President-elect Joe Biden is “the most gothic figure in American politics.” He is “grief’s charismatic confessor,” “a kind of emissary of bereavement.” Grief is his “superpower” and “secret weapon”; through it, he has shown “that out of the darkness can come light.” He has “turned his tragedies into purpose.” He is a “grief-counselor-in-chief.” He makes people feel that “he understands the depth of their pain.” And in so doing, he “has the potential to change the public discourse on mourning.”
Or so say our country’s major organs of political and cultural commentary. At this point, Joe Biden’s story of “tragedy and triumph” has been unfolding in public for the better part of fifty years. As any summary of his political life is likely to note, the former vice president’s career is bookended by acute personal loss. Just over a month after his victory in Delaware’s 1972 senatorial election, his wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident while shopping for Christmas gifts; then, in 2015, during the final stretch of President Obama’s second term, Biden’s eldest son Beau died of brain cancer at the age of forty-six. It’s probable that these events would have cast a pall over his time in office even if he had declined to discuss them publicly, but Biden has been more than forthright about the depth of his suffering in interviews, speeches, and two ghost-written memoirs. (“I thought about what it would be like just to go to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and just jump off and end it all,” he said of the 1972 crash, in a CNN interview that aired last September.) In many ways, he has embraced his image as the grim reaper of Capitol Hill, delivering several dozen high-profile eulogies for politicians, academics, and private citizens alike. Death even tinges the jocular-sounding nickname “Amtrak Joe,” which began as a reference to the amount of time he spent commuting as a young widower in order to spend more time with his newly motherless boys.
Death is something much more abject than a lesson for the living.
These personal matters have not always mingled easily with matters of state. After Beau’s death and Biden’s subsequent decision not to run for president in 2016, he published Promise Me, Dad, part-grieving study, part-legacy burnishing, and part-teaser trailer for what would become his 2020 campaign. This combination occasionally leaves him at cross purposes; as Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times upon the book’s release, by “mixing in pages of his curriculum vitae with pages about grief,” Promise Me, Dad can feel “awkward and artless, much like the author himself.” But it’s more than a problem of form: to combine mourning and political maneuvering is always to tread the line of exploitation. The risk is compounded when the suffering in question is not your own. In recent years, there have been innumerable anecdotes about Biden’s propensity to make personal phone calls to fellow travelers in grief, whether colleagues or total strangers. He may even send them a letter of condolence on official Joe Biden letterhead. “Yesterday, your son Jason informed my press secretary that even though your husband passed away last fall, my office continues to send correspondence addressed to him,” Biden wrote to the widow of a constituent in 2002,
Mrs. Cooke, the only thing I can say is this, we screwed up and I sincerely apologize for causing you any additional pain. . . . even though I would never presume to know how you feel, I do understand something of what it means to lose a spouse suddenly. . . . And I know, with faith and family to help, that you will reach that day of healing, when you can remember your husband and smile, with joy for what he shared with you and for his enduring spirit.
Inevitably, much of this correspondence becomes public, whether immediately or, as in the case of the above, years after the fact. That’s no reason to doubt that Biden means what he says, and it’s obvious that these messages matter a great deal to many of their recipients. But questions of authenticity or intent are immaterial here: the gesture still transforms someone else’s pain into proof of Biden’s decency.
If Promise Me, Dad did not nail the landing, Biden’s message at last came to its full flowering in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. At no point in recent memory has grief been so widespread and yet so deliberately invisible: in May, the New York Times used its front page to mark a hundred thousand coronavirus dead, but the names and faces of its victims have since largely disappeared from our national newspapers while that number doubled and then some. Meanwhile, President Trump continued to insist that the disease “affects virtually nobody,” and a divided Congress failed to pass a subsequent relief package as employment continued to falter and food and housing insecurity mounted. In such a desert, even a droplet of recognizable human feeling might look like an oasis, and Biden turned his firehose to full blast. Cue the “empty chairs” ad: in late October, Biden’s team released a commercial in which the camera pans past seats vacated by those we’ve lost to Covid-19, at kitchen tables, corporate offices, school gymnasiums, and street corners. “Two hundred thousand deaths,” he intones over a somber piano melody. “We can’t let the numbers become statistics or background noise, just a blur that we see on the nightly news. Two hundred thousand moms, dads, sons, daughters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends, coworkers who are no longer with us.” Evidently, this was a winning message, and Biden made reference to it again in his victory speech a few weeks later, dedicating to grieving loved ones a reading from the Catholic hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.” By that time, the ranks of the dead had swelled by another thirty thousand.
Tears Don’t Dry on Their Own
The successful branding of Biden as death-whisperer is not just an accident of recent history, however. It depends on something much more durable: the persistence of certain cherished American myths about grieving. The idea that our suffering will be redeemed by an influx of patience and wisdom, a third eye attuned to those similarly afflicted in our midst, is a seductive one. Even as I write this, I am tempted to invoke my own experience as a font of moral authority—after all, my father died suddenly when I was nineteen, and surely that ought to count for something. What am I if not an expert witness, an emissary myself? In reality, disclosing this fact has often felt more like emitting an unpleasant odor than a beatific aura. Death is something much more abject than a lesson for the living, and we insult the dead and ourselves when we treat grief as just another rung on the ladder to self-actualization. It can generate solipsism and alienation as easily as empathy; it may compel us to consider our fundamental fragility, the burden of care we owe and are owed in turn, or it may convince us to seek blame in the wrong places and jealously guard the advantages we have left. In a society that leaves the grieving largely to their own devices, at the mercy of an inconsistently regulated funeral industry, emboldened creditors, and employers who are free to deny bereavement leave, it’s hard to see why the latter wouldn’t be the dominant response.
To the grief that compelled tens of millions of people into the streets to march for Black lives this summer, Biden has paid even more perfunctory lip service.
Further complicating the fantasy of enlightened grief is the problem of mournability—of whose death gets to count as tragedy and whose as merely unfortunate or even justified, collateral damage. “Not all losses are equal,” Biden himself said during a 2012 speech to military families who had lost loved ones in action, presumably referring not only to the pain of deaths that arrive artificially early but the special status accorded to those understood to have made a patriotic sacrifice. In the hierarchy of American grief, not all losses are equal, indeed. Many deaths are random, sudden, or in some way medically unpreventable; these tend to be of more interest to the political establishment, dispensing as they do with the specter of culpability. Many more deaths happen in slow-motion or are structurally produced, like the estimated forty-five thousand who die each year as a consequence of lacking health insurance; or the nearly two hundred thousand annual “deaths of despair,” encompassing suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths; or the 5,850 people who have been shot and killed by police in this country since 2015; or the tens of thousands who have died in prison since 2006—not taking into account the coronavirus, which has ravaged incarcerated people across the country at a disproportionate rate.
Categories like these most clearly test the limit of Biden’s vaunted powers of empathy. It’s true that health care was a major part of his 2020 pitch—“The fact of the matter is, health care is personal to me,” goes one campaign ad that begins with Biden being sworn into the Senate from his young sons’ hospital room and ends with Beau’s death some forty years later. (Conspicuously not included is the fact that Obama reportedly offered to loan the Bidens money when they were considering selling a house to help pay for Beau’s medical expenses.) And yet it’s been estimated that Biden’s own health care plan will leave more than twenty-two million uninsured. In his view, it is apparently more realistic to cure cancer than to create a health care system that is free at the point of use for all Americans.
The Lower Debths
To the grief that compelled tens of millions of people into the streets to march for Black lives this summer, Biden has paid even more perfunctory lip service. While his recorded message for George Floyd’s Houston funeral hit all the familiar notes—“To George’s family and friends—Jill and I know the deep hole in your hearts when you bury a piece of your soul deep in this Earth”—these sympathies quickly waned as law enforcement officers continued to kill Black men and the demands of protesters remained insistent despite the increasingly violent policing tactics used to subdue them. By the time Philadelphia’s Walter Wallace, Jr. was shot at fourteen times in front of his family while experiencing a mental health crisis last October, there were scarcely any platitudes to be found. In a joint statement released by Biden and Kamala Harris, “shock and grief” gave way almost immediately to a warning: “Looting is not a protest, it is a crime.” A day later, Biden told a reporter that “what I have to say is there is no excuse for the looting or the violence, none whatsoever.” The question had been what message he had for Philadelphia residents outraged about yet another Black man being shot by police. It’s hard to see how anyone in Biden’s intended audience could come away from this exchange feeling he had understood the depth of their pain.
Still, it is not the hypocrisy of his rhetoric that most rankles, but the lack of will to transform it into any kind of political action. Grief is universal, if not in its expression; it is also intimately connected to every issue that affects quality of life. In 2011, a group of researchers published findings in the American Journal of Public Health that suggested the number of deaths attributable to “social factors” like poverty and segregation each year are comparable to the number of deaths caused by accidents and heart disease. Our current crisis is hardly equitably distributed: Black and Latino people are nearly three times as likely to die of Covid-19 as white people; Native Americans, more than 2.5 times. Lower household income is also linked to increased grief-related mental health problems. And yet we are rarely told that grief can be materially mitigated. It is something to be overcome.
I don’t begrudge Biden his pretty words—to hear them from people who had also lost a parent in the days after my father’s death quieted the matter-of-fact voice in my head insisting that my life was over. But of much more help were the quarts of soup friends packed into my freezer; the grants that continued to fund my education; the on-campus job that allowed me to cry surreptitiously in the basement without fear of reprisal. What a difference it would make for such lifelines to be guaranteed rather than contingent. What a difference humane health care and addiction policies might have made for my dad. Ultimately, Joe Biden’s ballyhooed powers of grief amount to no more than what we are all capable of doing for one another: recognizing and witnessing each other’s suffering. We should ask for much more from our elected officials—it’s their task to try to prevent it, whether they share in our experiences or not.