Father of Sandy Hook Victim Says Joe Biden Has Helped Him Process Grief: 'Common Ground'
Mark Barden lost his son Daniel, 7, in the 2012 school shooting
Mark Barden's son, Daniel, was murdered in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In a guest article for PEOPLE, Barden opens up about his friendship with Joe Biden, who lost his wife, Neilia, and his daughter, Naomi, in a 1972 car accident and then lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. Here, Barden shares how he and President Biden have bonded over their shared experience of losing a child.
Over the last eight years, President Joe Biden has been a friend and constant source of support for me. From the first moment we spoke in the days after my 7-year-old son Daniel was gunned down with 19 of his first-grade classmates and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he quickly became "Joe" to me.
Many times over the years since Daniel's murder, my phone would ring and it would be Joe, just checking in. Today, with the universal background checks bill having passed the House — a bill he fought so hard for — I am writing about our friendship for the first time. I didn't ask him, but I'm sure he won't mind.
The president and I first met over the phone, in the very early days after the shooting. My wife Jackie was speaking to one of then-Vice President Joe's staffers about the hypocrisy of what she had recently gone through when trying to adopt a kitten for Daniel. He had asked for one for Christmas, so Jackie did the research around how to adopt from a shelter. She had to fill out a very comprehensive background check. After she cleared that, she had to do a detailed in-depth interview with the shelter. The next phase was to interview our neighbors to make sure we were okay people. Jackie pointed out to Biden's staffer that she had had to go through all that to bring a kitten into our home... but you could buy an AR-15 style rifle — the deadliest consumer product available — through a legal transfer in a parking lot without even giving the seller your name. The kitten arrived after Daniel was murdered.
The staffer was shocked.
Soon after, we got a call directly from Joe. Jackie spoke with him for 20 or 30 minutes. When it was my turn, I went downstairs for privacy. One thing I noticed right away was a very real and genuine sense that I was speaking with another dad who shared the same principles that I did. He was a man who had suffered his own grievous loss, when his wife and daughter were killed.
We were on common ground. And we covered a whole lot of very personal ground. I felt not only at ease, but very comforted. He was able to impart meaningful, useful tools to help me navigate my grief and to process it.
In fact, last weekend, I was singing some little song with Jackie that we used to sing with the kids. I said to her, "Do you remember Daniel joking with Natalie [our daughter] that 'they have a song for everything?'" Then I remembered something Joe shared with me: "You won't believe me now, but there will come a day and you will think about Daniel or a story about him — and a smile will come to your face before a tear comes to your eye."
It was impossible to believe him then, but it finally happened. He was right.
Joe also taught me this:
"Leave a notepad on your night table and use it to rank your day from worse to better on a 1 to 10 scale. In the beginning, most days will all be 1s, and then you'll start to get better days. The low days will always be low, but eventually, the low days will start to spread out."
He was right again.
In those first weeks and months, I didn't know if I could survive it. But I knew I had to continue to be the best dad and father I could be, just as he did. We share these personality traits. I really bonded with him in that conversation.
Joe Biden has always made time for my family and me. If he heard we were in D.C. meeting with politicians to ask for support of our gun violence prevention efforts, we would get a message, "The VP would like to say hello."
One of the most remarkable things he said to me in our early meetings was something totally contrary to what opponents of the background checks bill said. They claimed that we were "exploited by the Obama administration" to advance their agenda.
Instead, it was the opposite. The administration was responding to our horrific tragedy by taking action to ensure no other parents would feel our excruciating pain.
As always, he showed a genuine interest in our well-being. Joe said to me, "What are you doing here? Go home. Take care of yourselves. You should not be here." He was very serious. He said, "I did not have the strength to be advocating for seatbelt safety right after my wife and daughter died." We chose not to heed that advice and instead fought through the heartbreak.
One of the most amazing, out-of-the blue calls I got from him was in 2014. He was in the motorcade on the way to the State of the Union address. He said, "I've been thinking about you. I wish we [the Obama administration] were reporting that we could do more. I feel terrible that we haven't been able to get more done."
Today is the first time I've felt hopeful about universal background checks having a chance at passing Congress. I'm careful not to be too optimistic. I learned that the hard way. But I know, either way, Joe will be there. We're both in it for the long game: to end gun violence.
Mark Barden is co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, a gun violence prevention organization launched in honor of those who lost their lives in the 2012 elementary school shooting.
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