politics

"How do you make a broken family whole?" The story of Joe Biden's quiet personal tragedies.

This week, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

The former vice president was declared the winner of the election in November, after days of vote counting and uncertainty. 

As Biden prepares to relieve President Donald Trump of his role after just one term, the 78-year-old has stated his intention to overturn a number of Trump laws (the 'Muslim ban', the transgender military ban and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, to name a few) and will implement a number of swift responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The promised policy changes have been a consistent line throughout Biden's campaign. And so has his experience with grief and hardship.

Before his campaign for the presidency, many of us knew the 78-year-old as Barack Obama's friendly sidekick. But in private, Biden's life has been full of tragedy.

Then-US President Barack Obama with Joe Biden in 2017. Image: Getty.  

The loss of Joe Biden's first wife and their daughter.

Joe Biden was still a law student when he married Neilia Hunter in 1966. Together they had three children: Beau, Robert (Hunter) and Naomi.

In 1972, he won the US Senate election in Delaware, despite seemingly having no chance of winning. It was his biggest professional success so far, and his beautiful young family were thought to have attracted voters.

But just weeks later, while his wife was purchasing a Christmas tree with their children, she was killed in a car accident, along with their youngest child, one-year-old Naomi.

Joe and Neilia Biden with sons Hunter and Beau. Image: Getty.

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Biden's two other children were also in the car, and while they were seriously injured, they survived.

Writing about the accident in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep, Biden shared, "Well, I didn't want to hear anything about a merciful God. No words, no prayer, no sermon gave me ease. I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry."

Watch: Joe Biden speaks about the death of his wife and daughter. Post continues below.


Video via ABC News.

The politician wanted to resign from his position, but was convinced to stay, and was sworn in less than a month later.

While his political career advanced, he says he struggled profoundly with grief and anger. "I liked to [walk around seedy neighbourhoods] at night when I thought there was a better chance of finding a fight... I had not known I was capable of such rage," he said.

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Despite his grief, Biden put all his energy into raising his two young sons.

"Many people have gone through things like that," he said in a speech at Yale University in 2015.

"But because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, ground in love and loyalty, imbued by a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help, but, by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption."

Biden commuted over an hour and a half per day to work in Washington and be at home with his sons, leading his colleagues to take bets on how long he would last as a senator.

Hunter, Joe and Beau Biden at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. Image: Getty.

To this day, Joe Biden does not work on December 18, the anniversary of the car accident.

How Joe Biden met Jill Biden.

Five years after the accident, Biden met Jill Jacobs on a blind date organised by his brother, who knew her in college. They married in 1977.

In 1981, the couple welcomed a daughter, Ashley.

At August 2020's Democratic National Convention (DNC), Dr Jill Biden spoke about the early years of her relationship with her husband and how she helped him navigate his grief. 

"I fell in love with a man and two little boys standing in the wreckage of unthinkable loss. Mourning a wife and mother; a daughter and sister. I never imagined, at the age of 26, I would be asking myself, 'How do you make a broken family whole?'" she said.

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"Still, Joe always told the boys, 'Mummy sent Jill to us.'’ And how could I argue with her? And so we figured it out together... How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding, and with small acts of kindness.

"You show up for each other, in big ways and small ways, again and again."

The loss of Joe Biden's son, Beau Biden.

About 40 years after losing his wife and daughter, while Biden was serving as Vice President, tragedy struck again. In May 2010, his son Beau, a rising star in the Democratic Party, was admitted to hospital after complaining of headaches, and it was found he had suffered a minor stroke.

In August 2013, Beau was diagnosed with brain cancer at 44. He received radiation and chemotherapy treatments, but died May 30, 2015, aged 46.

Beau Biden in 2008. Image: Getty.  Speaking on the Megyn Kelly TODAY show, Jill Biden shared that the couple never gave up hope.

"Throughout Beau's illness, even though the diagnosis was truly devastating, we always had hope," she said.

"We never gave up hope. We tried treatment after treatment, month after month. But we always felt – until the moment he closed his eyes – we always felt he was going to live."

Biden had been planning to run for President in the 2016 election and had even begun editing his announcement speech. But he decided against it, knowing in his heart he wasn't ready following Beau's death.

Earlier that year, Biden had been preparing to speak at a pair of Democratic fundraisers, when someone told him he'd served with Beau.

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Biden teared up and had to leave.

"I felt a lump rise in my throat," he wrote in his 2017 book Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose.

"My breathing suddenly became shallower and my voice cracked. I was afraid I would be overwhelmed by emotion, and I think the audience could see it. I waved and hustled over to the car.

"This was no way for a presidential candidate to act in public."

Image: Getty.

During Beau's treatments, Biden planned to sell his house to pay for medical expenses and support his son. But during a lunch, Obama reportedly told Biden, "Don’t sell that house. Promise me you won’t sell the house."

"I’ll give you the money. Whatever you need, I’ll give you the money," he said. "Don’t, Joe – promise me. Promise me."

Biden shared this particular story when he was asked by CNN about his most memorable moment with Obama.

Biden has been open about his experiences with grief, and was once again at Senator John McCain's funeral in 2018.

McCain, a Republican but close friend of Biden, died of the same brain cancer that killed Beau three years earlier. 

Biden's message to the McCain family resonated with many across social media.

"It's like being sucked into a black hole inside your chest," Biden said.

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"I promise you, the time will come that what's going to happen is six months will go by and everybody is going to think, well, it's passed. But you are going to ride by that field or smell that fragrance or see that flashing image. You are going to feel like you did the day you got the news.

"But you know you are going to make it. The image of your dad, your husband, your friend. It crosses your mind and a smile comes to your lips before a tear to your eye. That's who you know. I promise you, I give you my word, I promise you, this I know. The day will come. That day will come."

Joe Biden speaks at John McCain's funeral. Image: Getty.

Hunter Biden's struggles.

In October 2014, the Biden family faced further media attention when it was reported that Biden's youngest son, Hunter, had been discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine.

Although Biden didn't comment on the matter, Hunter shared his own statement at the time.

"It was the honour of my life to serve in the US Navy, and I deeply regret and am embarrassed that my actions led to administrative discharge," he said, according to CNN.

"I respect the Navy's decision. With the love and support of my family, I'm moving forward."

The Trump campaign regularly slated Hunter during the campaign, arguing without evidence the 50-year-old had leveraged his father's office for monetary gain. 

Hunter had very little involvement in his father's campaign.

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Ashley Biden's husband, head-and-neck surgeon Howard Krein, also faced scrutiny throughout the election campaign over his venture capital business and role as an informal advisor to the Biden campaign's coronavirus response.

Joe Biden's grandchildren.

As Biden celebrated his election success on stage, he was joined by a large group of family: his children, siblings, grandchildren and their spouses.

 Finnegan Biden, Jill Biden, Joe Biden and Naomi Biden. Image: Getty. Several of his grandchildren, who call him "Pop" appeared at the DNC, and in March Biden told CNN's Anderson Cooper he was incredibly close to them: "Every single day I speak to all five of my grandkids. Either on the phone, or I text with them."

The eldest Biden grandchild is Columbia Law graduate Naomi Biden, 26 - the daughter of Hunter Biden and his first wife Kathleen. She regularly tweets about politics, and after Biden's win shared a sweet photo of the family at that moment.

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Naomi has a younger sister, 20-year-old Finnegan, who was a regular on the Biden campaign trail.

Hunter and Kathleen's third child, Maisy, was born in 2001 and is reportedly close friends with Sasha Obama.

Maisy, Finnegan, Naomi, and Natalie Biden at the DNC in August. Image: Getty. 

Natalie and Robert 'Hunter' Biden II (named after his uncle) are the children of Beau and Hallie Biden. They joined their cousins in reciting the pledge of allegiance at the 2020 DNC.

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Hunter Biden has two further children - a child born in 2018 to Lunden Roberts, which was ruled his after a paternity case, and a son born in March 2020 to his wife since May 2019, Melissa Cohen. This was the baby on stage after Biden's victory speech.

Image: Getty. 

Maisy Biden hugs her grandfather. Image: Getty. In a rare interview with the Associated Press in August, his sister and longtime advisor Valerie Biden Owens contrasted Biden's life story with Trump's.

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"Everything that Donald Trump is, my brother is the polar opposite. I don't have to make him bigger than he is," she said.

"He's good enough as he is, and he is prepared and I believe he's uniquely qualified right now to lead… All of this has come together. My brother appreciates it. He can feel it."

Joe Biden, his daughter-in-law Hallie and grandson Hunter visit the grave of Beau Biden on November 8, 2020 - the day after he was declared President-elect. Image: Getty. Despite Biden's personal hardships, his wife Jill says he always "put one step in front of the other," even when she didn't understand how. 

According to Biden, speaking to late night TV host Stephen Colbert, one quote by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has always remained with him:

"Faith sees best in the dark."

This post was originally published on January 2017, and updated with new information on January 20, 2021.

Feature Image: Getty.

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