Monday, November 25, 2013

The Death of a President

In psychiatry, a great deal depends on timing, including the correct diagnosis. For instance, while you may have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or may have had prolonged exposure to highly stressful, traumatic, or abusive conditions, you can't be diagnosed with PTSD unless your symptoms have persisted longer than six months. Under six months, we call it acute stress disorder. PTSD symptoms can persist a long time.

Looking back, I definitely think 9/11 resulted in the semblance of a nation-wide case of PTSD from which we've done a fairly good job of recovering. We're more alert to danger but less likely to shut down the entire country over an isolated, local threat. We're no longer quite so eager to send in the troops at the sound of gunfire on the far side of the world. Life has begun to approximate "normal," though we're more aware of our vulnerability and the memory of tragedy is still there and always will be. Even the extreme political right seems more intent on defeating the president's health initiative than tackling terrorism. I don't think we've done as well with November 22, 1963.

I've often thought the free love, abundant drugs, and Tune-In, Turn-On, and Drop-Out mentality of the 60s was more an expression of anger -- acting out -- than typical adolescent rebellion. For the first time in our history, almost an entire generation gave the establishment the middle finger. Its hero was dead, LBJ had taken office, the Warren Commission was established, there was a national day of mourning, and now, it was time to move on. But this generation wasn't ready yet, and we would all have to wait for Kubler-Ross (On Death and Dying, 1969) to inform us the funeral was only the beginning.

Watching the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination programming the past few days, I've been struck by how often someone uttered the phrase, "People don't want to think Kennedy could have been struck down by a single individual, acting alone. The magnitude of his personality as president seems to demand much more."  I'm not certain this is accurate. I don't believe his personal magnetism or his role as the nation's leader are nearly as important as the magnitude of his loss. Ongoing conspiracy theories and the tendency of 2/3 of Americans to doubt the findings of the Warren Report symbolize the depth of grief many still feel, as well as an abiding need for it to be recognized. Mistrust of government may have burst into full flower with Watergate, but it is rooted in the mismanagement of national grief over the death of a president.  

This is likely an unfair generalization, but there is still some truth in the statement that Lyndon Johnson's generation was more accustomed to putting tragedy behind them than paying close attention to what it means and mourning its significance. Anyone who's watched the HBO presentations of Band of Brothers (2001) or The Pacific (2010), or talked at length with veterans from the Great Generation knows how exceedingly reticent they are about digging up old wounds. The idea that the country as a whole needed time and leadership in the matter of grieving was unheard of in 1963. In a very real sense, we needed a president who understood and embraced his role as nation's chaplain as well as it's chief executive. Unfortunately, this was not one of JBJ's strengths, in contrast with our current president who has been known to take hours comforting the victims of gun violence.

I was also struck by the numbers of interviewees who commented on how America had changed, subsequent to the assassination. They lamented a loss of optimism, hopefulness, and the belief anything was possible. Whether those feelings are shared by all is debatable. There were and still are, sectors of the population that make no secret of their hatred of Kennedy and the causes he and his brothers championed. Nevertheless, his loss was felt by far more and the feelings associated with it have lasted far longer than anyone might have imagined. 
Grief isn't resolved, if it's ever truly resolved, by assigning blame, getting even, and nursing the satisfaction gained from a moment of passion. We learn to deal with our losses, to live with them, making them part of ourselves, by refusing to play down their impact and brush them away like crumbs from the table. Grief has to be honored and mourning respected if we're ever to regain the optimism, hope, and sense of the possible that seems forever out of reach when we feel bereft. If there are lessons worth learning from the past 50 years, this is one to take to heart. 

(Creative Commons image of eternal flame at grave of John F. Kennedy by Tim Evanson via Flickr)
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