- By Jill Smolowe
Back in 1972, fresh off the electoral victory that would make him the second youngest Senator in U.S. history, Joseph Biden received the sort of phone call all of us dread. A car accident. Fatal. His wife and his infant daughter gone forever. His two young sons survived, but were injured.
Vice President Biden recalled the shock of that moment during a May 17, 2015 commencement address at Yale University: “My whole world was altered forever.”
Thirteen days after that Yale address, Biden’s life was again visited by tragedy. This time, the sad news involved his elder son, Joseph R. Biden III, 46, who had succumbed to brain cancer after a two-year fight against the disease.
Beau, as he was known, was a popular former attorney general of Delaware, a husband and a dad who was very close to his father.
When I heard the news, I winced. Perhaps you did, too. It’s hard not to go to that place that says: “Too much. So unfair.” It’s hard not to ask: “How much can he take?” And hard not to wonder: “How is he supposed to keep going after yet another devastating loss?”
In toting up his blessings, Biden tapped a deep reservoir of gratitude for what remained steady and good in his life.
Biden himself offered the seeds of an answer in that same Yale address shortly before Beau’s death. “The incredible bond I have with my children,” he said, “is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through.” The loss of his first wife and daughter, he said, had reordered his priorities. Washington and work no longer topped the list. His “first obligation,” he realized, was to his young sons, Beau and Hunter. And so each night, every night, he commuted four hours home to Wilmington, Del., to tuck his boys into bed.
“The truth be told, the real reason I went home every night,” he told the Yale audience, “was that I needed my children more than they needed me.”
In toting up his blessings, in other words, Biden had tapped a deep reservoir of gratitude for what remained steady and good in his life. That was what had gotten him through then — and that is what will, no doubt, get him through now.
What Remained Good In My Life
I am well acquainted with this potent weapon. In 2009, following a two-and-a-half-year battle with leukemia that included chemo bombardments and a stem cell transplant, my husband (also a Joe) keeled over in the kitchen, his unexpected death the result of transplant-related complications. As I watched an EMT crew prepare to carry him from the house, time slowed to a crawl. That’s one minute without Joe, I remember thinking. That’s two minutes without Joe…
I expected grief, and I got it. I expected loneliness, and I got it. I also expected that I would climb into bed for days, maybe weeks, and be unable to function as I explored the new contours of my painfully rearranged universe. That part, to my surprise, never happened.
Instead, what kicked in and helped to keep me moving was a powerful and unexpected sense of gratitude. Loss had not just focused my mind on what was gone. It had focused my mind on what remained good in my life. High on that list was my realization of how fortunate Joe and I had been to have acknowledged during his years of illness that death was — death is always — a possibility, and so had made it a priority not only to express our love repeatedly, but to express our appreciation for the many ways we had enriched each other’s lives.
I also focused on the bounty that surrounded me. Yes, I had lost my beloved husband of 24 years. But I still had my daughter, just 15 at the time. Yes, I missed Joe every minute of every day. But I was also deeply appreciative of the love and support that provided a sort of safety net. Concerned parents. Doting siblings. Attentive friends. Considerate neighbors and colleagues. Yes, I felt a keen sense of dislocation. But I was also aware of the many things that kept me rooted me to the community in which I lived: a steady income and work I enjoyed; a lovely home that, not insignificantly, I felt competent to administer solo; wonderful friends with whom I enjoyed relationships, independent of Joe.
Saying Thank You Now
A few weeks after Joe died, I suddenly felt a keen need to express my appreciation to the many people who had helped and steadied me through his illness and death. Not later. Now. Before it was too late. As I wrote thank-you note after thank-you note, I uncorked my gratitude and let it flow as copiously as my tears. The self-designed exercise had a potent effect. It demanded that I pay attention to the blessings in my life. It demanded that I take nothing for granted. It demanded that I recognize the many reasons I had to go on without Joe.
Fourteen months later, I would again armor myself with gratitude to endure the deaths of my sister and my mother within three weeks of each other — my sister from colon cancer, my mother from liver failure. As with Joe, so with Ann and Mom, prolonged illness had provided ample time to express our love and our appreciation. I had no regrets, save that they were gone.
A Peculiar Silver Lining
I would imagine that Joe Biden and his son similarly took advantage of the time afforded by Beau’s prolonged illness to give expression to everything in their hearts. It is a peculiar silver lining, to be sure, but one that they would have appreciated given the sudden earlier deaths in their family — a lesson that the Vice President had not forgotten. “Be careful,” he warned Yale’s graduates just two weeks before Beau’s death. “Things can change in a heartbeat. I know.”
Of the many things for which I continue to remain grateful, I take tremendous comfort from the knowledge that I have no regrets about words unspoken or sentiments unexpressed with each of the people who exited my life too soon. I hope that the Vice President will find similar comfort in the months ahead. Sad as it is, a good goodbye can be a solace unto itself.