How Coping with Grief Shaped Presidential Hopeful Joe Biden: 'You've Got to Find Purpose'

"The things that have given me solace and help, I try to pass on," Joe Biden said

former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del
Former Vice President Joe Biden on June 30, 2020. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

Joe Biden is, unfortunately, all too familiar with loss.

The 77-year-old seasoned politician never intended grief to become one of the defining factors of his career. However, constituents, from his days as a senator to his two terms as vice president, have connected with the man from his dealings with personal tragedies.

About a month after winning his first Senate race in 1972, Biden — 30 at the time — received a phone call telling him his wife Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash en route to go Christmas tree shopping. Their two sons, Beau and Hunter, 4 and 3 at the time, survived the accident and sustained serious injuries.

Decades later, Beau would lose his battle with brain cancer in May 2015 at age 46. The death of his son impacted Biden's decision to run for president in 2016, ultimately opting against a campaign while his family grieved, but he reminds himself to move forward with dedication to honor those he's lost.

"You've got to find purpose — particularly a purpose that is consistent with what the person you've lost would want you to be doing," he told PEOPLE on the campaign trail while in Iowa in February, just before his experiences with grief would become even more relevant to the thousands of Americans killed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Biden said heartbreak never fully fades away, but he's found ways to funnel what he's endured to guide others going through similar situations, though he notes no two mourners grieve the same way. "The things that have given me solace and help, I try to pass on," he explained.

"Part of going through it publicly is ... it puts you in a position where you either are going to walk away from trying to give hope and comfort to somebody ... or you engage it and it's hard," he said.

"But at least you get satisfaction, in my case at least, from knowing that that's what my deceased wife would have wanted me to do; that's what my son would want me to do," added Biden. "What I find is that I think the worst thing I can do is when someone confides in me, and I can feel the pain, to just sort of say, 'Well, it's going to be okay,' and move on."

In 1977, Biden wed second wife Jill, with whom he welcomed a daughter four years later. Now hoping to campaign his way back into the White House, this time with his name the lead on the ballot, Biden has been eyeing a way to impart his life experiences at the highest office possible.

"I think that when people know, like I tell people when you go through a serious, serious loss, there will come a time when you won't believe it," he shared. "But when the memory flashes across your mind that the person you adored is gone — you smell that particular flower, you pass a particular field, you get into a car and you see the profile of a woman or a man who looked like your son, daughter, husband, wife — when that thought comes, you first get a smile before a tear to your eye."

"It takes a long time," Biden continued. "When it happens, you know you're going to make it."

Make it he has, with a backstory that's resonated with voters and revealed a very human side of a candidate in a race in which decency often seems to be put on the back burner.

In a year marked by loss due to the pandemic, the former VP's story is almost tailor-made for the moment. Still, he's been hesitant to discuss his own grief with some reporters, wary of feeding the narrative that he's using his story to advance his political prospects.

But he's still connected with others who have faced loss, calling those who have lost loved ones to offer condolences and advice.

As time goes on, Biden said, grief becomes easier to manage. He's learned techniques to cope, including one gleaned from former New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes.

Hughes, whose wife died of an aneurysm, called Biden after the fatal accident to offer advice and a listening ear.

According to Biden, Hughes gave him "the best advice at the time," by recommending he keep a chart on which he would mark how he rated his day, from one to 10.

"If you had a kind of day that was a perfect day ... you'd put a dot on that day as a 10, and if it was the worst, like .... when you heard the news, you put it as one," Biden said. "And [Hughes] said, 'Don't look at it for three or four months, but every night go to bed and mark it with a piece of graph paper,' which I did."

"And he said, 'What you're going to find out is the down days get ... further and further and further apart," Biden continued. " 'That's when you know you're going to make it.' And so I know."

Updated by
Virginia Chamlee

Politics Writer - PEOPLE

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