A Sad Sweet Feeling: Abe Lincoln on Grief

Several friends in my life have lost parents recently, and we have been sharing our experiences of grief in the aftermath of such losses. We described the presence of a potent sadness that we had never known before, or how previously forgotten memories of cherished moments return to us in moments unexpected, or how torrents of grief come rolling over us like a wave — then go away as quickly as they came. We all grieve differently, but these experiences seem universal.

I recently visited The Morgan Library in New York City for an exhibit on the writings of Abraham Lincoln. As I was reading some of his letters in the display cases, I came across this moving one that he wrote to a 22 year old girl Fanny McCullough who suffered the loss of her father and Lincoln’s friend. It so beautifully describes the experience of grief, and of the joy that eventually returns as we experience those we loved in ways more profound, intimate and personal than perhaps we did when they were alive. If you are in a period of grief, may the letter bless you as it did me.

Indeed, grief does dissipate, and joy comes with the morning.

lincolnletterDear Fanny,

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,
A. Lincoln”


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