Joe Biden's History of Love and Loss and How His Late Son's Death Changed His Political Future
"Joe has tasted tragedy as well as triumph," his sister says
On Election Day, former Vice President Joe Biden had more on his mind than the presidency, which he went on to win.
On Tuesday morning last week, hours before the polls would close, Biden visited the cemetery where his late son, first wife and infant daughter are buried — tragedies that have shaped the trajectory of the president-elect's political career.
The deaths of Biden's wife Neilia and 13-month-old daughter Naomi, in a 1972 car crash that injured his sons as well, are foundational to his story as a lawmaker: The fatal wreck occurred after he had been elected the youngest-ever senator but before he was sworn in.
When Biden took his oath for the Senate on Jan. 5, 1973, he did so in front of a then 3-year-old Beau's hospital bed, as Beau recovered from his injuries.
Early in his time in the Senate, Biden, now 77, commuted back and forth to Delaware in order to be home with his sons: Hunter, whom he has called his "heart" and Beau, his "soul."
In a speech introducing his father at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where Biden formally won the vice-presidential nomination, Beau remembered his father's devotion in the years following the crash.
"As a single parent, he decided to be there to put us to bed, to be there when we woke from a bad dream, to make us breakfast, so he'd travel to and from Washington, four hours a day," Beau said.
Those experiences of love and loss transformed Biden and how he was perceived by the public.
"People don't care what you know until they know that you care. And because Joe has tasted tragedy as well as triumph, as he has walked the walk, people respond to him," Valerie Biden Owens, Biden's sister and longtime adviser, recently told PEOPLE. "And there's comfort in knowing that somebody else gets it."
In many ways, Vice President Biden's most recent presidential campaign was run in the shadow of Beau's death from brain cancer five years ago, at the age of 46.
Beau, who worked as an attorney and served as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard, was elected in 2006 as attorney general of Delaware. In 2009, his father was elected vice president, a position that saw him often turning to Beau for advice.
Ron Klain, who served as Biden's chief of staff, has said that Biden "looked to Beau for advice constantly and always called him when he had a decision to make."
Beau was on the path to continue a career in politics himself when, in 2013, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
In January, the former vice president alluded to Beau's political prospects being cut short, tearfully telling MSNBC's Morning Joe, "Beau should be the one running for president, not me."
Beau's death in May 2015 impacted his father's political path, with the elder Biden determining he could not run for president in the 2016 election while he and his family were still in the throes of grief.
“Look, dealing with the loss of Beau, any parent listening who’s lost a child, knows that you can’t — it doesn’t follow schedules of primaries and caucuses and contributors. Everybody grieves at a different pace," Biden said at the time.
Biden expounded upon his relationship with Beau in 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose.
The book’s title was inspired by a conversation between Biden and his son during their final Thanksgiving together, in 2014.
“Promise me, Dad," Beau told his dad, according to The New York Times. "Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right."
Biden's relationship with his other son, Hunter, has also played a role in the election, particularly as his rival, President Donald Trump, attempted to draw parallels between the Democratic nominee and Hunter's personal scandals and controversial business dealings.
Biden has dismissed the scrutiny on Hunter — which has included unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing as well as a rehashing of his addiction and other issues — as a political "smear campaign" mounted against their family.
Both father and son have talked openly about how Hunter has worked to heal.
"Hunter has been through some tough times," Biden said in a 2019 interview with CNN, "but he's fighting."
"Look, everybody faces pain,” Hunter once told The New Yorker. “Everybody has trauma. There’s addiction in every family. I was in that darkness. I was in that tunnel — it’s a never-ending tunnel. You don’t get rid of it. You figure out how to deal with it.”
Running again, for a third and at last successful bid for the presidency, Biden has recently suggested that Beau likely would have endorsed his campaign.
"You've got to find purpose," Biden told PEOPLE on the campaign trail while in Iowa in February. "Particularly a purpose that is consistent with what the person you've lost would want you to be doing."