Eleanor Roosevelt's Resting Place for the Soul

A broken marriage, a sudden illness, and the statue that brought her peace.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Grief, by Augustus St. Gaudins
Source: David/flickr

When Eleanor Roosevelt found out about her husband’s infidelity, in the fall of 1918, she was devastated. The love letters she discovered at the bottom of his suitcase after a trip to Europe expressed such tender intimacy--they were even bound with a velvet ribbon. They made her quite literally sick. Soon she stopped eating and, wracked with grief, considered filing for divorce. “The bottom dropped out of my own particular world,” she said. 

If Eleanor’s world was thrown topsy-turvy, there remained a part of her that was nevertheless unphased, like the calm at the eye of a storm. She saw the catastrophe of the relationship and subsequent inner turmoil, in fact, as opportunity: “I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time. I really grew up that year.”

That was when she started visiting the statue.

Without name or date, tucked in the shadowy folds of a DC cemetery, the statue had a mysterious draw. It was of a woman--or perhaps simply a human of indeterminate gender--looking down, as if in mourning. Erected by Henry Adams in 1891, the cloaked figure was a memorial to his late wife, Marian, who took her own life. To those in the know, the statue simply went by the epithet, Grief. 

But not to Eleanor. Seeing past the eternally grieving face, Eleanor found solace in that cast-bronze stillness--able to not only endure pain, over the past century of its solitary existence, but become hardened by it, the way the hardest steel is proverbially forged in the hottest flame. “As I looked at it,” she said, “I felt that all the sorrow humanity had ever had to endure was expressed in that face.” Adding, “Yet in that expression there was something almost triumphant.” 

Eventually she came to see the Buddhist-influenced work (master sculptor August Saint-Gaudens took inspiration from, among others, the Buddha of Compassion) as positively enlightening. With a slender hand floating irrepressibly upward, coming to rest on the cheek, it represented one who had “transcended pain and hurt,” Eleanor said finally, “to achieve serenity.”

No doubt Eleanor needed space from the relationship in order to heal. But the practice of solitude proved even greater medicine. Sitting alone in the holly grove at Rock Creek, she felt the power that comes from opening your heart to life’s most trying moments. And she learned that she had a lot in common with the statue’s commemorative subject, Marian. 

As it turns out, both women were betrayed by their husbands. Both women were raised in households where they were forced to grow up in a hurry: early deaths, alcoholism, tragic dysfunction. After suffering the loss of innocence, both women were only in their mid-thirties when undergoing a dark night of the soul. Rather than see this darkness as impenetrable, as perhaps poor Marian did upon ingesting cyanide, Eleanor saw the darkness as simply that: unknowable. The great mystery of who life is calling us to be.

On the rainy morning of the inauguration, in 1933, Eleanor was unsure if she could go. So much public scrutiny over a private humiliation. (Rumors circulated that the other woman, Lucy Mercer, was attending the event--hiding in a limo hired by FDR himself.) How could she possibly stand by this unfaithful man, in full view of the entire country? As was her routine by now, she visited the statue. 

She brought a dear friend with her that day, journalist Lorena Hickok (with whom she would continue impassioned correspondence for years). As the two women sat on the cold wet marble bench, Eleanor recounted the story of how she started seeking refuge here. Back then, she was “younger and not so wise,” often feeling “unhappy and sorry for myself.” But she hastened to add: “I’d always come away somehow feeling better. And stronger.” 

With that, Eleanor Roosevelt went on to take her rightful place beside the President, launching a brilliant career in public office with influence equal to--if not greater than--that of her husband. And at the end of her life, history’s longest-serving First Lady of the United States was immortalized with a statue of her own, the first of its kind dedicated to a president’s wife, w

ith her own irrepressible hand rising up to her cheek.

Where do you go when life proves almost too much to bear? Or when you simply need to rejuvenate? We all need a resting place for our soul from time to time, and it doesn’t have to be a cemetery masterpiece. Perhaps you meditate, or listen to music, or go for a walk. Perhaps you simply journal whatever comes to mind. But a chance to be alone with yourself is not only vital for self-care, it’s a direct measure of how fully you can show up for others--in teams, families, everyday life. And, as Eleanor did, we might find the strength of a statue inside ourselves all along, at peace.