John F. Kennedy's Nephew Reacts to Sudden Deaths of Cousin Maeve McKean and Her Son Gideon

A week after Robert F. Kennedy's granddaughter, Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, and her 8-year-old son Gideon were killed in a canoeing accident, McKean's cousin Tim Shriver — the nephew of John F. Kennedy — is opening up about the tragic event. In an interview with PEOPLE, Shriver details how the family has come together after both mother and child were killed after strong winds and waves overtook their canoe when they set out into a placid-seeming cove of Chesapeake Bay trying to retrieve a lost ball. Their bodies were recovered earlier this week.

Shriver said that although the family is known to come together during times of hardship — including the many losses that have followed the family for decades, like the assassinations of President Kennedy and his brother Sen. Kennedy — "the reality is that the pain is unspeakably hard" in the wake of McKean and Gideon's disappearances and deaths. "I think we have the benefit of as strong a family as there could possibly be," he said, noting more than 120 family members gathered remotely last weekend to mourn in a virtual memorial amid the coronavirus pandemic. "I wish we could say it was enough," he said. "It's enough to give us strength, but it's not enough to end the pain."

McKean, 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 had three children with husband David McKean: Gideon, 8, Gabriella, 7, and Toby, 2. As a human rights lawyer, McKean focused on global public health and recently served as the executive director of the Georgetown's Global Health Initiative.

She, her husband and kids had been staying at her mom's empty bay-front home in Shady Side, Maryland, while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Thursday, she and Gideon ventured out into the Chesapeake in a canoe to retrieve a ball that landed in the water during their game. But they were pulled from shore and vanished. About 30 minutes later, an onlooker saw them and called 911 — and then they vanished. Their capsized canoe and paddle were found that evening, but it took longer to find their bodies.

McKean's body was recovered Monday, about two and a half miles from Townsend's home. Geidon's body was discovered Wednesday about 2,000 feet from his mom. "They just got father out than they could handle and couldn't get back in," McKean's husband David told The Washington Post.

Shriver said 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." He continued, "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."

Shriver said the family has received thousands of emails, voicemails, links to "beautiful songs and poems," tributes and more from those who knew McKean. Like numerous others, the family wasn't able to hold an in-person memorial, and that given the circumstance, there aren't plans set for a physical memorial in the future. He said the family has been learning how to mourn "in the age of physical distance" and create a "spiritual proximity" with one another despite their separation.

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"Everything is different," Shriver said. "It 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," he continued. "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."