How Theodore Roosevelt Dealt with Loss

Valentine’s Day, 1884 was supposed to be a triumph for Theodore Roosevelt. Only in his 20’s, he had already been the Republican Party leader in the New York State Assembly and had made a name for himself by going after corrupt interests and passing anti-corruption measures into law. He was on the way to becoming Speaker sooner or later and was at that point working on another significant reform bill. To add to his professional success, his beautiful wife, Alice, was about to give birth to their child, which he was convinced would be born on Valentine’s Day. This date was significant to him not only as a holiday but because it was the day he had become engaged to her. Unfortunately, the date would soon become significant in a far darker way.

In Albany, February 13th, Theodore Roosevelt received news that his wife had given birth on the 12th. A few hours later, a darker telegram arrived. His wife was dying of Bright’s Disease. His mother, “Mittie,” was also dying. He rushed home to their sides, but there was nothing he could do. Mittie died in the early hours of the 14th. Alice died a few hours later. His diary on that day displays a big “X” with the depressing phrase:

The light has gone out of my life.

All of the vigor which he had displayed earlier in his life got sucked out of him. He didn’t know what to do. His literary activities stopped. He announced that he would not seek reelection to the New York State Assembly, even though further advancement was guaranteed. He purged himself of any reference to his deceased wife, refusing even to call his daughter, named after her, by her given name. To him, she was simply “Baby Lee.” The name “Alice” was simply associated with too much pain.

Theodore Roosevelt First Wife

The tragedy of Valentine’s Day, 1884, is one which could shatter even the strongest souls. Yet, Roosevelt’s best days, which would give him immortal renown, were far ahead of him. How did he pick himself up from this hideous reversal of fortune and turn himself into an even better man?

A good fight, for the right cause, was always something that could get Theodore Roosevelt out of any delirium or stupor. 1884 was a presidential election year and he became convinced that the Republican Party’s push to nominate James G. Blaine, an ex-Speaker of the House and Senator from Maine who had been caught up in corruption, would doom the party’s hopes to retain the White House (this election is described in Stumped).

He fought a desperate rearguard action with Henry Cabot Lodge, who would become his close friend and political ally, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. This effort was unsuccessful, but although Theodore Roosevelt was leaving politics (for the time being), the energy within him demanded that he go further west, to indulge in his lifelong love of the outdoors and natural history which had gotten him through a childhood plagued with health problems. The outdoors had helped to cure him of his physical ailments. Now it would help save his soul.

He had earlier ventured into the Dakota Territory (present North Dakota) and into Montana to shoot a buffalo “while there were still buffalo left to shoot.” This he had done, albeit only after much single-minded effort and an energy that we may fairly judge as a worldly manifestation of Ultra Instinct. Now he ventured back with that same vigor and determination. Earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had invested a significant portion of his fortune into cattle ranching in the Dakota Territory. He went there to check on the business and stayed there. The boundless outdoors was suitable for his temperament, but even this could not keep him restrained.

He ventured into Wyoming in search of game. He found a lot of it, including the most dangerous kind on the continent, the Grizzly Bear. He described it this way:

Doubtless my face was pretty white, but the blue barrel was as steady as a rock as I glanced along it until I could see the top of the bead fairly between his two sinister-looking eyes; as I pulled the trigger I jumped aside out of the smoke, to be ready if he charged; but it was needless, for the great brute was struggling in the death agony … the bullet hole in his skull was exactly between his eyes as if I had measured the distance with a carpenter’s rule. (pg. 280)

Theodore Roosevelt Grizzly Bear

Edmund Morris in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt describes a subsequent encounter with a bear that was far more dangerous. He nearly died in the fight with it, as it would not go down after multiple shots. This was far from the only near-death experience he had out there, either. His adventures even saw him capture a group of bandits who had robbed his cattle ranch. However, because of the weather, he and the thieves had to cooperate to survive. All of these encounters are vividly experienced, as if you were Theodore Roosevelt himself. You can buy the book by clicking here.

Eventually, the cattle ranching gig wouldn’t be as profitable as he had hoped, especially with the brutal “Winter of the Blue Snow” which is also vividly experienced in the book. The venture did, however, save Theodore Roosevelt from depression and prepare him for his political battles to come.

Everyone will have a different way of coping with loss and mourning loved ones. Theodore Roosevelt’s way was twofold…

  1. Embrace a lifelong love, in this case, the natural world. If his love of his wife and mother was shattered, he still had something that couldn’t be, and he lived for that love.
  2. Subjecting himself to a Katabasis – a trial that would strengthen his character. If he had to accomplish dangerous objectives and indeed, navigate life-threatening experiences, he wouldn’t have time to feel sorry for himself or think about things which would deplete his energy.

If you’re dealing with loss, Theodore Roosevelt teaches us to not remain passive, at the mercy of our emotions and circumstances. Rather, his lesson is to go on the offensive, pursue the things that will most energize us, and take part in fortune’s roll of the dice, rather than let her totally choose the number for us.

Death and loss are inevitable, but this experience teaches us that no loss can destroy a great character. It is with this in mind that we must approach reversals of fortune, no matter how emotionally anguished we are in the acute phase of those reversals.

Many more character lessons are yours for the taking in Lives of the Luminaries.

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