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The Heartbreaking Way JFK’s Children Learned About Their Father’s Death

Photo Credit: Brooks Kraft, LLC / Sygma / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Brooks Kraft, LLC / Sygma / Getty Images

The turmoil at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. First Lady Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy, still wearing her blood-stained pink Chanel suit, standing beside Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One, as he took the oath of office. Three-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s flag-draped casket as it left St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC…

So much of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 has been indelibly etched in the minds of the American people. However, one of the most heart-wrenching moments happened in the family quarters of the White House, away from public view. It was there that the Kennedy children – Caroline, age six, and her little brother – learned that the father they so adored had died.

Giving the nanny the dreadful task

Jackie and John F. Kennedy sitting in the back of a vehicle, while John Connally sits in the front passenger seat
Jackie and John F. Kennedy riding in a motorcade with Texas Gov. John Connally just prior to the US president’s assassination, 1963. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Many believe Jackie Kennedy broke the news to her children shortly after flying back to the White House from Dallas, as shown in the 2016 film Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. In reality, the task fell to the children’s beloved nanny, Maud Shaw, at the request of the First Lady’s mother. Believing Jackie was too distraught – and had endured too much – to face her children, she reached out to the nurse.

According to William Manchester’s book, The Death of a President: November 1963, Shaw was speechless. “Please, no,” she reportedly begged. Nearly four months earlier, she’d had to tell the children that their brother, Patrick, born prematurely, had died. However, Janet Auchincloss insisted that young Caroline needed to be told before she heard the news from her friends.

Breaking John F. Kennedy’s assassination to his children

Kennedy family standing together at the entrance of a building
Kennedy family on Easter Sunday, 1963. (Photo Credit: MPI / Getty Images)

Maud Shaw first broke the news to John, Jr., telling him, “Your father has gone to look after Patrick.” Unfortunately, the little boy was too young to fully comprehend, asking the nanny if his father had taken his big plane with him, and 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 the emotional moment, “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.”

William Manchester’s book offers additional details of the moment. “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,” the author wrote Shaw as saying.

Caroline buried her face in the pillow, crying. The nanny sat beside her on the bed, patting her head until she fell asleep, before tiptoeing out of the room and settling into the rocking chair in her own room. There she sat in the dark, keeping her ears peeled for the slightest sound from either child as the night wore on.

Maud Shaw was the Kennedy children’s ‘best friend at the time’

Jackie and John F. Kennedy riding in the back of a car with Maud Shaw, who's holding a newborn John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Jackie and John F. Kennedy with nanny Maud Shaw shortly after the birth of John F. Kennedy, Jr., 1960. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Maud Shaw, who spent seven and a half years with the Kennedy family, would retire and return to her native England in 1965. It was a great loss for them. 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.

She “was probably their best friend at the time,” Jackie Kennedy’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 her memoir. “Happily they repaid me with their own love and affection.”

Shaw saw the Kennedys once more following her retirement. In 1965, Jackie took the children to England for the dedication of a memorial to their late father, and the two accompanied their former nanny on a short trip to the coastal town of Sheerness, where Shaw resided with her sister, Hettie. This was their last time together, but they kept in touch through letters over the years.

More from us: Rosemary Kennedy: The Tragic Life of JFK’s Little Sister

In her memoir, Shaw noted that she’d worked for “all sorts of people and their children in many parts of the world,” but that 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.”

Barbara Stepko

Barbara Stepko is a New Jersey-based freelance editor and writer who has contributed to AARP magazine and the Wall Street Journal.