How the Biden Family's Tragic History Formed Their Deep, Intense Love for One Another
When former Vice President Joe Biden lost his wife and daughter in a sudden tragedy, it bonded him to his sons more than ever before
Their patriarch may be out of the White House, but the Biden family was in the headlines once again this week, with the announcement that former Vice President Joe Biden‘s son Hunter Biden is now dating Hallie Biden — the widow of Hunter’s brother Beau, who died in 2015.
Joe says that he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, support the coupling — as does Hallie’s father.
“We are all lucky that Hunter and Hallie found each other as they were putting their lives together again after such sadness,” Joe told the New York Post in a statement. “They have mine and Jill’s full and complete support and we are happy for them.”
At Beau’s funeral, Hunter spoke highly of Hallie, telling Beau and Hallie’s two children (one of whom is named Hunter) that she was more dedicated than anyone to Beau.
“Your mom is the most fiercely loyal and protective person I know,” he said. “She was more devoted to your daddy than anyone else in the world. She would do anything for him. And she did do everything for him.”
The news is just the latest chapter in the Biden family’s complicated story, which is dotted with almost unimaginable tragedy.
The latest heartbreak came when Beau, born Joseph Robinette Biden III in 1969, died in 2015 after battling brain cancer for less than two years. His death was recognized across the country, as his father was serving out his second term as vice president. Eventually, Joe attributed Beau’s death as one of the reasons he did not run for president himself in 2016, saying he wasn’t sure if he had the emotional strength to take on such a task.
But Beau’s cancer battle wasn’t the family’s first brush with tragedy. Back in 1972, he and his brother Hunter were seriously injured in a car accident that killed their mother, Neilia Biden, and 13-month-old sister, Naomi.
The tragic accident came just weeks after Biden won his Senate seat, which he’d go on to hold for 36 years.
On Dec. 18, 1972, Neilia and the couple’s three children were driving in their station wagon to go Christmas shopping when their car collided with a tractor-trailer in an intersection. Neilia and Naomi were killed, and Beau, who was four, and Hunter, just under three, sustained injuries of their own: Beau most notably several broken bones, including his leg which required a body cast, and Hunter, a fractured skull.
The accident had a profound effect on Joe, who was preparing to be sworn-in as the sixth-youngest senator in American history. He rarely left his sons’ hospital rooms, and was even sworn in at Beau’s bedside, as he was still in the hospital at the time. The Secretary of the Senate came in from Washington, D.C. to perform the swearing-in.
Internally, the future vice president was grappling with the intense emotional pain from the loss, as well as doubt in his faith.
“All my life I’d been taught about our benevolent God. This is a forgiving God, a just God, a God who knows people make mistakes,” he wrote in his book Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. “Well, I didn’t want to hear anything about a merciful God. No words, no prayer, no sermon gave me ease. I felt like God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry.”
He even debated giving up his elected role, but he was persuaded not to by Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader and a Senator from Montana. For the bulk of his first term, many doubted if Biden would last in the job. He commuted back and forth to Delaware on an Amtrak train every day, often missing nighttime events in Washington so he could tuck in his children at night.
“I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day,” he said while delivering the Yale commencement speech in 2015. “Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. And it all adds up.”
He also said he now realizes how much he needed to be close to his children during his time of grief.
“Looking back on it, the truth be told, the real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me,” he said. “Some at the time wrote and suggested that Biden can’t be a serious national figure. If he was, he’d stay in Washington more, attend to more important events. It s obvious he’s not serious. He goes home after the last vote. But I realized I didn’t miss a thing. Ambition is really important. You need it. And I certainly have never lacked in having ambition. But ambition without perspective can be a killer.”
His sons both made complete recoveries. Five years after Neilia’s death, Joe married again, to his current wife, Jill, in 1977. They welcomed daughter Ashley in 1981.
Despite his detractors, Joe excelled in the Senate, eventually launching a bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1987, which was ultimately thwarted after plagiarism accusations came to light.
But throughout his time in the spotlight, he never forgot about the fateful, tragic day that changed the course of his life forever. Decades later, he still does not work on Dec. 18, in honor of his late wife and daughter.
The family tragedy that threatened to destroy them, though, ended up bringing father and his two sons close together. Joe was home every night and every morning, was present for nearly every baseball game and regularly brought his sons with him to work at the Capitol.
“We did everything together,” Hunter said.
These shared experiences bonded not only Joe with his sons, but Beau and Hunter with each other.
It was a bond that lasted into adulthood. Beau followed his father’s path to politics, serving as Attorney General for seven years. Hunter served as his adviser.
Joe also told Popular Mechanics in 2016 that Hunter was the one who wrote his speeches.
“It sounds strange to say, but this is the brightest guy I know,” Joe said of Hunter, after Beau’s death. “Just like his brother. His brother never made a speech and I never made an important decision without consulting with the other two. We’ve been a team. I know that sounds strange to say as a father. But it’s been one unit. Right to the very end.”
It was perhaps the memory of the tragedy that the Biden family had already gone through that made Beau’s brain cancer diagnosis, which came in 2013 while he was serving in the Delaware Army National Guard and as the state’s Attorney General, all the more devastating. He died less than two years after the diagnosis came, on May 30, 2015.
It was fitting choice that Hunter gave one of the eulogies at his funeral, in their home state of Delaware. After directly addressing President Barack Obama, who also spoke, and his family members, Hunter began by recalling his first memory — waking up in the hospital after the accident that took their mother and sister’s lives.
“The first memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed next to my brother,” Hunter said. “I was almost three years old. I remember my brother who was one year and one day older than me, holding my hand, staring into my eyes, saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ over and over and over again.”
“And in the 42 years since, he never stopped holding my hand, he never stopped telling me just how much he loves me, but mine wasn’t the only hand Beau held. Beau’s was the hand everyone reached for in their time of need, Beau’s was the hand that was reaching for yours before you even had to ask.”
Joe and Hunter told Popular Mechanics how the trio’s intense bond got them through their darkest moments.
“Family comes first. Over everything,” Hunter said. “I can’t think of anything that has been more pervasive and played a larger part in my life than that simple lesson. He didn’t have to teach it by saying it. It was just in his actions.”
“He wasn’t just a good dad. He wasn’t just a great dad. I know a lot of great dads. And I know a lot of people that have great relationships with their father. He was — he is still — an extraordinary dad.”