Friends Remember Beau Biden After His Death at 46: It Was a 'Complete and Utter Shock'

Beau has "gone through a tough battle and so has his family. It's a tragic ending," says Biden family friend, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper

Photo: Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty

Beau Biden’s loved ones are still in shock after he died at 46 over the weekend following a battle with brain cancer.

Friends and family remember the former Delaware attorney general and oldest son of Vice President Joe Biden as kind, smart and loyal; a loving son, brother, husband and father. He was also “very private,” recalls Margaret Aitken, who served as the vice president’s press secretary for 10 years – which could explain why even people who were very close to Beau had no idea he was dying.

“It was very typical of Beau, if he wasn’t feeling well, to not complain or say very much,” Aitken, who had known Beau since they were both 14, tells PEOPLE. “The family is very close so they rely on each other for what they need.”

Beau’s passing was “a complete and utter shock,” Delaware Congressman John Carney, a longtime Biden family friend and political ally, tells PEOPLE. “We knew something was wrong … he had this procedure [the removal of a small brain lesion in 2013], but I don’t think anyone, in their greatest fears, thought this was even a possibility The thought of how the vice president has to be struggling with this, is horrific.”

Beau was hospitalized in May at Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., as he fought the cancer, but Joe kept his son’s diagnosis and deteriorating health private – confined to a tight circle of family and close confidants – in the final weeks of his life.

The vice president announced the sad news Saturday night in a statement issued on behalf of his son’s stepmother Jill Biden, Beau’s wife Hallie, and his siblings Hunter and Ashley. Publicly disclosing Beau’s cancer for the first time, Joe wrote, “It is with broken hearts that Hallie, Hunter, Ashley, Jill and I announce the passing of our husband, brother and son, Beau, after he battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life.”

Professionally, Beau showed no sign of slowing down before his death. Over the last several months, he had been growing his role at the law firm where he worked, Grant & Eisenhofer, and forging ahead with his plans to run for governor of Delaware in 2016, several friends tell PEOPLE.

“I spoke with Beau a couple months ago,” says Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. “I called him to see if he wanted to join me in Washington for a meeting with other [Democrats]. We all expected he was going to run for governor this year.”

Though Beau couldn’t make the meeting, his presence was still felt, says Markell. “When I got back and told him that people were excited about his candidacy, he was appreciative of the contact.

“That was the last conversation I had with him.”

The father of two was a rising star not just in politics, but at his law firm, where he was expanding his work on behalf of whistleblower clients, according to the Washington Post.

Stuart Grant, the managing director at the firm, told the News Journal in early May, “We’re really excited for Beau to grow his work in the whistleblower group. It’s a natural continuation of what he did as attorney general, and is something he’s already been working on since he joined the firm in January.”

The new work “doesn’t change anything for him politically,” he added. “He will make an excellent governor.”

Grant released the following statement to PEOPLE after Beau’s death: “All of us at G&E are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and colleague Beau Biden. Our thoughts and prayers are with Hallie, [daughter] Natalie, [son] Hunter, Joe, Jill, Hunter and Ashley. We not only feel the loss personally but the entire state of Delaware has lost one of its greatest public servants.”

“His future seemed to know no bounds,” wrote Delaware Sen. Tom Carper in a heartfelt Facebook post following Beau’s death.

“He’s gone through a tough battle and so has his family. It’s a tragic ending,” Carper, a longtime Biden family friend, tells PEOPLE. “At least he has no pain.”

This is not the first time tragedy has touched the Biden family. Many friends spoke to PEOPLE of the unimaginable losses Beau’s father, Joe, has endured in his lifetime. His first wife and infant daughter were killed in car crash at Christmas in 1972. The accident also left his two sons, Beau and Hunter, badly injured. At the time, a grief-stricken Joe considered abandoning the Delaware Senate seat he had just won, CNN reports. But instead of succumbing to his sorrow, he kept the seat, and was famously photographed being sworn into the chamber in his sons’ hospital room.

“It’s obviously impossible not to be overwhelmed by the tragedy the vice president has had to endure in his life – to lose his first wife and daughter, and now a second child,” says Joe’s former chief of staff Ron Klain. “I think as a parent, it’s something you can’t imagine.”

Joe’s personal heartache has shaped his political career and inspired him to help others who have experienced the death of a loved one, including military families.

In an emotional address to some of those families in 2012, Joe said, “There will come a day, I promise you, and you 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. It will happen.”

“He believes that,” Aitken says in reference to the speech. “And I pray he’s right, that someday the thought of Beau will bring a smile to his face before a tear to his eye.

“Beau was an extraordinary man,” she adds. “Whether his name was Biden or not – he would be been a giant if his name was Beau Smith. It’s tragic for all of us who loved him, but it’s a tragedy for everyone.”

Reporting by SARA HAMMEL

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