“Traumatic grief, with its unanswered questions, its numbing shock, its horror, its ability to sear disturbing images into our souls that cannot be erased by sleep or by time–this process follows the same general path both for persons and groups.”

When 12:30 struck, none of us fourth graders knew that our young president was being murdered in a city only a two hour drive away. So during the brief unsupervised period after lunch we continued with our yelling, bragging, and eraser throwing. It was Friday, Thanksgiving holidays were coming, but otherwise this seemed just another unremarkable fall school day in central Texas.

Then our teacher, Mr. Landrum, marched with unbroken stride into the classroom, cutting short our rowdy behavior. “Quiet, everybody!” his tenor voice barked. “This is SERIOUS!” Instantly, we all were quiet and serious. He walked behind his desk and turned on an old tinny radio, tuned to a scratchy station that fed us an otherworldly stream of barely audible phrases broken by static and whines.

…. Three shots fired today at President Kennedy’s motorcade…. downtown Dallas…. Parkland Hospital…. apparently hit in the head…. Governor Connally hit in the shoulderblade….  And in a jarring, gleeful grasp for hope, some newscaster made a comment I’ve never heard replayed–We are glad to say that we do NOT know that the president is dead….

Mr. Landrum turned off the radio. He started us on our assignments. He left the room. Only then did we start talking, speculating, voicing questions no one could answer.

Mr. Landrum returned, maybe 20 minutes later. He sat at his desk. With no prelude, details, or further comment, he announced with simple, surrealistic calm, almost as an afterthought, “Uh, President Kennedy has died.”

There was no sound in the room. Then Laura, the little girl sitting behind me, began crying softly.

Nothing more was said about it. We continued our afternoon’s work. There were no counselors, no moments of silence, no further explanations from the principal over the squawk box screwed near the ceiling of the front wall. Nothing. Just our unanswered questions hanging in the air like the last tick of a broken clock.

Not everyone liked Kennedy at the time, and the majority of Americans living today do not even remember him. But that is immaterial. Love him or hate him, JFK was a living symbol of our country, and you cannot underestimate the power of a symbol to inspire, stabilize, and provide a touchstone for the identity of a people. Our identity took a blow to the head in 1963.

This is not just sentimental, philosophical fluff. Nations grieve just as individuals do. Traumatic grief, with its unanswered questions, its numbing shock, its horror, its ability to sear disturbing images into our souls that cannot be erased by sleep or by time–this process follows the same general path both for persons and groups.

Trauma can be ignored, but its effects cannot. You can’t blame the assassination of JFK for every ill of our society. Some of them are simply the progression of the normal developmental processes of history. But this national trauma has been a silent multiplier of every national problem, just as untreated individual trauma exacerbates every affliction of the victim. Whether we liked Kennedy or not, whether we remember him or not, the flow of the nation’s life blood has never been stanched. Blood has flowed in Vietnam, it has flowed in the 60’s race riots, from the bodies of RFK and Martin Luther King. It flowed from the chest of a critically wounded Ronald Reagan, the employees who worked in the Twin Towers, the two wars in Iraq, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. It flows even today from self-inflicted gunshot wounds of our tormented veterans. Can this all be traced back to the assassination? No one knows. But the trauma peppers its grainy shadows over everything that has since happened.

John Kennedy was the young man America fell in love with, married, and tragically lost before the honeymoon had quite ended. And like a bereft bride, America has idealized the past, cursed every suitor that followed, and invented an imaginary utopian life that never had a chance to happen. Like many young widows, she has never had her questions answered. She has never been able to fully trust again, and she’s been courted by grinning, predatory cads who intuitively catch the scent of vulnerability and exploit it. She has staggered from one catastrophe to another, never noticing the patterns, unable to absorb the lessons from them. From Beatlemania to Afghanistan, she bounces from delirious diversions to real battlefield quagmires that are becoming as predictable as B-movies.

In a paradoxical, macabre twist of the national psyche, we now terrorize ourselves with a curiously hysterical phobia of death. And we run away from it by killing.

For America, the blood flowed and the clock broke on that clear fall day. Time really did feel like it stood still. I thought we would move on. We haven’t moved on. Until we honestly address what happened, we can’t. But ailing intelligence agents, aging mobsters, and fatigued anti-Castro Cubans have begun confessing enough information to their grown children and to journalists that the pieces of the puzzle may yet be assembled for us all to see. Let us hope so. (See David Talbot’s book Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.)

All healing begins with honesty. Until we face and feel the truth, our deftly deflected questions will, like a stubborn infection, keep our wounds from healing. And the unticking clock that documents the speed of our recovery will remain as still as the heart of John F. Kennedy.

[see MercerGriefScope.com]

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