I’m kind of obsessed with Joe Biden – he’s current Vice President of the United States of America (figured I’d clarify, because Jimmy Fallon’s pedestrian interviews suggest it’s a little-known fact among the American people). And no, I’m not obsessed in some creepy, stalkerish sort of way. I’m obsessed because his words – the words of Joe Biden – on grief, have spoken to me.
His words play in my mind, sometimes multiple times per day, because they’re so beautiful. The irony of that statement isn’t lost on me. I am aware Joe Biden isn’t known for his eloquence – he’s made plenty of public gaffes, jeopardizing a campaign, or two, in his time. Others sometimes rush to apologize on his behalf. Everyone, regardless of political leaning, I think, agrees.
Before I continue, I want to point out that I’m not currently following the news, so if Joe Biden said or did anything stupid lately, and here I am singing his praises, don’t be offended – just write me off as that stupid girl on the internet who’s “so uninformed”. In the meantime, I’ll beat myself up over not doing my homework.
But no piece of current news would change two things: 1) Joe Biden’s words have spoken to me, 2) Joe Biden knows loss.
In the moments after Matthew died, I experienced intense feelings of desperation unlike anything I’d ever known. I almost cannot even describe these feelings – there’s only a few things I can even articulate about them…
First, the emotional pain was so extreme, I remember almost no physical pain associated with my recovery. I began refusing morphine and narcotics within hours after waking up from surgery, just so I could leave the hospital as quickly as possible. And, it was no problem, because my emotional turmoil so heavily blunted my physical pain. Additionally, I experienced other physical side effects like blood pressure drops, episodes of violent shaking, heart palpitations, and fainting spells.
In those moments I honestly believed I wouldn’t survive. I didn’t know how I would die, and I made no plans to die, but I believed, with conviction, something would just take me in the night. Surely, I thought, I’d just go to sleep one night and never wake up. But each morning I’d wake up, surprised I’d lived to see another day. And then, the shock of it all would hit me again.
I fervently longed to know how one could “make it” through something so awful. Intellectually, I knew so many others had walked the path before – I wasn’t so naïve to think I’d been the first to experience tragedy. But I could not fathom how it was possible. If nothing would take me in the night, I needed to learn how I might get through it.
So I spent every waking moment scouring the internet searching for stories – stories of loss. And, at the time, as strange and disturbing as it sounds now, I was looking for stories of loss I perceived to be even greater and more traumatic than my own.
“It’s normal and called ‘comparative grieving’,” my ex-therapist told me.
Spewing textbook soundbites, preferably during one of my violent sobbing spells, was just one of her many talents.
I’ve since come to realize that losses are difficult to compare. When one intensely grieves a loss, it is likely the worst thing he or she has experienced, because he or she is grieving said loss from a place of deep love. And no matter the nature of the loss, the paralyzing truth – the truth that rocks me to my core each day – is that, most always, there stands a chance of losing even more. This truth does not, however, negate the pain of the present loss – the realization of a worst nightmare.
Though, it’s only human to make the obvious comparisons – like losing two family members would be even worse than losing one. So, in my darkest moments, I thought, if I could find someone who had survived something definitively more tragic than I (i.e. losing more than one family member), then maybe it’d be proof I could survive too.
Through all my internet searches, I stumbled upon Joe Biden’s story. I vaguely remembered it once I started reading… Many years ago, at just 29 years old, Biden lost his first wife and his 13-month-old daughter on the same day – from injuries sustained in an automobile accident, as they returned home from a day of Christmas shopping. And, just recently, Biden also lost his adult son, Beau, to brain cancer.
If Biden’s story doesn’t illustrate the brutality and unfairness in the world, I don’t know what does. So, naturally, I became curious as to whether Biden had ever spoken on the topic of grief.
After some more searching, I located a YouTube video of Joe Biden speaking to a group of family members of fallen soldiers at a 2012 seminar for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
I played the video, and it didn’t take long for my tears to start flowing – it felt like Biden was speaking directly to me.
“For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, but because they had been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again,” Biden explained.
I’d tried to articulate some iteration of these words in those earliest of days, but never once had I been able to put it like this – so succinctly. The mountain metaphor so perfectly described everything I’d tried to express.
Before Matthew died, life felt as close to perfect as it could be – we were so happy. After losing Matthew, I just knew it would never be that good, ever again – we’d reached the summit. And we didn’t enjoy the summit to its fullest, because we didn’t even know we’d summited. Then, in an instant, it was over before we’d even processed it was ending. It’s a miserable place to be – to believe your best moments in life are behind, not ahead of, you.
And not only had we crossed over that summit, starting our downward slide to the foot of the mountain, but those magical memories of our time with Matthew – they’d be forever jaded by our horror over what had happened. Never would we be able to look back at those magical seven and a half months and smile at the beauty of it all. Because now we know how the fairytale turned into the nightmare.
And the most heart breaking part of all of it is that Matthew deserves better – he deserves the smiles before the tears – as gratitude for the immense joy he brought into our lives. But because we know how the story ends, we can’t give him those smiles – at least not right now.
But Biden went on to explain, “There will come a day, I promise you…when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”
At this notion, I sobbed uncontrollably – I wanted, and still want, so badly for this to be true.
But I’m still struggling… Not only does my knowledge of our story’s ending prevent me from happily remembering our time with Matthew, it also prevents me from happily remembering much of anything. I cringe at the sight of our wedding pictures – pictures of that happy, smiling couple, naïve to the horror awaiting them. I cry because I know what’s in store for that couple – I know how the story ends.
All I can do now is pray it isn’t the end – that after the storm, there could be a rainbow, and a pot of gold, though the storm is too tumultuous to ever forget. And we wouldn’t want to forget either…
So I hope, with everything I have, that Joe Biden is correct in all this. I want so badly to someday remember Matthew with a smile first, because that’s what he deserves.
Mark cautions me it might not be possible. Or, he says, the tears will follow the smile so quickly we won’t be able to distinguish the happiness from the sorrow. He believes we’ll forever be too severed by the sharp knife of Matthew’s short life (thank you, The Band Perry) to remember him with a smile first.
Mark could be correct, but for now, I’m going to cling to Joe Biden’s words that suggest we’ll someday remember Matthew with a smile first – though we’ll never remember him without experiencing some degree of sadness. Biden’s child was young too, and, in theory, he knows a thing or two about grief.
There was more to Biden’s speech… He provided some insight as to how he got through it. But, although he got through it, he also acknowledged, sometimes, a memory will bring him right back to the intense pain of that day – the day that changed his world forever.
Biden explained he grieves the loss of his loved ones each day, but he also alluded to finding happiness with his current wife, Jill, his children (Beau was still alive at the time), a fulfilling career, and helping others. He’s still here too – there was reason for him to stick around.
To be clear, I’m sure his feelings are far more complicated than I’m explaining – I’m fairly certain I am over simplifying… So I want to go to lunch with Joe Biden – just to have a conversation with him about life, love, and loss, and to explain to him just how much his words have impacted me.
“There will come a day, I promise you…when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.” -Joe Biden