We need another language to describe the pain of losing a child, because the words we use — “It’s unnatural,” “No parent should live longer than her son,” “What a tragedy” — don’t convey the full weight or nature of that suffering.
When you look at the faces of those who have experienced the death of a son or daughter, you realize even years later that they are not completely whole. Living without part of your heart, walking on half a limb and navigating the light with a constant shadow, it is the deepest of all sorrows.
I’ve seen that up close, when my brother died. Overnight my mother became an old woman, with the life siphoned out of her, leaving just enough to function for the rest of us who remained behind.
That’s why I shuddered when I heard that Beau Biden had succumbed to brain cancer over the weekend. I know what his family is experiencing, as do so many other Americans, but we were fortunate enough to weather our grief in private. Vice President Biden, his wife Jill, their remaining son and daughter, and Beau’s wife and children have to share their loss with the nation.
But that has been the story in the Biden family for more than four decades. Joe Biden entered the public consciousness in a crucible of suffering. Before he’d taken the oath of office as Delaware’s junior senator in 1971, his first wife and baby daughter had been killed in a car accident, a tragic event that injured Beau and his younger brother.
There is a famous picture of Joe Biden being sworn in while, at the outer edges of the frame, a toddler Beau lies sprawled in his hospital bed. It is heartbreaking, especially now.
This vice president has reached lofty professional heights, and stands at the threshold of the highest public office. He’s angered some, inspired others, charmed many and frustrated an equal amount. But this is all politics.
In his primary vocation, fatherhood, Joe Biden has been nothing less than sublime. He so loved his family that he’d take Amtrak home every night from D.C. to Wilmington, Del., so he could be there to tuck his motherless boys into bed. Imagine that commute, and the sadness that accompanied him on the rails. Those boys became his light and purpose, and he didn’t once abdicate his obligation to them.
I have known some great fathers and some very bad ones. I would have to rate Joe Biden among the greatest and most honorable, to the extent that he put country and professional duty behind his devotion and debt to two sad little boys.
We are always so quick to color our opinions of people based on their political positions and the way they view the visible, practical world. These things are important in elections and good governance, but they are irrelevant to the fundamental call and pull of family.
I do not share much of what Biden believes politically. But I stand in awe of this devoted father of an orphaned 3-year-old, and of his ability to place human concerns above the blinding glitter of professional accomplishment and glory.
My prayers are with him for strength. But he’s shown, by his acts, that he doesn’t need them. His character, like his love, was forged like steel, through more fire than anyone should have to suffer in a lifetime.
God give him peace.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.