Like so many, I was devastated to learn that Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died from a brain tumor at the far-too-young age of 46. I was especially affected because Vice President Biden was among the hundreds of kind well-wishers who sent my husband and me heartfelt personal notes of condolence five years ago after our daughter Hudson died from an aggressive bacterial meningitis infection at the far-too-young age of 17 months.
While the Vice President’s note was certainly unexpected (we later learned that some dear friends reached out to him. They had remembered we met him in 2008 when I was pregnant with Hudson), it was not at all surprising. Having lost his first wife and baby daughter in a terrible car accident almost 40 years before, Biden understands like few others how much comfort the simple act of witnessing another’s grief, of refusing to turn away from it, can bring to the grieving.
In his note to us, Biden wrote that there were no words that could ever take away the pain of losing our daughter. So many other notes we received during that terrible time echoed that sentiment—people said over and over again that if they could do anything to take away even the tiniest bit of our pain, they would do it. They wanted so much to carry even a fraction of it for us so that we wouldn’t have to bear it all by ourselves. But they knew that was impossible—they knew that nothing they could do could ever take our pain away. And they were right. The unfathomable pain of losing our daughter will be with us and part of us for the rest of our lives.
But bearing witness is so important and so fundamental, and it’s something that anyone can do for someone who has lost a child.
After Hudson died, I remembered something my Lamaze instructor told me when I was preparing for an unmedicated birth. She told me that there was nothing I could do during a drug-free labor that would take away the pain. But there were things I could do to change the sensation of the pain—breathing techniques, different positions, motion, heat, meditation, music. And when I went into labor with Hudson, I quickly discovered that she was exactly right. During those 27 hours of labor, the pain went from uncomfortable to miserable to excruciating. There were many moments where I thought I would never make it through without an epidural. The pain never went away—it only got worse. But using all the comfort measures I’d learned beforehand, I was able to change the sensation of the pain, and I was able to bring Hudson into the world exactly like I’d hoped to.
And when Hudson died 17 months later, that is what so many loved ones, friends, and strangers did for me. Unlike the pain of labor, which I survived in part because I knew it would end and that something glorious awaited me on the other side of it, the pain of losing a child doesn’t end. But the comfort measures still work. No one can take away the pain, but by bearing witness to my anguish, by offering me love, support, prayers, thoughts, shared tears, messages, phone calls, visits, cards, and memories of Hudson, by simply holding my hand quietly or listening when I cry, so many people have helped change the sensation of the pain.
Five years on from my daughter’s death, the people I value the most are those who refuse to turn away from my grief, the ones who continue to bear witness to it. They continue to cry with me and shake their heads in anger and disbelief at the unfairness of it all. Instead of saying, “I can’t imagine your pain,” they try to imagine it, and they try to sit with it and with me. They remember Hudson’s birthday and the anniversary of the day she died. They send me messages when they see something that reminds them of Hudson, sometimes when they’ve never even met Hudson. They never fail to offer kind words of support when I post on Facebook about a difficult moment or day. They never expect me to get over it or to move on. They still can’t take away the pain, but they can still help change the sensation of the pain.
And this is why Joe Biden sent us a note five years ago when he heard about Hudson’s death, even though he certainly had an infinite number of other things to do. As a bereaved parent and spouse, he understood that he could help change the sensation of the pain simply by bearing witness to it.
And this is why I’m sending him a note this week. Even though mine will probably be only one in a sea of thousands he will receive, I know unequivocally that every single one will matter. And after losing one child, it is almost impossible for me to imagine the pain of losing another, but for his sake, I am going to try. I am going to bear witness to his grief and refuse to turn away, because I know that even though I can never take away his pain, hopefully I can help change the sensation of the pain.
Mandy Hitchcock is a bereaved mother, cancer survivor, and recovering lawyer. She lives with her husband and two living children in Carrboro, North Carolina, where she writes and practices just a bit of law on the side. You can find her writing at mandyhitchcock.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
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