In Joe Biden’s very public journey through grief, he inadvertently gave a lasting gift to Americans by addressing common experiences in living with loss. His wife Neila and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed, and his sons Beau (2) and Hunter (3) suffered severe injuries in a tractor-trailer accident, in 1972. Just six weeks earlier, at age 29, he’d being elected as Senator from Delaware. When his 46-year-old son Beau, who survived a year of military service in Iraq, died this past May of a brain tumor, the intense emotional memories of that long journey influenced his thinking on mounting a presidential campaign. Few politicians have spoken so openly and bluntly about grief’s profound pain.
Wisdom from Joe
Grief has no predictable timetable.
In the White House Rose Garden, flanked by his wife Jill and President Obama, he spoke of the process of grief.
“I know from previous experience that there is no timetable for this process. The process doesn’t respect or care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”
Heartbreak can rip apart the fabric of life, a suffering that sometimes collapses our sense of self, the world, and God.
A practicing Catholic, he has spoken of his initial anger towards God, and his crisis of faith that gripped him in the days after his daughter and wife died.
“I was angry, man I was angry…I was a practicing Catholic, but I was mad at God. I remember being in the Capital Rotunda walking through to get the plane to go home to identify-uh,anyway-and I remember looking up and saying, ‘God.’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?'”
In a 2012 emotional speech for families of fallen military service members at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar, he also shared some of his darkest thoughts. Known for his optimistic personality, he admits, “It was the first time in my career, in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”
Closure is not a realistic or necessary goal.
At the same military event with survivors, he speaks of normal “grief bursts” that sabotage even years later.
“There was still something gigantic missing. And just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”
But that is not the end of his story. Hope emerges.
Joy will come again.
“There will come a day–I promise you, and your parents as well–when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is this day will come soon or later. But the only thing I have more experience than you is in this: I’m telling you it will come.”
Even more, he believes:
There are surprise gifts of goodness in grief.
In his commencement address at Yale University, he tells the graduates,
“I can remember my mother–a sweet lady–looking at me, after we left the hospital, and saying, ‘Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it. She was right.
Because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help. But by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.”
He made a decision after the accident to take the train home every night, rather than stay in Washington D.C., so he could be with his boys daily.
“The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through. Who knows whether I would have been able to appreciate at that moment in my life, the heady moment in my life (just elected as one of America’s youngest senators), what my first obligation was.”
Vice-President Biden is notorious for his candid off-the-cuff comments, some of which (often televised) cause distress afterwards. But in his natural honesty of telling it “like it is,” he has given families in grief an understanding heart, and public insight into respecting the process of a long and deep sorrow.
With thanks to writings from Amber Phillips, The Huffington Post, Yale University, and his 2012 speech at the 18th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar.
The great Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Hear blessings drop their blossoms around you.” In the past few days I’ve been hearing blossoms all around. Ironically, it’s happening as I am trying to de-clutter my home office. Never easy, because I’m finding treasured letters, notes, emails…often kept for years. Such kindness comes from friends, family, even strangers I’ve met on book tours…clearly soul gifts. So, I stop and reread these blossoms.
One that stunned me again with its beauty came from Lynn Liebert Caruso, a marvelous poet and published author, who wrote “From Pieces.” The daughter of a close family friend, she grew up with Krista, and saw our hearts shattered at Krista’s death while volunteering in Bolivia. She knew of our trip to Bolivia with Aaron (Krista’s husband) to help him close their one room adobe home in a remote village, and the healing we have found in creating gardens and the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship.
She drew on the image of the ceramic cups that ancient Japanese monks kept as one of their few possessions. It has been told that, centuries later when one of these cups was dropped-shattering to the floor, it was not discarded. Instead, it was repaired with gold solder. The repair made the break more prominent, but also gave the cup a new beauty. Her sensitive gifts with language offer blessings to many.
When the call came that your daughter had died.
That the bus left the road and fell to the valley floor
below. That her husband searched the Bolivian hillside
to find her in the black night. Then walked on alone.
Your cup slipped. Shattered.
When you buried her beside a statue of St. Francis,
beneath stories of love and life lived richly.
When you mourned the daughter you had known
in your womb and feel, again, those first kicks.
When the dogwood bloomed that spring
and you realized great loss lives in the same
house as great love.
You knelt to gather the pieces.
When you traveled to her home in that mountain village,
and hiked to the ravine where she died. When you set
flowers on the scar–carved deep into the earth
by the falling bus and knew this would be a wound
that would always show.
When you knelt where her body
might have lain and wondered what she last saw–
the sky of stars, her husband’s wild eyes, black night?
You worked to match the shards.
When you met the old woman who took your place
to dress your daughter’s broken body.
When you sprayed her mud home for scorpions
and the villagers came weaving their stories of your
daughter’s love for the cooperative,
for the children, for the God of tarantulas.
When you knew that she would choose to live on.
You warmed the gold solder and poured it in the open places.
When you returned home to find the grief was so
deep it held you to your bed and your keen rang on.
When you finally stood and said,
then filled the hillside behind your house with peonies
and cherry trees and found that with your hands
you could make things live.
You held the pieces till the solder cooled.
When you started a library, and a foundation that
sent out others in her name. When you learned that burrowing
into the grief that buried you, there was a spring called love.
And it was deep. And it would never dry up.
And drinking of it gave you life.
You rose and passed the cup.
Poet, Lynn Liebert Caruso
Lynn so beautifully captures the essence of the deep spring of love that lives forever in a parent’s heart.
Thinking of you and hope that Rumi’s image will give you pause to hear all of the blessings given each day whenever you see blossoms fall.
The Sunday before Mother’s Day, while visiting our daughter Susan’s family in Boston, I worshipped in their beautiful church with our 7-year-old Vietnamese granddaughter, Quinlen. Born premature and abandoned at birth, she grew up in two rooms of a crowded orphanage until almost two.
Having recently learned to read, she was enthusiastically singing the words to the historic Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision, also chosen for our wedding years ago. Enjoying the sweet soul of this serendipity connection, I live in wonder at how lives are brought together.
She doesn’t know that the words from verse 5….”Christ of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision” always reminds my husband Jim and me of the searing loss of our 25-year-old daughter Krista. Nor how these words encourage our hope to continue living into this hymn’s vision.
And I don’t know what profound losses caused her mother to leave her fragile infant daughter behind at the hospital. All I know is that grace abounds in this moment and my heart overflows with thanksgiving that she is now a healthy child, growing up surrounded by a family’s love.
SORROW and JOY
I wish this Mother’s Day I could have given each of you one of the Chinese Tree peonies blooming in our garden. After I pick them for a bouquet and bring them inside, they slowly unfold to these stunning 8 inch blossoms. They remind me if we trust living again with an open heart, even after shock and sorrow, life will continue to unfold with surprising moments of meaning and joy.
The poet Kahlil Gibran gives an inkling of this idea in his book The Prophet in his poem “On Joy and Sorrow.” Convinced these two are inseparable, he writes, “The deeper that sorrow craves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
A complex swirl of emotions inevitably surrounds Mother’s Day for many, especially if one is grieving the loss of a child or mother. For years, I found being in church difficult on Mother’s Day, and I especially stayed away from restaurants where large families celebrated. But time has eased the sorrow and joy comes in so many ways.
I hope you experience glimpses of grace and joy as you seek to live with open-hearted courage.
Can grief actually be a friend after losing one we love?
“You won’t always feel this bad.” This was the quiet assurance a friend gave Babs a few weeks after her 16-year-old son died while rolling his truck on a mountain road. Reeling from the loss of her only child, she found “these words gave me immense comfort because I knew she’d been there after her own child’s death.”
She expressed the concern of mothers and fathers everywhere who carry the burden of sorrow beyond imagination when a beloved child dies. It’s a question I also carried after our 25-year-old married daughter was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.
And it is the question any person carries who lives with the shattering loss of a beloved parent, spouse, family member or friend.
“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs, whose only daughter Cameron died in a crosswalk during college.
“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry in inappropriate places. But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay. It would never leave. I’d never be able to go back to the old normal.”
“So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality. It became my friend.”
Four Reasons to Befriend Grief
1) Bereavement is a healthy, normal, and universal response to losing one we love.
“If he is worth loving, he is worth grieving,” states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in the classic book Lament for a Son, an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric. “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one we loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief.”
Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”
Parental love is forever, and many parents speak of ways they continue bonds with their child. “When thoughts of Dawnya rise up,” says Diana Hartvigson, whose daughter was murdered twenty years ago, “I don’t try to suppress them for fear of the pain. I allow myself to let them arise.”
2) “Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.
After my Whitworth University faculty colleague Jerry Sittser experienced the catastrophic death of his wife, daughter, and mother by a drunk driver, he told me of a terrible nightmare. Fleeing towards the sun, he felt the darkness engulf him. Shaken, he told his dream to his sister. “She reminded me that the shortest distance to the light of the sun is east, through the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.” Recognizing darkness was unavoidable, he writes in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief of his decision to allow himself to be transformed by suffering.
As many parents expressed, all encompassing grief demands attention for healthy emotional growth. In the second year after Krista’s death, my husband took a solo backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest. Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own pilgrimage through grief.
In contrast, grief counselors observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead some to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life-destructive addictions.
3) Grief can expand wisdom, clarifying what’s really important in our lives.
At Krista’s memorial, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her 2-year-old nephew. “How did your family ever survive such a loss?” I asked.
Molly paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.” It’s an insight I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.
When Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident, this became a crucible moment for Marilyn. In her book How We Lead Matters, she speaks of emerging from her anger and depression at such a senseless death. Now acutely aware that each day could be their last, she writes, “My husband and I made a new commitment to living our lives to the fullest, making each day count.” She later became the first female CEO of Carlson, the world’s largest global travel business and initiated sound principles of love and care into this corporate structure.
4) Grief often becomes a catalyst for positive action.
Beneath sorrow there lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost. When a grieving person accesses this, it becomes the source of amazing energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions. We see this in the formation of major non-profits like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but also for thousands of local efforts to compassionately address human needs.
“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon-West, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary student overseas. “Eventually I had to decide to either wilt or die, or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.” Many stories in my book Pilgrimage through Loss show the beauty of such growth.
For Jan, who invited grief to be a guest at the table many years ago, has found that befriending grief expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed,” she said. “Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice, and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now. My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”
Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit…The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.
Are there ways you have found that befriending and choosing to give attention to grief has been important? I’d love to hear.