Ben Downing: Grief, Loss And Leadership
Many have talked and written about how President-elect Joe Biden’s life has been shaped by loss. Surely that is true. What has been less discussed is how loss will shape his Presidential leadership. Biden knows what it is to be broken. Our country is broken now. The lessons learned from being broken teach you how to recover. I know that because I am broken too. From my experience and having watched Biden serve in the Senate, as Vice President and during this campaign, there are three key lessons grief and loss have taught him, which will shape his leadership: empathy, perspective and urgency. These less are the main reasons I am hopeful for the next 4 years.
Grief and loss teach you a deeper type of empathy, and Biden’s life is shaped by empathy. As a 30-year-old just six weeks after his first election to the U.S. Senate, Biden’s wife and one-year-old daughter were tragically killed in a car accident while driving to buy a Christmas tree. His two sons suffered serious injuries and Biden was sworn into office next to their hospital beds. And then, nearly 40 years later, Biden’s oldest son died of a brain tumor and the entire country watched him grieve. Somewhere over the last generation, empathy became seen as weakness in politics and we became weaker for it. I know from experience what it means to bring empathy to elective office. My father passed away suddenly from a heart attack at 52. I lost my brother Nate when he was just 26. Empathy matters.
As COVID death totals soar four times beyond Vietnam War fatalities and on a trajectory to top World War II fatalities, families and communities are experiencing loss on a massive scale. Biden can provide the living example of someone who has overcome the loss of his wife, daughter and son. When he talks to Gold Star families and those who’ve lost loved ones to illness or tragedy, his remarks are moving because he shares their pain. That experience informs his plans to help families and communities broken by COVID so they can become stronger at those broken places.
While empathy helps a survivor understand, the perspective that comes from grief and loss will help Biden focus on key priorities: ending the pandemic and recovering from recession, alongside reducing economic & racial inequality and solving climate change. Our politics, like too much of our day to day lives, has become consumed by trivial skirmishes. Experiencing grief and loss gives you a built-in check against indulging in the unimportant. Biden understands our time here is short and nothing is guaranteed, so let’s get to work on what matters instead of getting bogged down with perceived offenses or flippant remarks. We’d all do well to learn the lesson. Those of us who have experienced loss have a constant reminder to help us never forget.
From my experience, the most powerful lesson from loss is urgency. Losing a loved one makes personal the reality that the next hour, day, week or year is not guaranteed. Our chances to live a life of purpose are not limitless. Knowing this firsthand, Biden brings to the Oval Office a different type of urgency. His urgency is informed by a deep empathy for those who struggle for no reason other than the lottery of life. His urgency is informed by a sharpened perspective about what truly matters - improving the lives of the poor and middle class, tackling the generational challenge of climate change and reckoning with our history of racial injustice. And his urgency is informed by his lived experience, that reminds him daily of how fleeting this all is. This lesson is the best reason to be hopeful. As someone who has dealt with loss, I can attest nothing is more powerful than the reminder of how quickly life can change and be taken away.
For all those reasons, I am excited and grateful Biden is our President-elect. This is a dark time for our country. We need leadership that knows darkness and knows that it is possible to get back to the light. It will require empathy, perspective and a fierce urgency. Grief and loss gave those lessons to me. I believe they have given them to Biden and we should all hope he puts them to work to restore the soul of our country.
Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.
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