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The Heartbreaking Way JFK’s Kids Learned of their Father’s Fate

Barbara Stepko

The turmoil of Dealey Plaza. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, still wearing her blood-stained pink Chanel suit, standing beside Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One, as he took the oath of office.

A three-year-old boy saluting his father’s flag-draped casket as it left St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

So much of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in November of 1963, has been indelibly etched in the minds of the American people.

Picture of President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination. Also in the presidential limousine are Jackie Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie.

Picture of President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination. Also in the presidential limousine are Jackie Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie.

But one of the most heart-wrenching moments of those fateful few days happened in the upstairs family quarters of the White House, far from public view.

It was there that the Kennedy children, Caroline, then almost six, and her little brother John Jr., age three, learned that the father they so adored had died.

President Kennedy’s family leaving his funeral at the U.S. Capitol Building

President Kennedy’s family leaving his funeral at the U.S. Capitol Building

Many believe that Jacqueline Kennedy broke the news to her two children, shortly after flying back to the White House from Dallas. (The 2016 movie, Jackie, starring Natalie Portman, would perpetuate this myth.)

In reality, the task fell to the children’s beloved nanny, Maud Shaw, at the request of the First Lady’s mother, Janet Auchincloss. Believing that her daughter was too distraught — and had endured too much — to face her children, she reached out to the nurse.

The Kennedys and the Connallys in the presidential limousine moments before the assassination.

The Kennedys and the Connallys in the presidential limousine moments before the assassination.

According to William Manchester in his book The Death of a President, a 1967 account of the Kennedy assassination and the days that followed, Miss Shaw was speechless. “Please, no. Let this cup pass from me,” she reportedly begged. “I don’t have the heart.”

Just three months earlier, the nanny had to tell the children that their brother Patrick, born prematurely, had died. But Auchincloss insisted that Caroline needed to be told before she heard the news from her friends.

JFK Jr. with his father at the White House at age two.

JFK Jr. with his father at the White House at age two.

Shaw broke the news to John Jr. first, telling him, “Your father has gone to look after Patrick.” But the little boy was too young to fully comprehend, asking Shaw if his father had taken his big plane with him, then wondering when he would come back.

She tucked John Jr. into bed, then entered Caroline’s room. In her 1966 memoir, White House Nannie: My Years with Caroline and John Kennedy Jr., Shaw recounted, “I sat on the edge of [Caroline]’s bed [that night] and felt tears well up in my eyes. Caroline looked up at me. ‘What’s the matter, Miss Shaw? Why are you crying?’ I took her in my arms. ‘I can’t help crying, Caroline, because I have some very sad news.’ Then I told her.”

Caroline with her father aboard the yacht Honey Fitz off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts at age five, August 25, 1963.

Caroline with her father aboard the yacht Honey Fitz off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts at age five, August 25, 1963.

Manchester’s book offers additional details of the moment, with Shaw reportedly telling the little girl:

“Your father has been shot. They took him to a hospital, but the doctors couldn’t make him better. So your father has gone to heaven to look after Patrick. Patrick was so lonely in heaven. He didn’t know anybody there. Now he has the best friend anyone could have.” She paused. “God gives each of us a thing to do. God is making your father a guardian angel over you and your mother, and his light will shine down on you always. His light is shining now, and he’s watching you, and he’s loving you, and he always will.”

President Kennedy and family. President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Caroline Kennedy.

President Kennedy and family. President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Caroline Kennedy.

Caroline buried her face in the pillow, crying. Shaw sat beside her on the bed, patting her head until she fell asleep, then she tiptoed out of the room and settled into a rocking chair in her own room. There she sat, in the dark, keeping her ears pealed for the slightest sound from either child as the night wore on.

Shaw, who spent seven and a half years with the Kennedy family — starting just days before Caroline was born — would retire and return to her native England in 1965. It would be a great loss for the family. Shaw was described by her nephew, Ian Roberts, as “one of the classic English nannies,” a woman with a firm hand and a ready smile. But she was more than just the children’s governess.

The Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in 1963.

The Kennedy family in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, in 1963.

She “was probably their best friend at the time,” Jackie’s former Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, told People in 2015. “I nursed the children from the cradle and came to love them just as if they had been my own,” Shaw wrote in White House Nannie. “Happily, they repaid me with their own love and affection.”

Shaw would see Kennedys once more after her retirement. In 1965, Jackie took Caroline and John Jr. to England for the dedication of a memorial to their late father, and the children accompanied their former nanny on a short trip to the quaint coastal town of Sheerness, where Shaw resided with her sister Hettie.

This would be their last time together, but they would keep in touch through letters over the years. Adams died in 1988, at age 85.

Read another story from us: Jacqueline Kennedy’s packing list for tragic Dallas trip becomes public

In her memoir, Shaw noted that she had worked for “all sorts of people and their children in many parts of the world.” But the Kennedy children held a special place in her heart. “I have a deeper love for them than all the others,” Shaw told The Daily Times-News in 1966, “perhaps because we have seen so much together.”