exhibit examines the Lincolns’ intimate grief, and it also shares the reflections of nine modern families who are grieving the death of their children. This was important to us to show that grief and love are timeless and universal and connects these families across eras.

The last thing I’ll add is just how proud I am of the Cottage for prioritizing a project like this. Recently, when talking about the exhibit, someone asked me: “Aren’t you afraid it’s going to make people sad?” Well-meaning as it may have been, I think this particular comment demonstrates precisely why we need to be doing this kind of work—to help communities become more comfortable with their discomfort. When we started planning it, we couldn’t have imagined we’d be opening it in the midst of immense national suffering and loss, and I’m just so grateful that it’s here for anyone who is grieving someone they love.

Views of the entrance to the  Reflections on Grief and Child Loss exhibit at President Lincoln's Cottage

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

A tree located in the exhibit stands as a memorial to those children who have been lost. Visitors are able to add names to the tree.

Whom would you say that this exhibit for?

Hawkins: This exhibit is for anyone who has lost a child or someone else they love deeply. It is also for people who love someone who is grieving and are uncertain about how to show up for their friend or loved one in ways that do not try to diminish their grief or attempt to “make them better.” On a larger scale, it’s for a society that is so uncomfortable with grief that it has created unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for the grieving. Perhaps, in some small way, this exhibit will signal a shift in how we talk about grief and the expectations we place on those who, as one parent shared in the exhibit, are engaged in the holiest work of all.

On a dedication level, this exhibit is for Theo and Cheyenne and Charlotte and Jacob; Brian and Brendan; Julia, Matt, and Charlie; Abby and Jaycee. And, Coley.

During the global pandemic there are a lot of conversations about grief writ large—due to virus-related deaths and the trauma and loss of life caused by racial injustice—what do you see as the role of historic places as spaces of solace and as part of a support system for mental health?

Hawkins: While plans for this exhibit were in the works long before the pandemic started, it was important to us to open it now—at a time when our nation is collectively grieving both the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to COVID-19 and the centuries-old systemic racism resulting from the legacies of slavery in this country. While historic places can’t “fix” any of this, we can hold critical space for grieving visitors.

During exhibit planning, we sought out professionals in the field of mental health, specifically therapists who work directly with bereaved parents, and we invited them to be advisors, providing feedback on language, content, and methods. We knew this exhibit would be difficult for people to experience, and we wanted to make sure that it reflected the care, compassion, and responsibility we had to sharing the Lincolns’ story and the reflections the modern families so generously shared with us.

Often, I think we lose sight of the fact that real people occupied historic places, or we sanitize their stories to the point that we omit the tragedy and hardships faced in them, in favor of more uplifting narratives of triumph and success. In reality, these were intimate spaces where families experienced the deep range of human emotion.

When the Lincolns first came out to the Cottage, President Lincoln was carrying the double weight of the presidency during a time of immense national crisis and his own personal grief as a father whose son had died. In many ways, the Cottage nurtured their broken hearts, and I hope that our visitors today will experience some of the same understanding, love, and support in this place that the Lincolns found here more than 150 years ago.

Detail view from President Lincoln's Cottage Exhibit  Reflections on Grief and Child Loss

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

Detail of the memorial tree in the exhibition. On its leaves are the names of children who have been lost.

Can you tell a little bit about the modern families who participated in the exhibit, and why is it important to tell these stories alongside the Lincolns?

Hawkins: To our great honor, nine families agreed to share their reflections on different facets of grief including: support, memories, rituals, expectations, place, and change. Their responses to these prompts, along with the Lincolns’ experience as it relates to each of these facets, form the exhibit narrative. Rather than pursue a strictly then-now structure, the exhibit builds connections between grieving parents today and the Lincolns to find commonalities and meaningful differences across time and experience, and to situate child loss as a timeless struggle, “the greatest tragedy,” no matter the era or individual.

These families represent a range of perspectives and cultures and have lost children inexplicably and as a result of illness, violence, and other tragic circumstances. While each experience is unique and individual, these families are connected in their grief and their love for their children who have died.

What is the most meaningful part of the exhibit to you?

Hawkins: It’s really difficult to name the “most” meaningful aspect of the exhibit, as I think each piece serves a unique purpose and will mean something different to every visitor. For example, the beautiful willow tree at the center of the exhibit is most meaningful for providing a place for grievers to share the names of those for whom they grieve. For those desperate to support someone in their life who is grieving, I think the takeaway cards at the end that share suggestions for sitting with someone in their grief may be the most meaningful. For me, personally, I think the images of all the children about whom their parents so generously shared their love is the most meaningful. I have said to many people that I wish this exhibit never had to be, yet I am so grateful, in my own grief, that these incredible families opened their hearts and trusted us with their most sacred stories.

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Rebecca Kilborne is the marketing & communications manager at President Lincoln's Cottage.

Due to recent pandemic restrictions, the exhibition and President Lincoln's Cottage are closed. It is currently at the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center at President Lincoln’s Cottage, and will be open through 2022. Please learn more at www.lincolncottage.org.

By: Rebecca Kilborne

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