Chapter 1: Starting Over
On November 7, 1972, a relatively unknown lawyer named Joe Biden pulled off a big political upset. By just over three thousand votes, he defeated the two-term U.S. Senator J. Caleb Boggs. At twenty-nine, Biden became the sixth youngest senator in U.S. history.
Despite his narrow and amazing victory, Biden almost didn’t take the oath of office. On December 18, 1972, just five weeks after his huge election victory, Biden headed to Washington D.C. to interview possible staff members. At home in Delaware, his wife, Neilia, took their three children shopping for a Christmas tree. While running their errand, a tractor trailer slammed into the family car, instantly killing Neilia and their one-year-old daughter, Naomi. Biden's four-year-old son, Beau, and three-year-old son, Hunter, were critically injured.[i]
In the weeks following the death of his wife and daughter, Biden was an emotional mess. He described the feeling of losing his wife and daughter as a "hollow core" that grew inside his chest like a big black hole.[ii] Though he never contemplated suicide, he suddenly understood how it seemed like a rational option to those who were in the depths of despair.[iii] There were also feelings of anger. Lots of them. Unable to find comfort in his Catholic faith, Biden would walk the streets of Wilmington at night, hoping to get in a fight so he could take his rage and worry out on someone else.[iv] Despite these feelings, he tried his best to focus on his surviving boys and "putting one foot in front of the other" so he wouldn't be swallowed by that dark abyss.[v] His future in the United States Senate, something he had worked so hard for, suddenly didn’t seem that important. Speaking to the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Beau recalled his father saying, “Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can’t get another father.”[vi]
Biden was faced with a critical choice that would define the rest of his life: resign before taking the oath of office, or do the job the people of Delaware elected him to do. Life as a senator was a busy one. To be successful, it required a lot of energy—something Biden no longer had. Resigning most likely meant returning to practicing law. The latter wasn't a bad option, but it wasn't the one that Biden really wanted. Politics still interested him, even though his passion had been temporarily put on hold.
Eventually, with the urging of other senators and the thought that getting elected was something for which he and Neilia had worked too hard just to give up, Biden agreed to give his Senate career six months, planning to resign once that time passed. In January of 1973, Biden took the oath of office at his sons’ hospital bedside. Because he still wanted to be there for his sons as they recovered from their injuries, he gave up the home he and his late wife were planning to buy in Washington D.C. and commuted to and from his home in Delaware—a practice he continued as long as he served in the Senate.
Life wasn’t easy for the young senator. Like most widowers, Biden struggled to make it through one day at a time. Initially, he did the least amount of work required for his job. He cast votes when needed, but avoided building relationships with other senators and didn't work to get certain bills pushed through committee. "My future was telescoped into the effort of putting one foot in front of the other," Biden wrote. "The horizon faded from my view. Washington, politics, the Senate had no hold on me. . . . I could not bear to imagine the scene without Neilia . . . .”[vii]
One of the things Biden did consider, though, was relocating to Vermont. [viii] It would be a perfect way to start over. No one would know anything about him, his two sons, or their tragic loss. He and his boys could begin a new life and put the loss of his wife and daughter behind them. Senate staffers started taking bets on how long Biden would last at his job.[ix]
But as the months passed, Biden grew tired of grieving. Though he still felt that big black hole inside him, he started taking his job as a senator more seriously and becoming involved in the actual day-to-day work of the Senate. He arranged for his sister, Val, to care for his sons while he commuted to work. His six-month self-imposed deadline arrived without him noticing.[x] For the next two years, Biden did the best he could, dividing his time between Washington D.C. and his home in Delaware.
As he began putting the pieces of his life back together, Biden started thinking about dating again. In March 1975, he noticed a series of ads in an airport with an attractive blonde model. Biden thought it would be nice to meet that woman.[xi] Just a few days later, he got that chance. One of his friends gave Biden the phone number of a woman he thought Biden would like. As it turned out, the woman happened to be the same model he had seen in the airport photographs. Her name was Jill Jacobs. Biden was smitten with her on their first date. When Biden went home later that night, it was the happiest he'd been in two years.[xii] He couldn't keep Jill out of his mind. Jill, however, was less than enthusiastic about getting involved in a serious relationship. She was recently divorced and was finally enjoying being single again.[xiii] Besides, Biden was ten years older than her, and dating someone involved in politics, especially a senator, was something she had no real interest in.
Biden was determined and didn't let her objections stop him from pursuing her. Slowly, their relationship became more serious. As Biden fell more in love with Jill, the shattered pieces of his life started to come together. His interest in life and politics was renewed. For the first time since Neilia died, Biden felt like he could be himself again.[xiv] Biden attacked his role as a senator with renewed vigor. He worked hard to make connections and build the relationships he needed to be influential and successful at his job.
Despite the progress Biden was making, Jill was still very hesitant to get married. She was about to start a job in the fall as a teacher and was unsure about becoming a mother to two young boys. Biden asked Jill to marry him. She said no. He asked her three more times. She turned him down again and again and again. Finally, exasperated, Biden told her he loved her too much to just be friends. She finally accepted his offer and they were married on June 17, 1977—four-and-a-half years after the death of Biden's late wife.
Biden was well aware of Jill’s feelings about politics and told her he wouldn't run for re-election in 1978 if it meant making her happy. At home one day, they discussed his future. Biden picked up the phone and dialed a reporter at the Wilmington News-Journal to tell him he wasn't running for re-election. As the phone rang on the other end, Jill took the phone from him, hung it up, and told him not to make the call. Later she told Biden, "If I denied you your dream, I would not be marrying the man I fell in love with."[xv]
Biden ran for re-election, won with fifty-eight percent of the vote, and continued what was to become a successful political career. He was re-elected five more times to the U.S. Senate. In 2008, after a second failed attempt to become the Democrat’s presidential nominee, Barack Obama asked Biden to be his vice presidential running mate. During his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Biden said something that summed up his life and career: “Failure at some point in your life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable.”[xvi]
It wasn't just luck that brought Joe Biden and Jill Jacobs together. Before they met, Biden made three important decisions that readied him to date and eventually remarry. Jill already had many concerns about getting serious with him, and had Biden made different choices before they met, their relationship might not have lasted very long. Biden wasn't thinking about dating or having a new relationship when he made these decisions. Even so, they helped him build a foundation better prepared him to date and eventually marry Jill.
Choice #1: Biden Kept Himself Busy
Biden's first important decision came weeks after Neilia's death: He had to decide whether or not to be a senator. No one would have blamed Biden for quitting the Senate after losing half his family. He could have easily returned to Delaware and quietly continued his law practice. He could have folded, stayed at home, and let the anger and the big black hole in his heart consume him. Instead, Biden chose to work. At first, he did so half-heartedly, doing just the minimal amount of work to get by, but his job gave him a routine and something to help pass the time and distract him from his loss.
Keeping busy is important after loss. Whether it’s a job, hobbies, or other busywork, it's important to have something else to focus on. Though it doesn’t matter what you do, it does help if what you're doing is something you are passionate about. Work gives you a routine and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Those with nothing to do focus on their grief and sink deeper into sorrow and despair, which is bad for their physical health, state of mind, and overall quality of life. It also makes it difficult to date when you're sad and thinking only of yourself.
After the loss of my wife and daughter, my job was about the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning. Like Biden, I did the minimal amount of work necessary. I'd show up, do what was required, and leave as soon as I'd put in the necessary hours. I didn't socialize with coworkers or attend work parties or other events. I got in and got out and did it five days a week. I didn't love my job, but looking back, it was good that I had something to distract me for eight hours a day.
If you don't have a job to go to, find a worthy cause and volunteer your time. There are plenty of charitable, religious, civic, and political organizations that are looking for people to help move their cause forward. Find one that you care about and see what you can do to help. Keeping busy will do wonders for your state of mind and help return some meaning and purpose to your life.
Choice #2: Biden Chose to Be a Father to His Sons
Biden had two young boys who were both seriously injured in the accident. They needed a father. Biden knew that being a senator would be a time-consuming job. His sister, Val, and her husband moved in to help care for the boys while he was away at work, but Biden knew his boys were worried that he would leave for work, get in some sort of accident, and not come home. Biden made it his priority to come home every night, eat dinner with them, and talk to them before they went to bed.[xvii] He did this even if it meant turning down invitations to parties and other social functions most senators attended after the Senate's business was concluded for the day.
Biden also gave his boys the right to talk to him at any time for any reason. It didn't matter who he was meeting with or what he was doing—Biden told his staff to put his boys through whenever they called.[xviii] When car phones became available, he had one installed in his car so he could talk to them on the way to and from work.[xix] Finally, he gave his boys the permission to come to work with him whenever they wanted. All they had to do was let him know they wanted to come, and he would take them to the office.[xx]
Being a single father is hard. Combine the duties of a single dad with the loss of a spouse, and it can make a difficult task nearly impossible. Biden, however, did everything he could to be a father to Beau and Hunter. That meant supporting the family, enforcing house rules, and trying his best to give them a semblance of normal life. And when he realized he couldn't do it alone, he reached out to his sister and asked for help. Juggling work life and home life wasn't easy for Biden, but it would pay dividends years later when he introduced his sons to Jill and they started a new life together.
It's easy for widowed parents to think only of themselves and neglect their duties and responsibilities as a parent. Sometimes they'll give their kids too much freedom while they deal with their own issues. They may stop enforcing house rules, stop expecting their children to get good grades, and start excusing bad behavior because the kids are grieving. However, Biden's commitment to his children wasn't just a way to help his children adjust and heal—it was also a way to help mend himself.[xxi]
Choice #3: Biden Embraced His New Life
Eventually Biden realized that being holed up in his office thinking about his late wife and daughter all the time wasn't doing him any good. He started putting more time and effort in to his job. As a result, his self-imposed six-month deadline to give up his job as a senator came and went without him noticing.[xxii] He stopped thinking about moving far away and started living the life he had. He also stopped being angry at God and realized that there were many other people in the world who had problems and challenges that made his look small in comparison. Biden still had his health, a Senate seat, and two boys he could go home to every night. To remind himself of what he still had, Biden kept a cartoon on his desk of someone who just suffered bad fortune shaking his fist at God and asking, "Why me!?!" To which God replied, "Why not you?"[xxiii]
Rather than giving up, he adjusted to life as a widower and single father and worked to overcome the challenges that were thrown in his way. In addition to becoming more involved in his job, he also went on the occasional date.[xxiv] There were still plenty of difficult days ahead, but they became fewer and farther between the more he started living his life and accepting his new reality. By the time Biden met Jill, he had reached a point where he was more than ready to open his heart to someone else and begin a new chapter of his life.
Starting Over Is a Choice
In the weeks and months following the death of his wife and daughter, Biden defined himself by his loss. He was a widower: nothing more, nothing less. Eventually, he started thinking of himself as a father and a senator. With the support of family, friends, and Senate colleagues, he was able to take the shattered pieces of his life and build a new one. It's not hard to imagine Biden's life taking a different direction if he had let the anger, despair, or sadness get the best of him.
In order to date successfully again, you need to reach a point where you identify yourself as something other than a widower. This isn't something that just happens. It's the result of choices you make before you even think about dating. It involves laying the groundwork and being mentally and emotionally ready for the possibility of opening your heart to another woman. Reaching this point takes a lot of time, patience, and work. It involves navigating an emotional minefield as well as dealing with children, friends, family, and former in-laws who are still grieving the death of a mother, daughter, and friend. It takes the mental fortitude to pick yourself up from the ground (or get out of bed) after a bad day. There are going to be lots of setbacks and adjustments. There will be days where all the effort you’re making is for nothing.
But once you've laid a foundation, when you find that special someone, things will fall into place. Suddenly your life will be full of laughter and joy, and you will find yourself glad to be alive. And because of all the grief, the pain, and the setbacks you’ve endured, you will relish and cherish those moments of joy and happiness like you’ve never cherished anything in your life. Suddenly that missing energy, passion, and zest for life that left when your wife died will return with a vengeance.
Successfully starting a new chapter in your life doesn’t require falling in love again or tying the knot a second time. It doesn’t even involve dating again, unless dating is something you want to do. Starting over involves making the necessary mental adjustments in order to deal with life without your spouse by your side. It involves making a conscious decision to be happy and move forward even on days when it takes every ounce of strength just to get out of bed in the morning. But for most widowers, having the chance to open their heart and love someone just as intently as before is what gives them the passion and spark to embrace work, hobbies, and life with renewed vigor.
If you're thinking about dating again or have already started dating, keep reading. Dating is an entirely new adventure the second time you try it.
[ii] Joe Biden, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (New York: Random House, 2008), 80.
[vii] Biden, Promises to Keep, 80.
[xvii] Biden, Promises to Keep, 88.