The Life and Death of Ted Kennedy: Continuing to Learn as We Mourn

10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I heard that Ted Kennedy was dead I felt an ache in my upper chest with every breath. It went away but then reappeared the day after he was buried. Life has taught me that this inner wrench is mourning.

For all of us whose teenage and adult years spanned the lives of John, Robert and Ted Kennedy, the hours of public celebration of Ted's life and his burial provided a backdrop montage of love, hope, loss, and persistence, the Kennedys' as well as our own.

As we viewed decades moving toward change through photos, newsreels and shared memories, I imagined three distinct television screens: One devoted to the lives of the Kennedys, one that allowed us to view the lives of other famous people, and one focusing on own lives. At every twist and turn revisited, we could remember where we were and what we faced. For comic relief, we could even visit the way we dressed. How about the political rebellion of the female power suits (oh those shoulder pads, reminiscent of battle arms)! And the non-phallic ties and suit lapels! Dare we analyze what those male sideburns were all about?

The footage and coverage seemed to scream out that despite enormous effort and seeming luck and fortune, life produces ironies and contradictions: Even those who win one moment can face horrific, brutal loss in the next. The rich and famous are no more spared than the rest of us.

We saw Dan Rather and Roger Mudd, both young and famed contenders to replace Walter Cronkite. We revisited Mudd and Ted Kennedy, as Mudd, during the bitter 1980 Carter-Kennedy primary, asked Kennedy why he wanted to be President. Ted Kennedy did not know how to respond, which many see as a large factor in his defeat in many 1980 primaries. I have often wondered if this shocking Mudd-Kennedy interview had any effect on CBS's choice of Rather, rather than Mudd, to replace Cronkite. Rather, now embroiled in a lawsuit against CBS, was fired for the documentary claiming that there was good reason to believe that while a member of our Reserves Bush '43 cheated on his attendance record.

We also visited the lovely Jessica Savitch, a pioneer NBC journalist and anchor, as she reported on Ted Kennedy. Who could have predicted that Savitch, whose private life became one of torment, would humiliate herself on screen with slurred and missed words? Who could have imagined that she would die in the autumn of 1983 in a way horrifyingly reminiscent of the way Mary Jo Kopecne's life ended in the summer of 1969?

But we also saw that loss must be seen in perspective -- that losing can in truth be winning.

Loss of an opportunity to become President freed Ted Kennedy from the burden of replacing his three dead brothers. It freed him from a job that he most likely did not want and was not suited for. Loss allowed him to find his destiny and become the most powerful and important Senator of our time, a man who relished his work, and helped countless people through his constant devotion.

In his personal world, loss propelled Ted Kennedy to leave a dead marriage. After humiliation following the death of a devoted brother-in-law, loss propelled him to marry Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the warm, competent, strong and regal woman whom he and all who loved him recognized as not only the love of his life, but the woman who saved his life.

Visiting the life and death of Ted Kennedy showed that facing loss and fear can strengthen. And bring compassion.

Who will ever forget the words of Kara and Ted, Jr., who endured and triumphed over cancer, or of Patrick, who is triumphing over addiction? We saw Ethel Kennedy quietly, lovingly leave her seat to adjust the partially upturned cloth covering her brother-in-law's casket. We were reminded that with his brothers gone, Ted was ever-present for Jackie and Ethel and his nieces and nephews. We saw Ted's first wife, Joan, who has bravely faced her addictions, find the courage to attend the ceremonies honoring the father of her children, a man she had loved deeply but could not keep. We were reminded how Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in loving memory of her sister Rosemary, changed the lives of physically and mentally challenged children all over the world. Pivotal to the celebration and farewell was the grace and accessibility of Vicki, who, unlike her two sisters-in-law, received the gift of time to prepare emotionally (as well as it is humanly possible to do so) for her grave loss.

We also saw that despite everything, even in the face of certain death, it is possible not to give up. The heart of Ted Kennedy's letter written to the Pope, a plea for Universal Health Care, was read to those present at Arlington, inspiring us all. And perhaps making us smile. What chutzpah! Through written word to the Pope himself, Ted Kennedy seemed even to outsmart death for a few precious moments and speak from the grave.

The last days have confirmed that the Kennedys are no longer outside of those who have grown up during their generations of power. They have become part of us, lives intertwined with parallel joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. Though we mourn, our chosen family members, now inside of us, will continue to inspire and teach.