The Power of Grief

7 mins read
Former Vice President of the United States Joe Biden speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Photo by Gage Skidmore. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’ve known the kind of sadness that sears the psyche. Mere existence can be hard, as one plods from one place to the next. Sometimes it’s hard to even carry on everyday conversation, especially if one’s grief is a secret. Thus, stories of loss and triumph have a particular resonance for me. That former Vice President Joe Biden has overcome profound loss throughout his own life soothes the souls of those who are too acquainted with sorrow.

The incalculable loss that Biden has suffered in life makes him a better man. Having walked through the “valley of the shadow of death”, he exudes kindness and compassion, an aura paid for dearly with pain. Behind those aviator glasses is a soul once — several times — bent, but never broken.

Mere weeks after Joe became at age 29 one of the youngest elected Senators in U.S. history, his first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash, a loss too vast for words. Sons Hunter and Beau were severely injured. In the midst of senseless pain, we clamor desperately for explanations. There has to be a reason, we plead, but sometimes there just isn’t. A tragic collision took Neilia and Naomi — it was a horrendous instance of physics, a heartbreaking convergence of lives.

Beau Biden with former Vice President Joe Biden. Photo credit: AFP

Then in 2015 Beau Biden, who was the Attorney General of Delaware, died of brain cancer, at the height of his tremendous promise. This was yet another body blow for a family already beset by heartbreak. Joe declined to run for president in 2016, largely on account of the death of his son, who — in a display of how cruel fate can be — was one of the most ardent supporters of his father’s potential run.

Empathy, which our current president so patently lacks, is the silver lining in the nimbus cloud of grief. After enduring harrowing life circumstances, one is usually better at tending to others in adversity. Since declaring his candidacy, voters have flocked to Biden with their own stories of loss.

Joe and Jill were prepared to sell their own home to help pay for Beau’s cancer treatment, in the spirit of sacrifice that animates countless Americans when a loved one falls ill. How can President Trump possibly know what it’s like to struggle to pay for school or medical bills if he himself has never known the pain of financial insecurity? (And I do not mean whatever financial uncertainty that negotiations over Trump Tower Moscow may have entailed.) Learning secondhand about how the other side lives means always having an escape hatch behind which are the familiar comforts of luxury. To truly lead the people at an aristocratic remove is difficult. Those who have done so had usually gone through soul-trying circumstances of some other kind.

Indeed, some of our best presidents dealt with enormous loss. At age 39, Thomas Jefferson lost his wife — Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Dumas Malone described their marriage as the happiest period of his life. He was stricken by profound despair and, fulfilling a promise made to his dying Martha, never married again.

Also at age 39, FDR was permanently paralyzed, losing the use of his once limber limbs. Although he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, his agony seasoned into empathy. Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins mused that, “There had been a plowing up of his nature. The man emerged completely warm-hearted, with new humility of spirit…”

Lincoln the Great Emancipator wrestled with sadness all his life, his “melancholy drip[ping] from him as he walked.” Nonetheless, the relentless depression that hounded him all his life also offered him a preternatural gift: his “capacity for depth and wisdom”. To be kind to others in the midst of one’s own torment is strength of the highest order.

Photo credit: AP

Even before his 2020 campaign, as a Trustee of the American Association for Cancer Research Foundation, I had the honor of meeting the Vice President, who spearheaded the Cancer Moonshot. Despite his frenetic schedule, he was always patient and kind. Unlike some of lower office or stature who crave the trappings of success, he was rarely surrounded by an entourage, traveling lightly with just a single aide. No pretensions. No taxpayer-funded escapades to golf clubs around the world.

As someone who ran for office myself, I know well how excruciating campaigns can be. The constant sniping, the ruthless tactics and barbs, the days that just grind you down with fatigue — one needs a heavy dose of intestinal fortitude to make it through, especially during an age in which news never sleeps and the slightest gaffe is heard around the world.

The remnants of a broken heart are pieces of wisdom. Joe is stronger for his pain but what a heavy price to pay. Grief is the great equalizer, the most democratic of emotions, with wealth and power offering no sure-fire immunity. It is the sometimes horrific price that we pay for loving someone but one that I would pay over and over again. Love is always worth it.

Beau once asked his father, “Promise me, Dad. Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be alright.” Promise made, promise kept.

Originally posted on Medium. Re-posted with permission.


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