President Obama will deliver the eulogy at the Saturday funeral mass
Credit: Shawn Thew/EPA/Landov

Former Sen. Ted Kaufman’s voice breaks as he tries to imagine his lifelong friend, Vice President Joe Biden, burying his beloved eldest child, Beau.

“Joe knows grief better than anything and this is going to be very, very difficult,” Kaufman tells PEOPLE, pausing to contemplate how his friend will make it through. Finally, he finally answers quietly: “Prayer.”

The vice president is not expected to speak at any of the funeral services that begin on Thursday – with Beau lying in honor at Delaware’s Legislative Hall that afternoon, followed by a Friday viewing and Saturday Mass.

Instead, Biden asked President Obama, with whom the entire Biden family is especially close, to eulogize Beau and offer some public words of comfort to his wife, Hallie, and children Natalie, 11, and Hunter, 9. (The president and First Lady Michelle Obama called on the Biden family at their home on Sunday afternoon, just hours after Beau succumbed to brain cancer at age 46.)

In emotional interviews for the new issue of PEOPLE, Kaufman and several others close to the Bidens, worried over how the vice president, so sadly schooled in tragedy and loss, could possibly be bearing up.

They remembered how shattered Biden was after a Christmastime 1972 car crash killed his wife and baby daughter; how he sat vigil at the hospital bedsides of his two little boys – Beau was just 3; brother Hunter was 2 – who survived the wreck.

Biden has said of those dark days, “By focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.”

Now, says Delaware Congressman John Carney, a longtime family friend, “the thought of how the vice president has to be struggling with this is horrific.”

“Everyone who knows the family doesn’t understand why this family has faced such terrible burdens,” says Sonia Sloan, a friend since 1970.

Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff at the White House, says father and son had a special connection. “The vice president looked to Beau for advice constantly and the advice-giving was a two-way street. Beau was someone whose judgment the vice president very much respected. And he was always someone the vice president would call when he had a decision to make.”

“There’s a big hole,” says Sloan, in tears. “I weep for them.”

Margaret Aitken, who had known Beau since they were both 14 and later served as press secretary to Joe Biden, says he and his family – including Dr. Jill Biden, whom he married in 1977, and Ashley, the daughter they had four years later – will lean on each other. “That family is very close.”

And, says Kaufman, can count on Biden, a staunch Irish Catholic, to turn quietly, fiercely to prayer.

“He has a rosary with him all the time and he uses it,” says Kaufman. “He’ll never do it in front of people, though. Faith, family and character are what has enabled him to survive these incredible tragedies.”

And while Biden has taught others who are grieving that someday, the memory of their loved one lost will sooner bring a smile to their face than a tear to their eye, Kaufman suggests his friend’s faith in this will be tested now.

“Joe says, ‘Someday, someday.’ But someday is a long time.”

With reporting by SARA HAMMEL and SUSAN KEATING