While accepting the Democratic nomination for President last night during the Democratic National Convention, former Vice President Joe Biden broke form. Instead of offering the hopeful look forward that Barack Obama was best known for, Biden refused to be optimistic. He acknowledged that Americans are experiencing “a perfect storm” of four historic crises: the worst pandemic in over 100 years, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an urgent call for racial justice, and the terrifying threat of climate change.
At times meandering, it was an all-encompassing, emotional, apocalyptic address in which he unambiguously sounded an alarm. He outlined his vision of the country as one that is “selfless and humble” rather than full of “hate and division.” He talked about the need to restore the economy and root out systemic racism, and he talked about his dad, who taught him about dignity and respect. But Biden devoted the heart of his speech to the collective grief the country is experiencing due to COVID, police violence, economic devastation, and a self-interested, gratuitously cruel government.
“I know how it feels to lose someone you love,” Biden said. “I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it.”
Biden really does know. His life has been defined by two tragedies: In 1972, his wife and baby daughter died in a car accident. In 2015, his son Beau Biden — who had survived the same crash — died of brain cancer in his 40s. A lot has been reported on the monumental ways in which these losses have influenced his life and who he is as a person — like opting out of a presidential run in 2016 — and on how he has, over the years, become what The New York Times called an “emissary of grief.” Biden reportedly owns an overstuffed binder “with remarks, notes, and drafts of eulogies [he] had given through 2008 — for childhood friends, prominent senators, his own father.” Some of his most memorable appearances have been made as a response to collective grief, including his surprise 2015 visit to the congregation of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, in the days following the mass shooting at the hands of a white supremacist.
Psychotherapists tell us that acknowledging our grief and sitting with it are important steps to healing. Part of the process of mourning is accepting the reality of the loss, and the time-tested advice for adapting to a significant loss is to let yourself feel the pain and all of the other emotions that come with it, and to be patient with yourself. Grief takes on many manifestations and can be lifelong, and the goal is not to get rid of it but to temper its intensity so that you can live your life. Biden’s lifelong personal wrestling with the depths of grief shows that he understands this: It’s why he described our multiple crises, and how they have affected millions of people emotionally, in a stark, unflappably honest way in his virtual DNC address. When Biden speaks about grief, it comes from experience, which is why many people have attested that they feel he understands the depth of their pain.
During the pandemic, Biden has made several public appearances in which he helped people mourn, including a video marking 100,000 deaths from coronavirus and a Memorial Day address to veterans that he delivered wearing a black mask. In June, he met with the family of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was brutally killed by a police officer over a counterfeit $20 bill, and recorded a video for Floyd’s funeral service. In the DNC speech, Biden recalled meeting with six-year-old Gianna Floyd a day before her father George was laid to rest. “When I leaned down to speak with her, she looked into my eyes and said, ‘Daddy changed the world,’” Biden said. “Her words burrowed deep into my heart.”
With this, Biden recognized the transformational quality of grief. “I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose,” he said, urging America to find its purpose and “be a light to the world once again.”
These are not happy words; but they are comforting words. Not all see Biden as the safe figure the Democratic establishment sees him as, and there is much to criticize about his decades-long record when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable. But even those who didn’t support him in the primary recognize his propensity for understanding grief.
Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, wrote a Twitter thread in June that started with, “In NY’s primary, I didn’t vote for Biden.” She wrote that she met Biden at a gathering of political organizers and couldn’t resist getting a photo with him for her grandmother, a huge fan. To Litman’s delight, Biden then picked up the phone and called “Grammy.” Grammy told him that one of her daughters, Litman’s aunt, had advanced colon cancer. Biden comforted her: "I promise you. I'm going to do everything I can to help you," and then gave Litman his personal phone number. “I'll come to the hospital and sit with you. Anything," he said. After Litman’s aunt died, Biden sent Grammy a heartfelt condolence letter.
“Part of rebuilding the country after Trump will be politics and policies — but just as big a job will be refinding our nation's emotional stability, or what the VP calls our ‘soul,’” Litman wrote. “We're all going through trauma. Our next president needs to be the one helping us heal.” The morning after Biden’s DNC speech, Litman told Refinery29 that she believes it was the right speech for this time. “He wouldn’t have been able to give a speech like that in a crowded convention hall — but if we were able to have a crowded convention hall, he wouldn’t have had to. It was a powerful moment of form meeting content.” That’s the synergy of Biden’s experience with grief: It comes out of tragedy, and from a place of necessity. But acknowledging all the ways grief hurts is the first step to addressing the issues at the root of our pain.