“He’s doing exactly what I would tell someone,” said Alan Forrest, a professor at Radford University, whose expertise includes grief counseling. “The general rule of thumb is that in the first year of a loss, you make no major life changes or no major decisions.”
Since losing his son to brain cancer in May, Biden has been open about his heartbreak. Standing in the Rose Garden for the announcement, he said, “I know from previous experience that there’s no timetable for this process. The process doesn’t respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”
Biden knows too well how grief works. He lost his wife and young daughter in a car accident a week before Christmas in 1972.
For those experiencing it for the first time, Dianne Gray, president of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation – named for the Swiss psychiatrist who in 1969 identified five stages of grief – said people always ask her when the pain will stop.
“Grief is as individual as the DNA in our bodies,” she said. “The only way to survive this loss intact and as well as possible is to go through it, not around it.”
Some people will try to distract themselves or create chaos in their lives to avoid the pain. “It’s still going to be there,” Gray said. “It just waits.”
The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, in a published guidance about parents coping with the loss of a child, lists “overactivity leading to exhaustion” as one area that could interfere with the grief process. And there may be nothing more rigorous than running for president.
The same report says there “is no more devastating loss than the death of a child.” Research has shown that losing a child can be so devastating that it can cause post traumatic stress disorder. It’s widely considered the most painful possible loss because it interrupts life’s natural order. It’s impossible to make sense of it.
And grieving isn’t linear, said Donald Rosenstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, who runs a support group for single dads who lost their wives to cancer. Rosenstein believes grief exists in two overlapping circles – one is where dealing with loss resides and the other is attempting to move forward with life. The person suffering the loss oscillates between the two.
“There’s no way to predict how long you’ll stay in one,” he said.
The Hospice Foundation of America put out a statement after Biden’s announcement that the time he took to make his decision “exemplifies the manner in which people who are grieving should approach difficult choices.”
However, one academic researcher at the Teachers College at Columbia University, doesn’t agree with most mental health professionals that Biden needed to take his time with his grief. George Bonanno, author of the Other Side of Sadness, said science has shown most people are more resilient than they think.
“It’s not random. It’s not completely idiosyncratic,” he said. “I argue we’re wired to have these reactions. Sadness is very adaptive. But the (feelings) are not designed to last very long. In the animal world, if you’re lethargic or sad for more than a couple of weeks you’re dead.”
But when immersed in grief it’s difficult to imagine coming out on the other side, Bonanno said. Nearly five months after Beau’s death, Biden says he’d be ready now to run, but by the time he realized it the political timing was too late.