Nelson Mandela's wedding

A photograph from the wedding of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. (Gallo Images / Getty Images / June 14, 1958)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The moment would haunt Nelson Mandela all his life. It was 1948, and he was in a hospital watching his baby daughter struggle for life.

The child, Makaziwe, or Maki, died as he watched. She was 9 months old.

Mandela’s life was Kennedyesque in its combination of great political achievement and heartbreaking personal tragedy.

Mandela would also lose both his sons — in a car accident and to AIDS. And in 2010, on a day of great national pride, he missed the soccer World Cup opening after his great-granddaughter, 13-year-old schoolgirl Zenani, was killed in a car accident on the way home from the kickoff concert the previous night.

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In South Africa’s brutal Robben Island prison, it wasn’t the bad food, the uncomfortable cell or the hard labor that tormented him. It was his separation from his family, particularly his mother and his second wife, Winnie, and their two daughters, Zeni and Zindzi.

In prison he felt the guilt of a workaholic, absent husband and father who had traveled often, neglecting those closest to him for the sake of the struggle against apartheid. He spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it, according to biographer Charlene Smith.

Mandela’s agony is revealed in a series of letters written from prison to Winnie and to friends, published in Mandela’s final book, “Conversations with Myself.”

He wrote to Irene Buthelezi, wife of then-ANC activist Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in 1969, opening his heart about the deaths of his baby daughter and a son.

Maki was in a hospital, apparently recovering from illness, when her condition suddenly deteriorated.

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“I managed to see her during the critical moments when she was struggling desperately to hold within her tender body the last sparks of life, which were flickering away. I have never known whether or not I was fortunate to witness that grievous scene,” Mandela wrote.

But nothing prepared him for the death of “the pride of my heart,” his older son, Thembi, in the same year as the letter. (Thembi, like Maki, was from his first marriage.)

Mandela compared his grief to that suffered by a tribal chief savaged by a lion, whose wounds had to be cauterized with a red hot spear.

He remembered coming home from an overseas trip studying African liberation movements and revolutionaries in 1962 to meet Thembi, then 17, proudly wearing a slightly-too-big pair of Mandela’s own trousers. He was deeply touched. He knew his son was a snappy dresser and had no need at all for his trousers.

The last time Mandela saw Thembi — anxious and afraid that his father would get the death penalty — was at his trial for sabotage five years before the young man was killed in a car crash.

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“The news was broken to me about 2.30 p.m. Suddenly my heart seemed to have stopped beating and the warm blood that had freely flown in my veins for the last 51 years froze to ice,” he wrote. “For some time, I could neither think nor talk and my strength appeared to be draining out. Eventually I found my way back to my cell with a heavy load on my shoulders and the last place where a man stricken with sorrow should be.”

His request to attend the funeral was denied. It was the second time in a year he’d been denied such a request. Authorities hadn’t let him attend his mother’s funeral, another death that hit him hard.

“I had never dreamt that I would not be able to bury Ma,” he wrote in a 1969 letter.