The Kennedy family is devastated by the loss of Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, one of Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughters, and her 8-year-old son Gideon, who are presumed dead after going missing in a canoe accident.
Although social distancing precautions have kept the tight-knit family from physically gathering together, “they are having daily Zoom calls,” a family friend tells PEOPLE.
“There will be a memorial service at some point in the future,” the family friend adds. “This is such a horrible time to lose somebody. Everyone’s trying to be careful.”
Robert F. Kennedy / Instagram
Maeve, 40, who earned a law degree and a master’s degree in international negotiations and conflict resolution from Georgetown University, dedicated her life to “fight for the voiceless,” says Alan Fleischmann, the former chief of staff for Maeve’s mother, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend who remains very close to the family.
In addition to serving in the Peace Corps, which was founded by her great-uncle John F. Kennedy, Maeve worked in the State Department’s global AIDS program under former President Barack Obama and most recently has been serving as the executive director of Georgetown’s Global Health Initiative.
“She just embodied a devotion and dedication,” Fleischmann says. “She was as present and consistently upbeat and passionate and high energy as anyone you could ever know.”
Her commitment and values were something she shared with her husband David McKean, whom she first met while working in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office.
Mike Pont/Getty David McKean, Maeve Kennedy Townsend Mckean and children
“She and Dave met with a common passion to fight for human rights, in her case with a strong focus on public health,” adds Fleischmann.
Her mother, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, was also a strong influence. “She was so much like her mom. This extended family has rallied together, and are showing such a force during this very unusual time where you can’t come together,” he says.
In addition to being a natural-born leader, Maeve lived a life without artifice.
“Maeve, she was never fancy. I don’t think she owned any fancy clothing and never wore makeup,” a friend of Maeve’s tells PEOPLE. “She would always be eating an apple or munching on carrots, always a nutritious snack. Always off to do a hike or off for some exercise.”
“She was very kind. She was sincere. She was sweet. What you see was what you got,” the friend says. “There was no pretense about her. Very thoughtful.”
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and cousin, Rep. Joe Kennedy III
A second longtime family friend adds that while Maeve “sort of took her own path,” upholding the Kennedy tradition of service was very important to her.
“She was distinct because she took her own path,” the friend says, noting that her time in the Peace Corps after college had a profound impact on her. “I think that period of time allowed her to grow and mature. She came back with all these experiences.”
“It gave her a perspective of what she wanted to do,” adds the friend, noting that her passion also extended to her three children. “She was very engaged as a mother.”
In addition to their 8-year-old son Gideon, Maeve and her husband shared two more children, Gabriella, 7, and Toby, 2 1/2.
As the Coast Guard suspended its search on Friday, one day after the pair went missing in a canoe accident near Maeve’s mother’s waterfront property in Maryland, her husband shared the tragic news that the pair were presumed dead.
“It is clear that Maeve and Gideon have passed away,” he wrote in an emotional Facebook message, as he recounted their final moments.
“We were self-quarantining in an empty house owned by Maeve’s mother Kathleen on the Chesapeake Bay, hoping to give our kids more space than we have at home in DC to run around,” he explained. While playing a game of kickball, the ball ended up in the water and when Maeve and Gideon got into a canoe to retrieve it they “somehow got pushed by wind or tide into the open bay.”
Facebook Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and family
In a statement to PEOPLE, Maeve’s mother, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend confirmed that “the search for my beloved daughter Maeve and grandson Gideon has turned from rescue to recovery.”
“Our hearts are crushed, yet we shall try to summon the grace of God and what strength we have to honor the hope, energy and passion that Maeve and Gideon set forth into the world,” she said. “My family thanks all for the outpouring of love and prayers as we grieve and try to bear this devastating loss.”
According to the family friend, Kathleen’s mother, family matriarch Ethel Kennedy, who has endured decades of loss throughout her 91 years, has been “an amazing voice of love and support and strength.”
“She’s been on the phone with the family,” says the friend. “And she’s showing that gratitude that she does when things happen among her family, and she’s very grateful for her family.”