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Grieve, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. Joan Didion wrote that in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking. Boy, was she right. It's nothing we expect it to be, and it's different for everybody. So wherever you are in your grief, I hope you find something in this podcast today that's helpful. In a few minutes, I'll sit down with President Joe Biden in the White House for a conversation about the losses in his life and how he lives with them. It is, I think, the first time any sitting US President has agreed to do an entire interview solely focused on grief. A couple of days before the interview, I was going through a box of stuff in my basement that belonged to my brother, Carter. He died by suicide in 1988. I don't have a lot of photos of Carter visible in my house. I still find it too painful. In the box, there were a bunch of pictures of him, but two in particular stood out: a Polaroid I'd seen before and a framed black and white photo, which was one of my mom's favorites. It was taken by a friend of his, Winkie Lewis, shortly before he graduated Princeton.


He's smiling and he looks so young and so handsome and so happy. Fifteen months later, he killed himself in front of our mom. He was 23. Sitting on the basement floor, studying his face in these pictures, I found myself weeping. I wasn't sure why at first, but later it hit me. I don't recognize the person in these photos. I don't recognize my own brother. He looks nothing like I remember him. And it's not just that I've forgotten what he looked like 35 years ago. I don't recognize him because I never really knew him. I never knew my own brother. I never allowed myself to, and I never allowed him to know me. After our dad died, we were treated into ourselves. We had 10 years to talk about it. We never did. I want to tell the boy in these photos that I see the sadness he's hiding, and I see his fear, and I want to tell him I'm sorry. I am so sorry. Why is it so hard to talk about loss and the grief that follows? We keep it hidden away, cry in private, speak the names of our dead, and hush whispers, only we can hear.


That's what I've done my entire life, and I see now the price I've paid. I think back to what Francis Weller said in last week's episode.


When we're asked to carry it alone privately, we end up carrying it.


Around in new hauls.


Dragging this weight behind us. And in that privatization, in that sense of having to sequester my grief within my own being, I feel like I'm all alone in this. And that's one of the most intolerable places for the soul to be.


I think he's absolutely right, and it does feel intolerable. That's one reason I wanted to talk with President Biden. He's been so public about the pain of loss he's experienced, and he's managed to stay engaged in the world. He isn't the only President, of course, to have experienced terrible tragedy, but none have been willing to share so much about it publicly, particularly when they were in office. More than 15 US presidents have lost children. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all lost four of their kids. Jefferson was said to have carried a lock of hair belonging to one of his deceased daughters all his life. Abraham Lincoln watched two sons die. His 11-year-old, Willy, died in the White House, likely of typhoid. His funeral was held in the East Room. John F. Kennedy also lost a son while serving as President. A newborn named Patrick, who only lived about 39 hours. Both Roosevelt's experienced the death of children, as did Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. His three-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953. President Biden's first wife, Nelia, and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash in 1972.


His young sons, Bo and Hunter, were badly injured. Bo died of cancer in 2015. The White House had set up two chairs for the President and I to sit in, facing each other at some distance in the library of his residence. It was a standard setup for a standard interview with the President, but it seemed too formal to me. So I asked if they'd bring a table, we could sit around, something we could lean forward on, and if the President was so inclined, talk more intimately, face to face. They brought a table in. We arranged the microphones, and then the President appeared. We shook hands. He sat down, and we began to speak. I know you're reluctant to talk about your grief publicly because people have suffered worse, you've said, and you've gotten support that other people haven't gotten. I know that given all that's happening in the world and all the suffering that we're seeing, it may seem trivial to talk about one person's suffering. But I do think it helps people to hear from others who have survived grief and lived with grief as you have. I know it's the only thing that's really helped me.


Thank you for doing this.


No, I'm happy to do it. Look, one of the first things I learned after I got that phone call when I was down here- 1972.


-in 1972, and I got a phone call from the fire department at home in Delaware. They put a young woman on the phone, one of the first responders, and said, You got to come home. There's been an accident. I said, What's the accident? Well, your wife and three kids were hit by a tractor-trailer and you should come home. The poor kid, she was a young woman and said, Your wife's dead, your daughter's dead, and your boys are really hurt.


Your daughter was 13.


Months old. Yeah, 13 months old. My boys were not quite three, not quite four, a year and a day apart. I just remember like a lot of people feel, I think I remember walking out through the capital and looking up at the heaven saying, Why did you do? I was angry, like I was talking to God. I know it sounds strange, but I was really angry.


You were just 30. You had just been elected to the Senate. You'd fallen in love with this woman on the beach in the Bahamas. Nelia was her name, and Naomi was your daughter. Yeah. Did you know how to grieve at that time?


Well, I won the gene poor. I was raised by a mom and a dad who my mom was a person of faith. My dad was a guy who had been through some tough times and just got up. The saying in the family was just get up, just get up. Just get up. And when you get knocked down, just get up. I had the great advantage because what happened to me, I had a whole family. My deceased wife and I had purchased a home. It had a barn. My brother moved in and turned the barn into a little apartment. My sister and her husband left their place and moved in with me to help me raise the kids. And we have an expression in our family. If you have to ask us too late, I mean, for real. They were there and my mom lived and my dad lived not... But you.


Wrote about that time. You said you felt trapped in a constant twilight of vertigo, like in the dream where suddenly falling, only I was constantly falling. You went on to say, I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in, how suicide wasn't just an option, but a rational option. Did you actually feel that? Did you actually think.


About that? Well, I thought about I could understand how people could do it. I didn't contemplate it, per se because I had two boys that needed me.


You wrote that you looked at them when they were sleeping and you said, Who would explain to my sons my being gone?


That's true. Because look, you could see how people, when they've been to the top of the mountain, had everything their life was like wonderful and everything gets crushed, how they could say, I'm never going to be there again. I don't want to do this anymore. But one thing I did do, I'm the only Irishman ever meant to never had a drink. I had actually been downstairs in the house we were still living in, the boys and I, and I'd take out a bottle of liquor and put on the table and said, I'm going to drink it. I'm going to get drunk. I never took a drop, but I stare at it. Just how do you escape?


There was a Senator McClellan, was his name, who had lost a number of his own kids, and he advised you to bury yourself in work. He said to you, Work, work, work, work.


I buried myself in work much of my life for this reason. Did you do that or.


Did you not? I did that in the sense that I didn't want to stay in the Senate. I was going to leave. I had my brother talking to the governor about a replacement for me.


You were criticized the time for not spending more time in Washington for going home every night. That's exactly-to.


Be with your boys. -to be with your boys. But I did. Every single night I got trying to go home because I wanted to kiss them good night. Every night, no matter what time I got home, sometimes it was late, they'd be in bed. I'd climb in bed with each of them individually.


That was 51 years ago, and my dad died when I was 10 years old and then my brother when I was 21. I still have a hard time talking about it. I wondered 51 years later on, is it something that still do you're trying to think about it every day still?


I got really lucky. No man deserves one great love, let alone two. My youngest brother set me up in a blind date five years after I lost Nelia and Jill. I had to ask her five times, do you know what I mean? Literally. But my boys were in good shape, ever come along. Again, I had just an incredible family. I told you the expression of the family was just get up, get knocked down, get up. I read one of you, I heard one of your podcast about how you started on packing boxes and how difficult it was.


Yeah, I've been going through my mom's boxes still. They're all in my basement still.


Well, I get that one because I purchased this home that we loved, and it was a neat house. We loved it. But every time I couldn't take anymore open to the closet and smell the fragrance, or walking through a room and having a memory, or packing up the clothing. I mean, that was really, really hard. It's overwhelming. I decided that we're just going to sell the house, we're going to move. We did. But it was a really difficult time because it was all still so raw. Fast forward, about 10 years later, I built a home, and I built it on the pond and across the pond was the woods. I remember if we had a fundraiser for my campaigns, we'd do it at my home and my dad would come and we're standing out in this back porch looking over this pond. And I didn't think I'd be modeling. I said, I wish Nelia could have seen this because she lived up in the finger lakes and like Skinny Atlas loves the lakes. And my dad went up to the local Hallmark store and came back with a framed version of Hagar, The Horrible. The old comic book.


The old comic book and the Viking with his ship. There's two frames in it. One where his ship gets struck by lightning, and he's standing looking up and saying, Why me? The next frame is a voice from heaven says, Why not? My dad handed it to me and said, Don't forget it, honey.


Don't forget it. My mom always used to... My mom had experienced a lot of tragedies in her life and witnessing the death of my brother in front of her, she would never ask why me. She would always say, Why not me? Why should I be exempt from the suffering of others?


Your mother was ahead of me because it was... I mean, I was my dad, though. You can't feel sorry for yourself. So many other people go through so much more than you've gone through. He never said it that way, but it was like, why would you be exempt?


You and I had both spoken to Stephen Colbert about grief, and he was on the podcast. One of the things he said to me, he said, People are afraid to talk about grief because they think it's a trap of depression. He says grief is a doorway to another you because you're going to be a different person on the other side of it. Do you feel like you're a better person because of the grief you've experienced?


Well, that would be presumption to me to say I'm better or worse, but I'm slightly different. I find myself focusing on things. Probably the best things ever happened to me was one of the worst things. When I was a kid, I stuttered badly to talk likelike that. I was the run of the litter, too. I was always a little guy. I used to hate the fact I stuttered. It would tighten me up so much having to read aloud at school or those kinds of things. They were really hard. But I realized it was a great lesson I learned because everybody has something they can't fully control, everybody. It turned out to be a great gift for me that I stuttered. I think the upside of going through what I went through is making me realize that there's so many people out there who've gone through so damn much and they have none of the help I had. It's just I really think, and I think there's a lot of heroes get up every morning, put one foot in front of them, and don't know how the hell they do it. Don't know how they do it.


We're going.


To take a short break. We'll have more of my conversation with President Biden in a moment. Welcome back to All There Is. Now, more of my conversation with President Joe Biden. You talked about the stuttering as a gift. It's interesting because Stephen Colbert, also one of the things he once said to me, which really struck me, he talked about a realization that he had had that he was grateful for his grief. He quoted a line that J. R. Tolkien, the writer wrote saying, What punishments of God are not gifts? When I asked Stephen if he really believed that, he said that, yes, and he explained that he had gratitude for the pain of grief. It doesn't take the pain away.


It doesn't make the.


Grief less profound. In some ways, it makes it more.


Profound because it allows you.


To look at it. It allows you to examine your grief in a way that is not like holding a red, hot ember in your hands, but rather seeing that pain as something that can warm you and light your knowledge of what other people might be going through. Do you feel grateful for.


Your grief? No, I don't feel grateful for it, but I feel that it's given me an insight.


Look, I was raised in- An.


Insight into other people. Yeah, and I was raised in a family where you were expected to reach out to people. It wasn't something you had to go through something horrible. I remember my, I joke that I learned my values at my grandpa finding his kitchen table up in Scranton when he used to say, Joe, remember, you're a man of your man or your word? Without your word, you're not a man. And he talked about how he lost his son, Ambrose Finnegan, in the war. And he talked about all the good pieces of him and why he was so special and how the family stuck together. My dad went through some tough times, but my dad just got back up.


That was the ethos in the family.


Yeah. No, it really was. I mean, it was throughout the family.


Just this past year, I've had what I consider an awakening to this grief that I buried very long ago when I was very young, when I wasn't able to deal with it as a little boy, I still feel overwhelmed, almost on the verge of being overwhelmed by it. I'm wondering, do you ever still feel overwhelmed by grief?


I do, as it relates to my son, Bo.


Bo- He died in 2015.


Yeah, he had been in Iraq, unfortunately, for a year next to one of those burn pits. He've got clial blastoma, brain disease.


He was 46.


When he died. When he came home, it was clear that it was a death sentence. It wasn't a question of if, but when he was going to die, how long it would take. But I think you have to find purpose, purpose beyond your pain. And for me-.


You have to find some meaning to get.


You through. Something to keep you completely engaged. I had two things. For example, every single day I talk to every one of my children or grandchildren who are alive. I mean, literally, I text them every single day I talk to them. The thing that saved me and Jill with Bo was the fact that we have these kids and just keep reaching out. You keep touching them. I know you have two children now, but, I mean, they were my salvation.


They were-Even when Nelia died, you've said that it was Bo and Hunter, little kids at the time that saved you?


Absolutely. I remember riding. We were in the car, Hunter was, I guess, five years old, six years old, and we're riding along and the top was down. In those days, you could put a kid in your lap. I know my lap, I.


Should have-I remember those days.


That was crazy. We stopped at a stop sign. We were in the country. He looked up, he looked out in all these cows around, crazy. He looked and said, Daddy, I love you more than the whole sky, the whole sky. And I'd get home and they could tell too when I was down and they'd just be there.


In your book, your last book on the back page was a beautiful photo of Bo when he was eight or nine and he's turning and he's waving to the camera. And you said somewhere that that's the age you always see him in your mind's eye. And I'm wondering, is that still true?


Yeah, it is. He had a smile on his face, just waving. He's walking into the garden. And look, Bo and Hunt, they finish each other's sentences. They are the closest they could possibly be. And I think the loss of Bow was a profound, profound impact on Hunter. But when Jill and I got married, she was just totally embraced by them. Everything we've done, we've always done as a really close-knit family.


We were talking about being overwhelmed at times, and you brought up Bo. I read a book by Evan Osmos who wrote a book about you, and he talked to a couple of people who knew you. Some of them said that after Bo's death that they saw a change in you. One person said it was almost physical. You could see it in how he stood. He wasn't the old college football player anymore. He emerged as the humbled, purposeful man. I'm wondering, how do you think Bo's death altered your sense of yourself?


Well, I think it made me a little more fatalistic and also caused me enormous pain because he should be the one sitting there talking to you. And Bo. He was a better man than I am, and so was Hunter. Both boys were always looking out for me, taking care of me. If they thought I was getting down, they'd, Hey, dad, come here. We're going to do boom, boom, boom.


You've talked about how Bo made you promise you weren't going to turn inward and that you weren't going to step back from all the things that you devoted your life to. I'm wondering, how do you do that when you feel like your heart is taken away from you? How do you not turn inward? Because I turned inward when I was a little kid, and I'm not sure I've ever emerged from that.


Well, I'll tell you exactly what happened. Joe and I went home on a Friday night to see Bo. He didn't have much time left. He wasn't in the hospital bed, but he was clear with the diagnosis of Reed. Anyway, he said to his wife, Would you put the kids to bed? I want to talk to dad. He said, Dad. He said, Look at me, dad. There's this tradition. I know how it came from our family. I said, If you want someone to look at me, dad. He pointed, Look at me, dad. I said, I'm looking, Johnny. He said, I want your word as a bite and promise me. Promise me you'll be okay when I go. I said, Bo, I don't want to talk about it. I said, Dad, promise me. I know you, dad. You're going to want to quit. You're going to want to go in. You're not going to want to do this anymore. Dad, promise me will not quit. Give me your word, dad. I said, Bo, I said, Dad, give me your word, dad. I made a promise. He knew me better than I know me, and he knew my instinct would be to just turn inward.


Do you still feel.


Him with you? I do all the time. I ask myself. I promise you. I promise you. I ask myself all the time, What would Bo do? A difficult decision.


But do you literally feel him? Yes. I mean, in good days, I feel people I've lost with me, but there's a loneliness to grief, I find.


There is. But look, I had an advantage. I still had Ashley and I still have Hunt. I'll get calls from my daughter and my son saying, Dad, how are you doing today? Everything okay? Good? Doing well? I mean, it's constant contact.


Do you feel alone in your grief still? At all?


No, because I think that Bo's death was even more profound for Hunter and for Ashley. They were like one person.


I mean-You're wearing Bo's rosary right now.


I am the Sir Lady of Guadalupe.


It's interesting. I talked to a palliative care doctor named B. J. Miller, and he said to me that the loneliness so many people feel in grief is itself a bond, and that maybe people can come to see it as a communal experience. There's a communal experience in that.


Loneliness, ironically. Well, there is, at least in my family and people who are really close to Bo. I mean, we'll be sitting there sometimes not having talked about anything, and all of a sudden, my daughter will say, Remember when Bo did that? We were at the beach. Remember that time? Bo did boom, boom, boom.


And you were able to tell those stories?


Yeah, I think because we forced ourselves to do it. And now it's like a clue that holds us together. It's beautiful. Well, it really is. I mean, Bo's two children. I'm with them. We're with them all the time. Natalie's turned out to be such an incredible kid. She's happy. She's doing really well. His son's a handsome young boy. Every single Thanksgiving since before Bo passed away, we go to Nantucket because that's where Bo liked to go as a family, and all of us together because it's just the memories. That's the his place.


Yeah. I spoke to a woman named Rachel Goldberg a couple of weeks ago in Israel. Her son, Hersh, had part of his left arm blown off in a bomb shelter when he was hiding from Hamas- I remember this woman. -and he's been taken hostage. And she was on a call with you, she told me, with about 10 other Americans whose loved ones are probably being held hostage. She said that there was another mother on the Zoom call. Two of her children were missing. She'd already been informed that one of her children was dead. And during the call, she got up, even then she came back in and unmuted the Zoom. She said, I'm sorry to break in, but I've just been told my other child has been found dead. She was screaming. Rachel said that you cried and everybody cried. Then after some time, according to Rachel, you said, I know loss. I've lost two children. I lost my wife, and I'm telling you that you need to go through this, but you also need to remember that you will be strong again for your family. Rachel said to me that it wasn't platitudes, that it was a real moment of a father who's lost two children talking to a mother who's also lost two children.


There's not a lot of people who are able to step into other people's pain the way you are willing to.


Look, I mean, I just... I can remember the worst of all feelings I've ever had in my life, where I didn't know whether my two boys were alive when I was going home after I heard that accident call. I'm told that my wife was dead on top of my one son. My daughter was dead on top of my other son. It took several hours of the jaws of life to get them out. What I've never been able to do, some people can't, I never wanted to know the detail. I didn't want to know any of the detail. I was on a committee on transportation in the United States Senate, and it was about trucks and brakes. I couldn't hold a hearing. I didn't want any part of that. I couldn't do it. I remember I told you we sold the house that we had bought. The house we moved into, I had moved all those boxes you talk about. I moved on the third floor a bunch of boxes I had never opened. I had to open one of the boxes that had never been opened. I said, I wasn't going to throw out or not.


There were about 15 boxes in that third floor attic room. There was a scrapbook and someone thinking they were doing me a favor kept a scrapbook of the ax and everything. I opened it up and there was a picture of the car. I closed it. I took it downstairs and I burned it. I could not. I could not. I don't want to know the detail. I don't want to know the detail. I'd like to pray God that that car hit and they were gone and the boys don't remember anything. But, well, I just think it's really, really, really difficult for that woman to get that news. The hardest part was going home because I wasn't sure that the message I got, I'm not sure the boys are going to make it. I know they're dead or alive going home.


Just finally, because I know we're out of time. There's a psychotherapist named Francis Weller who's on the podcast. One of the things he writes, he said, Our refusal to welcome the sorrows that come to us, our inability to move through these experiences with true presence and conscious awareness, condemns us to a life shadowed by grief, welcoming everything that comes to us is the challenge. This is the secret to being fully alive. I very much want to get to that place. I'm not sure I can. But do you feel like you're in that place?


It's one thing to welcome it, another thing to deal with it. I don't know anybody who welcomes grief. I didn't welcome it. But you got to confront it, got to deal with it, look at it, understand it, and decide I'm moving on because I have another purpose in life. My two children are alive, my grandchildren, my wife, whatever it is, it's not welcoming grief. It's facing it. One of the things I tell people that moment will come when the memory of the one you lost that you're dealing fighting through, where you're going to open one of those boxes and you're going to smile before you cry, that's when you know you're going to make it. Look, time will come, but you got to face it. But it's hard as hell. Like I said, the thing I mean this from the bottom of my heart, my word is abiding. I think it's critical that people understand that they're always going to be with you. Your mother is in your heart every single day. Your brother is as horrible as that was for your mother and for you, your brother, but in your heart, you're there every single day.


They'll come at time as you face up to this, and I'm no psychiatrist, state the obvious. But when you can welcome that, that you have that, you had that, that it was there, I think the hardest thing must be to deal with your brother's circumstance.


Yeah, I get stuck in the way his life ended, as opposed to how he lived.


His life. Bingo. That's what I mean. Look, it's really hard as hell to figure out. I found myself spending a lot of time. What could I have done? Was it my fault this all happened? What could I have done differently?


I think about.


That a lot. What could I have done differently? Maybe I shouldn't have been commuting. For example, right after this happened, it was a Ford station wagon. I thought, Well, maybe I had the wrong car. If they'd been another car, maybe this wouldn't have happened. Maybe they, or if-You.


Can endlessly go.


Through those-Yeah. And eventually, what you get to is like, I go, I'm going to reveal myself here. I shouldn't do this, probably.


The President is reaching into his pants pocket and pulls out a small silver object. It's another rosary, and he's holding it in his hand.


I find solace in my faith and all the stories about how the Irish were persecuted. We scrant all that stuff to talk about our... And this is called a prisoner's rosary. They weren't allowed to have rosaries like a Lady of Guadalupe in Irish prison during the famine, but they had these. I find myself going to bed and just saying, a decade, just holding on. It's almost rote, but it just I feel connected to Bo, to to Naomi, to to Nelia. But again.


I-it's beautiful to have that faith too.


Well, again, it's almost more of a feeling than it is. Articulateable able to articulate the detail of it. But I just think that that the time is going to come. When God willing, I'm going to see him again. I know that sounds probably-No.


I think about that all.


The time, too. Because look, she's in your heart. He's in your heart. I mean, you can't look in the mirror and not see her. You can't... Presumption me to.


Say that. No, it's the amazing thing is my kids look like my mom and look like my father. It's amazing.


Well, by the way, Bo's son looks like him. Hunter's son looks like Bo. Bo named his son Hunter, and Hunter named his son Bo. I know it sounds stupid to people who haven't been through this, but there's this- No, it's beautiful. There's this thing. I even find that I'll find one of my grandchildren doing what Bo would have done. Literally what Bo would have done.


You see that the cycles repeat in families. You see the... Yes. You see in the eyes of your grandchildren, the eyes of your son.


I do.


Mr. President, thank you.


For your time. Well, thank you. I appreciate you share. I think you're sharing your situation with so many people. Gives them hope because a lot of people think I must be the only one that's happened to me. When they know other people are there.


And they-The strangest thing about grief is, I mean, it's this universal human experience, and yet it feels so lonely and one.


Feels so alone. And it is. And people are and a lot of people aren't inclined to talk about it either. They don't know how to or want to. But anyway, I've never known anybody who hasn't benefited from ultimately talking.


About it. I agree. Thank you, sir.


As my mother said, God, love you, dear.


That was President Joe Biden at the White House on November seventh. I hope hearing the President, one of the most powerful people on the planet, talk about his grief will help you talk about yours. As hard as it is, it helps to talk. Next week on All There Is, Katie Talman, a podcast listener who left me a voicemail about the death of her daughter, Everly. It's a conversation about the pain of losing a child and the crushing isolation she felt in her grief. I was at a grocery store.


And I remember feeling like nobody could see me.


And I was just screaming inside. Really, I just wanted to talk about her. I wanted to have permission to speak about her because I felt like I wasn't allowed to. I was supposed to.


Sweep that under the rug like it never happened.


And it was all of me. That's next week on All There is. Thanks for listening. All There Is is a production of C-Net- Audio. The show is produced by Grace Walker and Dan Bloom. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Felicia Patinkin. Dan de Zula is our technical director, and Steve Licteye is the executive producer of C-N-Audio. Support from Charlie Moore, Carrie Rubin, Shemried Sheetreet, Ronnie Betis, Alex Manassari, Robert Mathurs, John Dianora, Laney Steinhardt, James Andres, Nicole Pessarou, and Lisa Namrow. Special thanks to Katie Hinnman. On December 10th.




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