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Griever-in-Chief

I knew I would cry tonight.

It’s been a long four years, we just elected the first woman to the vice presidency, and, like most people, I haven’t slept much this week.

What I didn’t expect was which moment would send me into heaving, uncontrollable sobs. It was when President-Elect Joe Biden, who’d been looking over his shoulder for his family to join him onstage the minute he finished his speech, peered up at the fireworks, holding his grandson Beau, with a smile full of wonder. The purity of his happiness broke a dam in me.

Here’s the deal. I lost my husband, Chris, on June 17, 2012. And while many, many individuals and writers and works of art have helped me through my grief, my North Star was Joe Biden.

As everyone knows, he lost his first wife, Neilia, and his infant daughter, Naomi, a week before Christmas 1972. An unfathomable loss, and, as another father who lost a child once told me, no one who has suffered that kind of loss would be blamed for retreating into darkness forever.

But Joe didn’t. Instead, he devoted his life to public service. And throughout his career, he tapped into his deep well of empathy and spoke movingly of his grief. Just a week before my husband died, Biden gave this speech to surviving families of fallen troops. Once I discovered it, I watched it over and over, sometimes crumpled in my bed, sometimes surreptitiously at work, with headphones, when I needed it. Here is my favorite passage:

Just when you think, maybe I’m going to make it, you’re riding down the road 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. And you know, you think, maybe I’m not going to make it. Because you feel, at that moment, like the day you got the news. …. You’ll find that your down days are just as bad as that first day. But here’s what happens: they get further and further apart. That’s when you know you’re going to make it.

I wish I could convey just how much those words were a beacon to me. The concept that grief is not linear was at first appalling and later soothing. Yes, time is a tremendous factor—five years out, I definitely turned a corner. But I still came home one day around our wedding anniversary this year and did that sliding-down-the-door-crying thing you usually only see in movies. That there will be good days and bad days but the bad days will become more rare—that notion has powered me through some truly dark nights of the soul.

Then in 2015, Biden lost Beau. I wept with him, as so many did. Just a few months later, he gave an astonishingly raw interview to Stephen Colbert (who has also suffered tremendous tragedy). The two men talked openly about grief and resilience and faith. I was utterly heartbroken to learn that the primary reason Biden, at 72, decided not to seek the Democratic nomination for 2016 was that he felt his grief was too “overwhelming” to focus on a tough campaign:

Look, I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless … they can look at the folks out there and say, ‘I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this.’ And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.

The humility of this man. It all felt so incredibly UNFAIR.

I may have been projecting; around that same time, I had emerged from heavy sadness and settled into an angry phase. I particularly did not understand why, after losing the love of my life, I now had to suffer the indignity of dating apps. I thought (and my well-meaning friends validated me) that it was only FAIR that a single version of John Legend should simply appear on my doorstep.

“I mean, I deserve that,” I huffed to my therapist.

“Absolutely, you deserve it,” she nodded. “But that doesn't mean you'll get it.”

Oh, man that was some tough love. I needed it. And it turned out to be a cornerstone of reimagining my life, learning to practice gratitude, and finally, finally—even in terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2020—being happier than I ever thought I would be again. 

So back to tonight.

I certainly wouldn't be the first person to point out what a gift it will be to our country to have a leader who understands grief in a year when we have lost 230,000 Americans. But I have to be honest: When I watched Biden onstage with his living children, basking in so much love and affection, I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was thinking about me and Joe.

I was thinking about my overwhelming gratitude for how much he has comforted me. Of all those nights I watched clips of him on YouTube and thought, "If Joe could survive, so can I."

And I was thinking that Joe Biden just got what he deserves.

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