(WILMINGTON, Dela.) — President Joe Biden and his family on Sunday marked a solemn anniversary: 50 years since a car crash killed his first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi.
The White House said Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended a “private family memorial Mass” at St Joseph on the Brandywine, their family’s church in Wilmington, Delaware.
Afterward, according to reporters traveling with the president, the Bidens went to the adjoining cemetery. Neilia, Naomi and Beau Biden, the president’s older son who died of brain cancer in 2015, are all buried there.
Joining President Biden on Sunday were grandchildren Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy, Natalie and Hunter Biden, daughter Ashley Biden and son Hunter Biden, who was injured along with his older brother in the deadly wreck in 1972 that occurred while Neilia Biden had taken her kids out holiday shopping.
On Sunday, two of the family members carried large wreaths with them to the church cemetery, according to the travel pool.
The death of Joe Biden’s wife, daughter and older son have long shaped his approach to grief and empathy, he has said. The 1972 crash, weeks after he won his first Senate race, also partially defined his career in Congress.
“I was down in Washington hiring staff and I got a phone call from a first responder. They put a pretty young woman on the phone. She was so nervous, she said, ‘You gotta come home. There’s been an accident. A tractor trailer hit your wife and your three children while they were shopping,'” Biden recalled at an event in Newton, Iowa, during his 2020 campaign.
“My wife was killed and my daughter was killed,” he continued then. “And my two boys, but for the jaws of life and a rescue crew saving their life, would not have been around either.”
Beau and Hunter Biden were seriously injured after the wreck. Their dad took his oath as a senator by their hospital bedsides.
Shortly after the crash, then-President Richard Nixon called Joe Biden, according to a recording at Nixon’s presidential library. “I know this is a very tragic day for you, but I wanted you to know that all of us here at the White House were thinking about you and praying for you and also for your two children,” Nixon said.
“I appreciate that very much,” Joe Biden told him. Nixon went on to say, of Joe Biden’s wife, “I’m sure that she’ll be watching you from now on. Good luck to you.”
In the decades since, Joe Biden has spoken candidly of what grief did to him and how that experience helped him relate to others’ loss — to the torrent of anguish, anger and sadness that results.
Anecdotes of his empathy have drawn headlines over the years, with many resurfaced during his 2020 presidential campaign. Just under a month before the election, a 2002 apology letter Joe Biden sent to a woman — after his office continued to send letters to her late husband — went viral.
“I know from my experience how little words can mean at such a time but I know, as hard as it can be to believe, that time does heal,” he wrote to her.
In an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show in 2020, he connected his personal experience to his political work, particularly as the country grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The role of the presidency is to say, ‘Grieve. There’s a reason to grieve. You’ve had great loss,'” he said then. “‘But there will come a time, remind yourself, just be reminded that the time will come when you’ll think of your husband, wife, son, daughter, mom or dad, and you’ll get a smile to your lips before you get a tear to your eye.'”
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