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.