President Joe Biden is a man who understands loss.
You can see it in the deep lines on his face, you can hear it in the way his voice shakes, and you can feel it in the words he speaks through labored pauses.
And to understand loss you have to understand love.
To ever know the massive gaping vacancy in your heart when someone is taken from you, you first have had to have space in your heart for them to begin with.
To be capable of grief is to have been capable of connection in the first place.
It’s been a while since we’ve had that in a leader.
The president’s eloquent words marking the passing of the unfathomable milestone of five hundred thousand Americans, are ones that could have never been spoken over the past four years and never were, because the person occupying that space was incapable of such humanity and unwilling to attempt it; because compassion was beyond his capacity and authentic emotion considered a character flaw to his brand and his base.
Not only would it have never occurred to the man Biden replaced to even acknowledge the unthinkable scale of the loss of life (as such an admission would have been impossible to leverage for personal or political gain) it would have been inauthentic of him to pretend it mattered to him anyway.
That’s largely how we ended up with half a million Americans dead in a year: because we had a sociopath at the helm and that was never going to be conducive to protection of the living, concern for the dead, or empathy for the survivors.
Joe Biden’s grief is a welcome companion for a nation whose attrition over these past twelve months is incalculable. Our collective loss cannot be measured but at least now it is being mentioned. That in itself is a victory.
It’s good to have empathy in the White House again: to know that a fully formed human being is leading us, one who has access to a deep well of emotional reserves, one who measures life and losses beyond election results and poll numbers and ledger balances. It is a comfort to realize that we have a president who gives a damn about other human beings and has been left winded by the unexpected sucker punch of death—because we too have struggled to breathe and to move.
The President said in his remarks to families trying to navigate the way forward in the haze of their grieving:
“I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”
For those of us who’ve been violently pulled into that void, we aren’t embarrassed by Joe Biden’s candor but lifted by it, not unsettled at his displays of sorrow but comforted by them. We know that if these things amount to a declaration of weakness at all, it is one we too have had to declare, as the savagery of grief brought us to our knees—the weakness that reminds us what it costs to fully love someone else and to live irreparably injured in their absence.
Biden promised to half a million distraught families and to a nation mourning in solidarity with them:
“The day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye. It will come. I promise you. My prayer for you though is that day will come sooner rather than later. And that’s when you know you’re going to be okay — you’re going to be okay.”
That okay-ness will be hastened by his words.
That elusive healing will come far more quickly because the person in the most powerful position in our nation has the decency to say them, to remind us that no platform or position exempts us from the collateral damage of being human and loving deeply; that there is affinity in our losses and that we should be gentle with one another.