Joe Biden's Healing Journey Through Grief

Learning from experience how to say goodbye, grieve and live on after great loss

Posted Aug 31, 2020

Photo by Amy Moore on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Amy Moore on Unsplash

“Loss is the price all of us have to pay for still being here. . . but if you’re not planning on losing any loved ones, these lessons don't apply to you.”

My students and I smile uneasily as grief counselor Isabel Stenzel Byrnes begins to teach us the art of saying goodbye. We sense the great sorrow and fear of losing loved ones lying deep in our hearts and minds. She invites us into a seemingly dark world with her belief that by embracing our mortality with full awareness we can learn to experience life in a deeper and more passionate way. Isabel assures us that if we can acknowledge that someday we may say goodbye to our loved ones we can cherish and love them deeper and remember them with gratitude more than with pain.

When Joe Biden received the nomination for president of the United States he told his story of loss, grief, and healing. In 1972, his wife Neilia and infant daughter Naomi were killed in a traffic crash that injured his two sons. In 2015, his son Beau died of brain cancer. In his speech, Biden addressed the families and friends of the 175,000 people who had already died of coronavirus.

"I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest—that you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes."

Many people know this feeling. The loss of a loved one can seem like the end of the world. Descending into the black hole he describes we feel completely lost and our faith in God and the possibility of a good life may be shattered.

Biden shared the wisdom he has gained through his experiences of loss and grief, saying that he has learned two things.

"First, your loved ones may have left this Earth but they never leave your heart. They will always be with you."

Suddenly, and for some people, forever, we are struck by the loss of the physical presence of the person. We cannot see, hear, or touch the person. But in the midst of this terrible emptiness, we may imagine that we do see or hear or feel the person for fleeting moments. Gradually we may notice that we really believe that the person is with us in some irrational way. The person lives in us, in a spiritual sense. We may feel their presence, always. Love keeps the person alive in our hearts.

Biden offered one more jewel of wisdom:

"And second, I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose. As God’s children, each of us has a purpose in our lives."

This message is echoed by many others who have faced crippling losses of loved ones. They turn their greatest sorrow into the joy of service. Accepting their loss as their cross to bear, they find purpose in their lives. This is one of the most amazing gifts of loss and grief—the discovery of purpose in one’s life. At the foundation of this belief is faith and trust in one’s destiny—that we all are created for a purpose. Letting go of how we want life to be, and answering our calling is the path through pain, loss, and grief. By learning grief, the meaning of our lives becomes bound to vital forces beyond our limited expectations and the borders of our own self.

We want to believe that we can find happiness by avoiding grief, being resilient, and recovering quickly from it. Contemporary societies leave little time and room for the mourning that we need. The challenge is facing grief without embracing grievances—to accept what we cannot change rather than continually crying out, “Why me?”

Isabel explains the grief process in her Tedx talk, “The Art of Saying Goodbye.” Biden’s way through grief is the way of many others coping with devastating losses. Finding purpose in the suffering and keeping the person alive in our hearts are essential elements of grieving.

She offers four more lessons:

Lesson one: We are more than our emotions and are capable of being mindful of our feelings, observing them like the ocean's waves, and not being paralyzed or overwhelmed by them. Go with the flow, trusting that we can be stronger than our sorrows.

Lesson two: Though we may wish it was clear and orderly, there is no right or wrong way to say goodbye, because dying is chaotic and illogical. Grief is an art, not a science and we make sense of what happened and find purpose in our own individual ways.

Lesson three: Saying goodbye is much easier when we do it collectively, in community healing rituals that assure survivors that when our time comes we won't be forgotten and that attachment extends way beyond the grave.

Lesson four: Art and music heal—when someone dies a burst of creativity is often born in us that can help us say goodbye. Writing allows people who are grieving to have a voice and find some power over their pain.

As Biden teaches from his personal experience, dealing with pain, loss, and grief can help to not become permanently stuck wallowing in sorrow. We can avoid the trap of grievance, in which we feel victimized and helpless. Finding purpose and experiencing our own pain enables us to be more compassionate of others' pain. Keeping others alive in our heart empowers us to feel their presence in our daily lives.

Well-intentioned people will silence us by telling us to "move on," "let go," or worse, "get over it." But truly saying goodbye means finding ways to acknowledge that people come and go in our lives, crossing our paths, and touching our hearts. Saying goodbye is learning what to hold onto and what to let go of. If you have ever lost a loved one, or someday live long enough to be left behind you too may find some grace in goodbyes.


The Art of Saying Goodbye: Isabel Stenzel Byrnes at TEDxStanford