Nearly 50 years after death of wife and daughter, empathy remains at Joe Biden's core

The president-elect has dealt with unthinkable family tragedies.

December 19, 2020, 6:00 AM

In November 1972, Joe Biden made headlines as the 29-year-old lawyer who pulled off an upset win against Sen. Caleb Boggs to represent Delaware in the Senate -- one of the youngest people ever elected to the body. But it was a different headline a month after the election that would forever change his life: "Biden's wife, child killed in car crash."

"I was down in Washington hiring staff and I got a phone call from a first responder. They put a pretty young woman on the phone. She was so nervous, she said, 'You gotta come home. There's been an accident. A tractor trailer hit your wife and your three children while they were shopping,'" Biden recalled at a campaign event in Newton, Iowa, last August.

"My wife was killed and my daughter was killed," he continued. "And my two boys, but for the jaws of life, and a rescue crew saving their life, would not have been around either."

Friday morning, on the 48th anniversary of the accident, the president-elect refrained from public events, instead visiting the graves of his late wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, at Brandywine Roman Catholic Church with his wife, Jill, near his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

PHOTO: Joe Biden, carries both of his sons, Joseph, left, and Robert during an appearance at the 1972 Democratic state convention with his wife Neilia Biden. Standing with the Bidens are Governor-elect Sherman W. Tribbitt and his wife, Jeanne.
Joe Biden, carries both of his sons, Joseph, left, and Robert during an appearance at the 1972 Democratic state convention with his wife Neilia Biden. Standing with the Bidens are Governor-elect Sherman W. Tribbitt and his wife, Jeanne.
AP

The anniversary comes, as it did in 1972, as Biden is preparing for a new role in public life -- this time the presidency. The role caps off a lifetime in politics that almost ended before it began. Biden had initially decided to stay in the Senate for only six months following his wife and daughter's deaths and in order to care for his injured sons.

Despite his initial unwillingness to serve, Biden remained in the Senate and public life, turning his grief into a way to connect with others through empathy -- a trait that has perhaps most defined his career.

"I think empathy is a critically important thing. It doesn't make it easier to talk about because you've been through it, but when you've been through it and you talk to people about it, they go, "OK, I know he or she understands, because they've been through it,'" Biden said Thursday during an interview on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."

Anecdotes of Biden's acts of empathy have drawn headlines over the years, with many resurfaced during his 2020 campaign. Just under a month before the election, a 2002 apology letter Biden sent to a woman -- after his office continued to send letters to her late husband -- went viral

"[T]hough I would never presume to know how you feel, I understand something of what it means to lose a spouse suddenly. For me, it went far beyond grief, to a kind of anger and guilt and sense of the world being turned upside down," Biden wrote in the letter, apologizing for "screwing up" and causing her pain.

"I often tell people who lose a loved one that the 'firsts' are always the hardest -- the first Christmas, the first birthday, the first anniversary. I know from my experience how little words can mean at such a time, but I know, as hard as it can be to believe, that time does heal," he continued.

PHOTO: President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, leave St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church after morning mass in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 18, 2020.
President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, leave St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church after morning mass in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 18, 2020.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, the then-vice president sent a memo to his staff urging them not to prioritize work over family obligations, saying if he found out that staffers were working instead of attending a family event, it would "disappoint [him] greatly." He noted prioritizing family time was "an unwritten rule since [his] days in the Senate."

"The way we all rationalize, 'I'd have to take the red eye back home for her birthday, but it really doesn't matter that much to my wife -- her birthday,' or, 'If I just make this business trip, I'll miss his last football game, but he'll understand.' It's just a bunch of malarkey. It's just not true," Biden said on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" in 2016.

"I don't want anybody in my staff feeling an obligation to do something for me when there's something that matters in the family," he said.

Biden almost did not make a third run for the White House, after suffering another personal tragedy as vice president, when his eldest son, Beau Biden, lost his battle with glioblastoma at the age of 46 in 2015.

PHOTO: Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Nelia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Del., Nov. 20, 1972.
Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Nelia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Del., Nov. 20, 1972.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The former vice president, who actively considered a run in 2016, ultimately decided against it, retreating from public life to pen his memoir, "Promise me, Dad," about the loss of his son.

"I wanted to give people hope that there is -- through purpose -- you can find your way through grief. And that's the purpose of the book," Biden said.

Biden's promise to his son to stay engaged even after his death led the former vice president to make his third attempt at the presidency against Donald Trump at 77 years old. Now, as Biden is just a month away from taking the oath of office, he is facing a country struggling, as COVID-19 continues to spread.

While speaking with Colbert, future first lady Jill Biden said she believed Biden's long-held empathy was part of his win.

PHOTO: Vice President Joe Biden talks with his son, U.S. Army Capt. Beau Biden at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad on July 4, 2009.
Vice President Joe Biden talks with his son, U.S. Army Capt. Beau Biden at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad on July 4, 2009.
Khalid Mohammed/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

"I think one of the reasons Joe was elected was because of his sense of empathy. I think people understand that he's had a lot of tragedy and loss in our family and he understands what they're going through," she said.

When asked Thursday by Colbert about his view of the presidency amid the "unaddressed grief" of the country, Biden returned to a message he has often shared with those looking for comfort after loss.

"The role of the presidency is to say, 'Grieve. There's a reason to grieve. You've had great loss," he said. "But there will come a time, remind yourself, just be reminded that the time will come when you'll think of your husband, wife, son, daughter, mom or dad, and you'll get a smile to your lips before you get a tear to your eye. That's how you know you're going to make it.'"

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