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.
How does a parent ever recover from a tragedy as heartbreaking as the murder of twenty-six first-graders and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary? On this one-year anniversary, I’m heartened by the determination from many of the mothers and fathers that “this is not the end of the story.” On Scott Simon’s NPR Morning Edition this December 14, they included a compelling interview with Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of six-year-old Ana Grace who was killed. As a therapist who counsels mentally ill and troubled young people, she talked of three attitudes and actions that have shaped her days even when “most days, it feels like I’m hanging off the edge of a cliff.”
A GRIEVING MOTHER’S WISDOM FOR HEALING:
1) Making a choice on where to focus memory.
She’s very aware that one doesn’t always choose our circumstances, but we have choices on our responses.
She describes how “I’ve made it my business” to stay focused on good days with Ana, to keep her spirit alive. Rather than reliving December 14, she loves remembering the day before, on December 13, when their busy family suddenly dropped everything to go out together for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. She’s forever grateful for this time of lots of laughter,enjoyment of one another, and snapping of photographs. It was their last dinner together as a family of four.
2) Living with an expanded heart. During the December 2 conference of the Ana Grace Project, 500 people gathered for their family’s effort to build community, connection, and compassion. “A moment came when we wondered if we should create a table with 28 candles instead of 26, to include both Adam and his mother who also died that day. We put 28, a gesture of compassion.”
3) Acting on creative ways to honor Ana Grace. Their family motto is Love Wins and Ana’s father, Jimmy, is a musician and friend of Harry Connick, Jr. so they’ve composed a song called Love Wins now available on You Tube.
Click this link to a beautiful full interview of a Generous Spirited Newtown Mother who seeks to make meaning from such heart devastation. I found her expanded story immensely inspiring. I think you might too.
OTHER EFFORTS FOR TRANSFORMATION
Even during their first year of acute raw grief, many are demonstrating the empowering characteristics of compassion, strength, intention, and resolve that mark their community.
As grieving parents, they banded together and formed the Sandy Hook Promise, going on the road to lobby for “common sense solutions to gun violence. When lawmakers failed to pass legislation in April, father Mark Barden expressed the sentiment of many. “We are disappointed, but not defeated.” Many saw this as “round one” in their fight for reform, equating the challenges of changing America’s gun violence as a marathon, not a sprint.
Now they have launched a grassroots campaign called Parents Together, emphasizing mental wellness, connection to community and gun safety. With a new strategy, and proven tools and programs to help local communities, they believe that parents’ common love for children can overcome national political paralysis. They are determined that Sandy Hook will be remembered as a place where real and lasting transformation to prevent gun violence in America began.
This is their solace and their hope, and a force towards their healing. Such courage and determined actions give hope and solace to our nation too.
“The soul is healed by being with children,” believed the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky after spending four torturous years as a young man in a Siberian prison camp. So we can imagine his grief in 1868 when he lost his first born daughter Sonya at three months old to pneumonia. His wife Anna recalled her husband “wept and sobbed like a woman in despair.” Then, in 1879, his three-year old son Alyosha died after a severe epileptic fit. Alyosha’s name becomes immortalized as a character in Dostoevsky’s most famous 1879 book The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, through all Dostoevsky’s trials, one source of strength was the way he kept a deep reservoir of love for all of creation. In The Brothers Karamazov, he writes:
Love all God’s creation, the whole of it
and every grain of sand, love every leaf,
every ray of God’s light;
love the animals, love the plants,
If you love everything, you will perceive
the divine mystery in things.
And once you have perceived it,
you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly,
more and more every day.
And you will at last come to love the whole world
with an abiding, universal love.
While interviewing parents for Pilgrimage through Loss, many shared how they also found healing by drawing from the wellspring of love they carried for other children, for the natural world, for gardens, and for an ability to live into the divine mysteries of life. Even suffering. In the first years after our daughter’s death, I found planting seeds, bulbs, and perennial flowers kept hope in the future alive. Seeing sunny daffodils, hyacinths, and brilliant tulips push through the late Spokane snows with a determination to flower assured me that a winter-soul is not forever.
Like Dostoevsky,we found that the birth of our grandchildren infuses our daily life with healing, soul-nurturing love. As a young girl, The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books, so I decided to create a secret garden for the children in our family and neighborhood. A troll seems to know when children will be visiting and leaves gifts in the troll house. Soon after she arrives, our granddaughter Erin inevitably runs to see what small treasures have been left for her inside the miniature door. While playing in the garden, we hope she is growing to love every plant, every leaf, every ray of sun that gardens highlight. For she will someday know her own sorrows, and we trust they become carried within a heart that knows the abiding love of all creation too.
What gives you soul-healing moments?