I'm observing the current presidential primary hoo-ha with both personal and political interest this year. Putting aside my political angle for a moment, I'm especially interested in the paths of three candidates (that I know of, please correct me if I've missed someone) that have lost children: Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Fred Thompson.
In 1972, when Joe Biden was 29 and had just been elected to the Senate for the first time, his wife, daughter, and two sons were involved in a horrific car accident the week before Christmas. His wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed, and his two young sons were severely injured. On April 4, 1996, John and Elizabeth Edwards were informed by a policeman who drove up to their house that their 16-year-old son, Wade, had been killed in a car accident. And in January 2002, Fred Thompson's adult daughter, Betsy (from his first marriage), died of an accidental overdose. Thompson actually made the decision to remove her from life support.
Politics aside, these three individuals jump out at me, and I comb their words and expressions for signs: I'm wondering, to put it bluntly, how are they doing? How do they cope with this loss? How do they possibly move on? Do they love and find happiness again?
Biden remarried and had another daughter. He also takes off on the day that his wife and daughter died off every year, irregardless of his schedule, and goes to the cemetery and to mass. When a Sunday morning talking-head asked Biden if this godforsaken day was a "defining moment" in his life, Biden responded no. It was his worst moment, certainly, but he did not want to be defined by it. I think of this line, and often wonder if I will always be defined as she who lost her baby, by me and by others.
John and Elizabeth went on to have two more children. I was particularly impressed that on what would've been Wade's 17th birthday, they went to the pool and bought ice cream for every child there in a rather party-like atmosphere. I'd love to think I could be that thoughtful and magnanimous to include other children in the memory of the death of my own. But certainly not this year. The Edwards are both known to say, emphatically, that they have 4 children, and include Wade in the tally. When Elizabeth announced her cancer recurrence earlier this year, and John decided to stay in the race, there was a frenzy of media debate: was this a good or bad thing? Was this done merely for political purposes? And I simply said: I cannot judge them for what they do, because they have lost a child. They get a pass. They have been through the worst hell imaginable, and I'm sure this situation doesn't reach that level (yet), so they can make the call and it will be the right one for them. To quote "Wag the Dog," "THIS? Is nothing." (For what it's worth, Elizabeth credits her friend in the computer for keeping her sane while grieving.)
I don't know a lot about Thompson's family history other than the dates; his daughter died in January, 2002, and that summer he married his current (second) wife and proceeded to have two more children. I don't know his relationship with his adult daughter at the time of her death, or her mental status, but in a lot of ways, it just doesn't matter. He was there at the end, she was his, and he made a decision no parent should ever have to make. It's hard enough bringing them into this world, we shouldn't be the ones left coordinating their exits. Having lived through this nightmare, Thompson -- in contrast to some naively inexperienced members of his political party -- believes end of life decisions such as these are issues best left to individuals, not politicians or governments. (Amen.)
As it happens, I'm also an American Historian. And so, I got to thinking about Presidents who had lost children. I'm normally not one for Presidential trivia, or Presidents in and of themselves for that matter. I typically don't gravitate toward biography, instead preferring the sweeping generalizations of the masses and the subgroups therein. And yet now that I've actually looked up the following (god bless the internet), I'm a wee bit curious to read up on some of these guys and their wives and their families and see how everyone fared. There are a lot of them -- dead kids, and presidents with. There was a time not too long ago, when children dying was -- how to say this -- commonplace. Disease happened. There weren't vaccines and NICUs and whatnot, and without antibiotics and even antibacterial soap lots of creepy shit happened. Think what you will of Coolidge (boy, I know I did) but he lost his 16-year-old son, while in the White house, to a case of blood poisoning caused by a simple blister. But, advancements being what they are, the number of losses earlier-on is a bit larger than those in the last century. Many of the infants and toddlers on this list died of cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, and numerous childhood maladies-- including early delivery and blood poisoning -- that are now extinct thanks to medical advancements. Many of the adult daughters on the list died of complications in childbirth (the leading cause of death of women until well into the 20th century). All men, somehow survived the losses (in some cases, many, and in one case, all) of their children, although some not for long.
I wasn't so into cross-checking that I determined who lost children before, during, and after their terms in office (although the during was somewhat obvious, so I labeled a few of those). But I have to think if you survive the loss of a child, you're pretty much set for anything life has to throw at you. I marvel that people can carry on, and stand in front of others without screaming from the rooftops. How did they grieve? Did loss shape these men? It was so hard for me to get out of my house, can you even imagine grieving in front of an entire country in the most personal of ways? I'm not one to gravitate toward the powerful white men in history, and yet this intrigued me. Here, without further ado, a list of Presidents who lost children during their lifetimes, and the children they lost. If nothing else, it will be interesting conversation at your next Deadbabymama cocktail party. What, you don't have those?
(Note: List below updated 1/25/09)
John Adams: daughter, Susanna, age 2; Elizabeth, stillborn daughter; adult son, Charles, an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at age 30.
Thomas Jefferson: Jane, one and a half years old; stillborn son; Lucy (I), 5 months old; Lucy (II), 2 years old; Mary, who died as an adult from complications from childbirth.
James Monroe: son, age 2.
John Q. Adams: adult son, of suicide; one year old daughter.
Martin Van Buren: adult son.
William Harry Harrison: 5 adult children, one child, age two (6 children total)
John Tyler: had 15 children in all (!), and lost three, two adults and one infant.
Zachary Taylor: 3 daughters: one 21, one 3, one 1.
Millard Fillmore: 22 year old daughter
Franklin Pierce: lost all three of his children -- one infant, one four year old, and his eleven-year-old son who was hit by a train.
Abraham Lincoln: three year old Edward, eleven-year-old Willie (while in office).
Andrew Johnson: two adult sons: one from a horse accident, and one from suicide.
Rutherford Hayes: 3 sons under the age of two
James Garfield: 3 year old daughter, 2 year old son.
Chester Arthur: 2 year old son
Grover Cleveland: twelve-year old Ruth, while in the white House.
President McKinley: lost both of his children: three year old Kate and infant Ida.
Theodore Roosevelt: twenty-year old son died during WWI.
Calvin Coolidge: sixteen-year-old son, while in the White House.
Franklin D. Roosevelt: infant son
Dwight Eisenhower: three-year-old son
John F. Kennedy: stillborn daughter; Patrick, two days old (while in office, and four months before the assassination of JFK)
Ronald Reagan: daughter, one day old
George H. W. Bush: three year old daughter