By Terri Schexnayder
For millions of people living in America, the death of a child is a tragedy that silently unites many, even presidents. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has cited his son’s death, Beau, as motivation to run for president and has shared his reflections and experiences on grief and loss in many eulogies. Former President George H.W. Bush advanced global health measures citing the death of his three-year-old daughter, Pauline Robinson (“Robin”), who died of leukemia in the 1950s.
Beyond Presidents Biden and Bush, four other modern-day presidents have lost a child, including Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. According to Doug Wead, historian and author of All the Presidents’ Children: Triumphs and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families, released in 2003, 26 children of presidents died before the age of five, and many more before the age of 30, not including the death of President Biden’s son Beau in 2015 and his daughter, who died in a car accident in 1972.
Oftentimes, these losses occurred before the president held office, but the life-altering impact carried into their days in the Oval office. “When we lose someone close to us, it leaves an imprint — the death of a child leaves an indelible mark,” says Evermore founder Joyal Mulheron. “Experiencing the death of someone you love deeply does not simply leave you. You don’t ‘get over it.’ Rather, your love and both their presence and absence will continue to be a part of your life, and your relationship with them will continue to evolve forever.”
Child loss is uniquely challenging in many ways, as is can impact parents’ sense of meaning, identity, and worldviews. According to Dr. Wendy Lichtenthal, who directs Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Bereavement Clinic, “Child death defies the expected order of life events and can shatter assumptions about how the world works, and thus bereaved parents often struggle to make sense of their loss.”
Mulheron, herself a bereaved parent, says, “After you have buried a child, what could possibly be more painful? In some ways, you’ve already hit rock bottom, so any other subsequent loss — whether that’s running for president or shifting U.S. policy or partisan bickering— nothing will ever meet or exceed the irrevocable pain of losing a child. You have nothing to lose.”
At the Republican National Convention in 1988, when George H. W. Bush was nominated for president, Barbara Bush spoke about how the couple coped with Robin’s death.
“The hardest thing we ever faced together was the loss of a child. … I was very strong over the months we were trying to save her – at least, I thought I was. I was just pretending. But when she was gone, I fell apart. But George wouldn’t let me retreat into my grief. He held me in his arms, and he made me share it and accept that his sorrow was as great as my own.”
Decades later, President Bush’s experience with bereavement after his daughter’s illness and death became motivation to shape his policies around the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In his first speech on the subject in March 1990, President Bush reflected on the question his family once faced when Robin was hospitalized for leukemia.
“We asked the doctor the same question every HIV family must ask – why, why was this happening to our beautiful little girl?” He continued, “There is only one way to deal with an individual who is sick: with dignity, compassion, care, confidentiality, and without discrimination.”
At the State of the Union on February 7, 2023, President Biden introduced his guests, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, parents of Tyre Nichols, a Black man killed by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop one month earlier. Reaching out to Mr. and Mrs. Wells and other bereaved parents in the audience, including Michael Brown Sr., the father of Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
President Biden spoke to these bereaved parents and others not only as the President of the United States, but as a fellow parent who had lost both a daughter and a son. “As many of you personally know, there are no words to describe the heartache of losing a child,” he said, “but imagine, imagine if you lost that child at the hands of the law.”
After the death of his 46-year-old son Beau to brain cancer, then Vice President Biden spoke openly about his grief and later wrote a memoir, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose, about his special relationship with his son.
“When one of your loved ones goes out of your life, you think what he might have done with a few more years,” he wrote. “And you wonder what you are going to do with the rest of yours.”
After deciding not to enter the 2016 presidential race, Biden commented, “Dealing with the loss of Beau, any parent listening who’s lost a child, knows that you can’t — it doesn’t follow schedules of primaries and caucuses and contributors. Everybody grieves at a different pace.”
But the tragedy of losing Beau was not his first loss. Like other presidential leaders before him, he has suffered multiple losses in his life. In 1972, shortly after being elected Senator for the first time, Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and his 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in an automobile accident. Decades later, during his presidency, his experience offered some insight to grieving parents after the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 and at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022.
“During President Biden’s State of the Union address two weeks ago, he referenced Beau’s death and its aftermath, but it was vague, and many, if not most, viewers would have missed it,” Mulheron says.
“For example, too many of you lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling, wondering what will happen if your spouse gets cancer, your child gets sick, or if something happens to you.
“Will you have the money to pay your medical bills? Will you have to sell the house?”
According to Mulheron, “President Biden, like many other bereaved parents, particularly those who have lost a child to prolonged medical disease, may experience housing insecurity resulting from the exorbitant health care costs families endure to save their child.”
In a 2016 interview with CNN, then-Vice President Biden shared then-President Barack Obama’s insistence that the Biden’s not sell their home to pay for Beau’s medical bills.
“This is exactly why I founded Evermore. No grieving parent, children, sibling, or spouse should experience housing, job, food, or healthcare insecurity in the aftermath. To build a united nation, we must continue our commitment to family and community during the hardest times. Because that’s when it really counts, whether you’re the president of the United States or our neighbor.”