Who I am.

I write about the landscape of grief, nature, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, my essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 50 journals, including in the Huffington Post and Colorado Review. I’ve won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and my work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. My account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with my wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Joe Biden - Public Grieving

Joe Biden and grief were in the news, notably his interview with Stephen Colbert and his speech to military survivors. Everything Biden said is known to those who are grieving, yet his speaking about grief is important for a number of reasons.

One, he’s a man.

            For men, speaking emotionally about grief is often seen as a sign of weakness, of not being in control. This runs counter to men and boys trying to imitate football players who say that pain doesn’t bother them and who don’t want to show any emotions that aren’t strong or angry. If they do, they quickly apologize. 

            Many more prominent women talk and write about the heart and its devastation from grief, most recently Sheryl Sandberg on her husband’s death, Susan Williams on Robin’s suicide, and Joan Didion on the deaths of her husband and daughter.

            Two, Biden spoke about his grief in public. 

            Politicians rarely share grief so openly because it might make voters think they can’t make the hard decisions.

            Three, he didn’t tell others what they had to do or believe. 

He said what helped him with his grief and what did not. He shared his experiences:

- His dislike of the platitudes people told him. “I know how you feel.” 
            No, they really didn’t.
- How grief keeps coming back, even years down the road.
- Questioning how God can be good when innocent people die.
- Because of his despair, he now understands why some people would consider suicide.
- He said that one day thinking about our loved ones would bring a smile before it brings a tear. 
            For some people, it is going to take a long time for this to happen. 
            All grief is hard, but some grief is complicated by additional factors.
- He worries about those who don’t have the support of a community like he did.

            Four. Biden is a person of faith.

            Yet he struggles with that faith as he tries to make sense of the violent deaths of people he loved. He lost a wife and a baby daughter in a car accident, and now a grown son to brain cancer.

            For Biden, having faith is not an excuse not to grieve. We are still human, and if someone we love dies, the human response is to grieve. If we are honest, we will question God about this. Read the words of C.S. Lewis, John Donne, and Alan Paton as they struggled to reconcile their faith and grief.

            We do not check our brains at the door, or stuff our emotions in our pockets, when we enter the sanctuary.

            Biden has remarried. His wife Jill taped a message by Kierkegaard on the bathroom mirror – “Faith sees best in the dark.” I take Kierkegaard words with me when I go hiking, and nature helps me interpret them. 

            Religion doesn’t have universal acceptance in the grief world. A number of my friends have left their faith because their religious communities didn’t help them deal with the deaths of their loved ones, especially when they died painfully from horrible diseases. While the theology of care was probably there, its followers didn’t translate this into action. That Biden struggles with his faith is a refreshing statement. Having faith is not to be a dismissal of the sufferings of this world. It’s to encourage us to enter those struggles and deal with them.

            Five. Grief was being spoken to a non-grieving audience. 

            People who hadn’t listened before heard the reality of grief, especially that it will last longer than thirty days. Hopefully they will remember his words when someone they love dies.

            That so much was made of Biden shows how little we talk about grief in our society. It should not have been big news. We should be sharing our grief with each other whenever it happens, whether it’s from cancer, miscarriage, suicide, or because of an accident.

            What does this mean for those who are grieving? When someone asks about your grief, take a deep breath, and share the truth. 

            Give voice to what has been unspoken for too long.

Other famous people who have dealt with loss
Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert, Edward Hirsch, Sufjan Stevens, Anderson Cooper, Michael Jordan, Luke Bryan, Nate Berkus, Mark Ruffalo, Gene Wilder, Rick Warren, Keanu Reeves, Jackson Browne, Mel Brooks and Paul McCartney.

Sheryl Sandberg, Katie Couric, Meghan O’Rourke, Claire Bidwell Smith, Sarah Silverman, Susan Williams, Hope Edelman, Cheryl Strayed, Cissy Houston, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah McLachlan, Marie Osmond, Michelle Williams, Carol Burnett, Jennifer Hudson, and Lisa Niemi Swayze.


  1. I love this piece, Mark. In reading about the heart of Joe Biden, I know more about the heart of you. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I happened to see part of Biden's speech on TV as I waited in a doctor's office. It touched me then. Now I know why it was indeed special.

    1. I know, right! When it was broadcast, my grief contacts began emailing me to watch. The speech was surprising, refreshing, and touching.