On Monday, January 20, the US acknowledges the lifework (and untimely death) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a national day of service. While it’s important to honor his dream and further its fulfillment, my thoughts drift from his public role to his personal identity. Yes, he was a dedicated civil rights leader, but above that he was a son, a brother, a husband, a father. When he was murdered, he left behind a grieving family.
Of course, the King family isn’t the only family to have suffered public awareness of (and participation in) private bereavement. Five years earlier, First Lady Jackie Kennedy received hundreds of thousands of condolence letters after her husband’s assassination. Last week they were released to the public. I’m not surprised that she kept them. I’ve kept every note (both handwritten and electronic) written to me after my husband’s death.
Both Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. King grieved their personal losses in public. They lost far more than a public figure; each widow lost her husband, and their children lost their fathers.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been touched by images of the young widow Kennedy and her son saluting his father’s casket. Emotion has always welled up when I’ve heard and read the stirring words of the late Reverend Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Now that I’m widowed, too, I see that the legacies of these men who changed our nation are inextricably enmeshed in the grief their families suffered. These images and words tug at my empathy. Yes, I honor their legacies, but that honor is both tainted and hallowed by my own understanding of what it is to grieve not a leader but a loved one.
During this week’s Day of Service, many worthy causes deserve your time and attention. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from volunteering with any organization or at any event. May I suggest you consider instead serving individuals who’ve suffered the loss of a loved one? Whether the loss is recent or “old,” whether the survivor is someone you know well or only know “of,” whether you reach out to children who’ve lost a parent or to a parent who’s lost a child, do something to show you care.
Sometimes it’s good to join forces in large groups to elicit change when we “have a dream.” Sometimes, though, we need to reach out one-on-one to exemplify “the brotherhood of man.”