Watching the Democratic National Convention, it was striking how many times grief came up throughout the four nights of speeches. At some points, it was addressed directly — when Joe Biden talked about the experience of losing his wife and infant daughter in a car accident in 1972, then his 46-year-old son Beau to brain cancer in 2015; when a young immigrant girl read a letter she wrote to Trump about her deported mother; when Gabby Giffords and Parkland survivors talked about the desperate need for gun control. And at all times, it lingered in the background, as speaker after speaker touched on the devastating losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the convention’s virtual format — a decision made to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the potential resulting deaths — was a reminder of our losses over the past six months and how incredibly inept Donald Trump is at handling a nation in mourning.
My experience of the convention may stem from the fact that for the past year, my life has been defined by grief. At exactly this time last year, I sat perched on the edge of a hospital bed, taking notes while my mother walked me through all the details of her “dream funeral.” This included having me deliver her eulogy in the form of a tight 10-minute set on her life — along with doing impressions of her — because, as she put it, “people are going to be very, very sad that I’m dead and I need you to make them laugh.” She died in early September, and a few days later I honored her request.
After the service, several people assured me that the eulogy would be the most difficult part of the mourning process. If only that were true. Standing up in front of a church full of people talking about my mother’s quirks was nothing compared to the way grief has infiltrated my life. It has dictated everything from whether or not I have an appetite, to the music I’m able to listen to without crying (I’m still taking a break from 1960s girl groups), to whether or not I have the energy to socialize with other people or even answer the phone.
So as I tuned into the convention last week and watched as grief was incorporated into conversations as a challenging — but normal — aspect of human existence, I felt validated. By the time Biden finished his nomination acceptance speech, I was convinced that whether or not the organizers realized it, grief was the unofficial theme of the convention, and will continue to be an integral part of his presidential campaign. The virtual format of the convention even mimics the new ways we’ve had to grieve during COVID — with memorials held on Zoom instead of in person, without the ability to physically stand in the same room as loved ones who are also in mourning. This is also something Biden — and really, any candidate running for office right now — should tackle head-on. Not only should they acknowledge and help us process our collective grief, but they also need to be mindful that losing someone during the pandemic (whether or not it was to COVID-19) has presented its own unique set of challenges that have even further complicated the mourning process.
To be honest, out of all the Democratic contenders in the primaries, Biden was never my first choice to go up against Trump in November. Sure, I enjoyed watching his friendship with Barack Obama blossom during their eight years in office, but I had difficulty identifying with the 77-year-old career politician — especially considering his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony. While that’s still true, I do appreciate and admire how Biden has handled the losses in his life, and shown compassion and empathy when he interacts with others impacted by the death of a loved one.
In a culture preoccupied with sparking joy and following bliss, expressing feelings of sadness is discouraged. The bereaved are granted a brief mourning period, and then expected to return to regular lives as if nothing had happened. Despite all of this, Biden has been remarkably open about his grief and how it has shaped his personal and political life. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this idea that Biden’s experiences with grief could make him a strong candidate for president were being discussed, including in a January 2019 article from Politico, which described it as his “superpower.”
At the time of writing, more than 176,000 people in the United States have died as a result of COVID-19. After six months of the pandemic, some may have become desensitized by these numbers, while others try not to think about them. But none are more adept at this than Trump, who appears to be unfazed by all of it, despite the fact that his hometown of Queens (where I live) was hit especially hard by the novel coronavirus. For those of us living here, the sirens blaring 24 hours a day and refrigerated trucks functioning as makeshift morgues made it impossible to ignore.
The recent death of Representative John Lewis is an example illustrating how differently the two presidential candidates respond to loss. Immediately following the news of his death, a flood of tributes and tweets came from leaders across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, Trump used that time to retweet himself — specifically, what appeared to be a greatest-hits collection of his past posts that highlighted his propensity to disparage his political enemies, or anyone who doesn’t agree with him at a given moment. Several hours later, he did tweet a boilerplate message of condolence, once he finished his game of golf. The following week, Trump was the only living president, past or present, who did not attend Lewis’ memorial service. Biden, on the other hand, offered a timely (and lengthy) statement on the civil rights leader’s death, then paid his respects at the service, along with other prominent political figures from both parties. Except one.
With the death toll continuing to rise, having a president and administration that understands grief could change the trajectory of our post-pandemic society. Each of the deceased have families, friends and communities who are mourning these unexpected losses. But regardless of whether people have been personally affected by COVID-19, we’ve all been living through a collective trauma that will likely take years for us to fully process. Beyond the virus and the economic impact of the pandemic, and it has been the latest in hundreds of years of traumas experienced by people of color, who continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID and its aftermath. We need a president who will acknowledge our losses and actively help us heal and move forward. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he is not up for the job.
With so many people grieving both individually and collectively, even the tiniest shred of empathy would help us feel seen, providing us with some sort of recognition of our losses. But if Trump took that route and acknowledged the magnitude of these deaths, it would, in turn, draw attention to his failure to respond adequately to the novel coronavirus — particularly this spring, when he repeatedly dismissed recommendations from medical experts. As someone who prioritizes his own self-interest over everything else, we’re never going to get anything beyond indifference from him.
In stark contrast, people have been coming forward for years with stories about how Biden reached out to them — either by phone or in person — to check in after they experienced a major loss, offering comforting words from someone who has been through it. Biden understands the complexity and unpredictability of grief, and the many ways it can manifest in daily life. As a country, we’ve only just begun to process our grief and collective trauma. We need a president who will embrace that — not ignore it.