An Emotional Interview with JFK's Nephew Remembering Cousin Maeve McKean & Her Son: 'Unspeakably Hard'
Tim Shriver says the Kennedy family's bond is "enough to give us strength, but it’s not enough to end the pain"
Both mother and child were killed on April 2 in a canoeing accident after strong winds and waves overtook them when they set out into a placid-seeming cove of the Chesapeake Bay trying to retrieve a lost ball.
Their bodies were recovered earlier this week.
It was the latest of many losses that have followed the Kennedy family for decades, including the assassinations of President Kennedy and his brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — tragedy entwined with their fame, fortune and political success.
The family is known to come together in times of hardship, Shriver tells PEOPLE, but he says “the reality is that the pain is unspeakably hard” in the wake of Maeve and Gideon’s deaths.
“I think we have the benefit of as strong a family as there could possibly be,” says Shriver, noting more than 120 family members gathered remotely this past weekend to mourn while the coronavirus pandemic prevents a physical memorial.
“I wish we could say it was enough,” Shriver says. “It’s enough to give us strength, but it’s not enough to end the pain.”
Maeve, 40, was one of Sen. Kennedy’s granddaughters and the daughter of former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and David Lee Townsend, an attorney and professor. She shared three children with husband David McKean: Gideon, 8, the oldest; as well as Gabriella, 7, and Toby, 2½.
A human rights lawyer, Maeve focused on global public health in recent years, most recently serving as the executive director of the Georgetown’s Global Health Initiative. A co-worker tells PEOPLE that before her death Maeve was connecting the university with organizers from her grandfather’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation to help coronavirus relief efforts.
She, her husband and kids had been staying at her mom’s empty bay-front home in Shady Side, Maryland, in order to have more space while social distancing during the pandemic.
Last Thursday afternoon, she and Gideon ventured out into the Chesapeake on a canoe to quickly retrieve a ball that had landed in the water during their game, her husband said last week. But they were pulled from shore.
They were seen about 30 minutes later by an onlooker who called 911 — and then they vanished, with their paddle and capsized canoe found that evening.
Authorities recovered Maeve’s body on Monday in the water about 2.5 miles south of Townsend’s home. On Wednesday, Gideon’s body was discovered about 2,000 feet away from his mom.
“They just got farther out than they could handle and couldn’t get back in,” husband David told The Washington Post.
RELATED: Cause of Death Revealed for Kennedy Granddaughter Who Had Vanished in Canoe Accident with Son
Their deaths came less than a year after another of Sen. Kennedy’s granddaughters, Saoirse Kennedy Hill, accidentally overdosed in August while staying at the family’s storied compound with matriarch Ethel Kennedy. Hill was 22.
Shriver, 60, tells PEOPLE now that after Saoirse’s death, Maeve stepped up for the family and routinely offered support for other relatives. Maeve was “always there, ready to answer anybody, ready to look out for anybody,” he remembers.
“That was her story,” Shriver says. “She said that in the most intimate ways to her own family and then she said it to the world. It was almost like she was the person who was saying to people all over the world who might be struggling: ‘I’m here for you. I’m here for you.’ ”
Family members and colleagues have told PEOPLE Maeve’s work as a human rights lawyer emphasized her care for others.
“She’s somebody that was making a difference in the world, and she was only 40,” said Peter Hotez, a global health and vaccination expert. “There’s no doubt she was destined for huge things.”
Shriver is the chairman of the Special Olympics, founded by his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and he says he got to know Maeve better than ever over the last decade as she began growing into a prominent human rights lawyer. They worked together on public health issues surrounding intellectual disabilities.
“She was smart as a whip, tough as nails and kind as a human being can be,” Shriver says. “The combination was mesmerizing. She could charm you with her generosity of spirit, amaze you with her intellect and then you just wanted to stand back with the force of her will. It’s a combination that usually doesn’t exist.”
Shriver says he didn’t know 8-year-old Gideon well but from seeing him at family gatherings, the boy was “needless to say his mother’s little guy.”
“From all accounts, he was his mother’s son, you know? Every bit as gutsy, every bit as daring, every bit as strong and every bit as kind,” says Shriver.
In a heartsick Facebook post last Friday, David McKean remembered his son as “impossible to sum up.”
Athletic, big-hearted and bookish, Gideon wouldn’t even “sing children’s songs if they contained a hint of animals or people being treated cruelly,” David wrote.
Since their deaths, Shriver says he and other members of the Kennedys have received thousands of emails, voicemails, links to “beautiful songs and poems,” tributes and more from those who knew Maeve — including many lawyers and co-workers at Georgetown.
The Kennedys — like numerous others — weren’t able to hold an in-person memorial for Maeve and Gideon because of the isolation encouraged to slow the coronavirus pandemic. Shriver says that, given recency and circumstance, there aren’t plans set for a physical memorial in the future.
He says part of the process for the Kennedys has been learning how to mourn and bond “in the age of physical distance” and create a “spiritual proximity” with one another despite their separation.
Over the weekend, dozens and dozens of members of the extended family as well as close friends gathered remotely in a group video chat to connect, grieve and remember the mother and son — the same way Maeve had been there for other Kennedys since Saoirse’s death last year.
“Everything is different,” Shriver says. “I think in some ways people are connecting as a group more, but we don’t get to hug, we don’t get to hold each others’ shoulders, we don’t get to eat together, we don’t get to go for a walk together, we don’t get to hold hands, we don’t get to cry on a shoulder. These most human of connections — which are so powerful and valuable — are taken from us. So we have to try in other ways to let the spirit of all those actions, those physical moments, come through in some other way.”
“We’re just trying to let her fill us up now,” Shriver says of Maeve, adding: “We have great faith, and most of us navigate that faith through our tradition and through our shared sense of being held by a force much bigger than us. And it’s difficult, but I think we’re lucky that we’ve been given — through our parents’ generation and our grandparents’ generation — a kind of strength in the face of adversity that sustains us.”