What Joe Biden Taught Me About Grief

Beau Biden, Joe BidenI read the news today that US Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau died this weekend. He was 46, the same age as I am. He died of brain cancer, the same thief which stole my mother.

I know very little about Joe Biden, but then I read this article and I was filled with compassion for the losses he has faced in his life. His wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident and he said the only thing that made him carry on was looking after his two sons. Now he must face the loss of one of those sons.

In a speech Biden gave to families of fallen soldiers in 2012, he talks about the constant weight of grief.

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.

There will be times we will think we have our grief under control and then we will find ourselves ambushed by hearing snatches of a song, or catching a scent from a passer-by that evokes our loved one. I recently sat beside an older lady  who smelled so much like my mother, it took all my strength not to bury myself in her coat and inhale deeply of that beloved lost scent. The writer Colette captures this so well when she wrote:

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief.  But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.

In that speech, Joe Biden didn’t offer any cliches about time healing all wounds; instead he offered the belief that the raw pain will gradually soften:

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.

His heartfelt words echo these lines by writer Anne Lamott; words I turn to often:

‎You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly- that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.

How long does grief lasts? It lasts longer than you can imagine.  It lasts until the day comes when we’ve noticed we’ve gone a whole hour, a whole day without the heavy weight of grief around us; we notice that our lives have moved imperceptibly forward and while this sometimes makes us sad and we still yearn to have our loved ones with us, we learn to carry them with us always in our hearts as  treasured memories. Along the way there will be numerous set-backs, but with time these too will diminish. Grief is as individual as the person experiencing it. It is a process which neither you nor any well-meaning friends or family should rush you through; a process that requires compassion for yourself and for the process. Trust that in time you will heal from the pain of grief, but like a broken vase that has been painstakingly mended, if you look closely, you will see a tiny fracture, a thread vein of grief always present.