How Joe Biden, Sheryl Sandberg, and Prince Harry Turned Their Personal Grief Into Public Lessons in Perseverance
By Josephine Chu
They come from very different backgrounds and have taken different paths in life, but Joe Biden, Sheryl Sandberg and Prince Harry have one big thing in common: they’ve each dealt with profound tragedy in their lives.
The public nature of their grief has given them a unique opportunity to help others through similar situations. “When I talk to people in mourning, they know I speak from experience,” Biden wrote in his book Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose. “They know I have a sense of the depth of their pain.”
Death is an inevitable part of life, and the healing process is multifaceted and different for each person. But as these three stories show, sharing experiences of grief and perseverance can be be a form of generosity and service — both to those who are suffering and to the person doing the sharing.
The former vice president has had a lot of experience with loss. His first wife, Neilia Hunter, and daughter died in a car crash in 1972, and his son Beau died from a brain tumor at 46 in 2015.
“I knew from previous experience that grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable,” he wrote. “I would be ready when I was ready, if I was ready, and not before. I had no idea when that would be.”
A few weeks after the fatal accident, Biden received a piece of advice from former New Jersey governor Richard J. Hughes. He told Biden to write a number down on a calendar every night. “One is as bad as the day you heard the news, he said, and ten is the best day of your life.” Six months later, and “the down days were still just as bad, but they got farther and farther apart over time,” Biden recalled in his book.
Later, when he was comforting a mourning widow, Biden drew from his past experiences and offered his own advice: “The time will come when the memory will bring a smile to your lips … before it brings a tear to your eyes.”
After his son’s death, Biden explained how he coped with his grief on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “The only way I was able to get through it last time was to have a sense of purpose and to do something that I think then Neilia and my daughter would be proud of me, and now, that Beau would be proud of me,” he said.
Despite it all, Biden’s duty to both his family and his country pushes him forward. “That duty does much more than give me purpose; it gives me something to hope for,” he wrote.
Sandberg, who is Facebook’s chief operating officer and the author of the New York Times best-seller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is no stranger to tragedy. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, collapsed from heart failure and died in 2015. He was 47.
It took a while for Sandberg to give herself permission to be happy after her husband’s sudden passing, but she told NPR she realized she needed to find a way for the sake of her children.
“The thing about happiness is I think sometimes we’re waiting for the big stuff to be happy,” she said. “But happiness isn’t always the big things. Happiness is actually the little things. In the face of Dave’s death, the big thing was not getting better, and it’s still not better. So if I wait for that to get better to feel any happiness I’m never gonna feel it.”
Losing her husband also taught her effective ways to help someone in the wake of tragedy. “I used to say, when someone was going through something hard, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ And I meant it, I meant it kindly,” she said. “But the problem is … that kind of shifts the burden to the person you’re offering the help to to figure out what they need.”
Instead, Sandberg suggests doing “something specific.” She acknowledged that there’s no best way to approach grief, but saying “I know you’re going through something terrible. I’m coming over with dinner tonight. Is that OK?” can be more helpful than you think.
With the help of her friend Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Sandberg poured her heart into a second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, in which she shares her gut-wrenching experience with grief and reminds readers that we are all capable of persevering through tough times.
As a member of the British royal family with a fairytale wedding quickly approaching, it’s easy to forget that Prince Harry suffered a major tragedy at just 12 years old when his mother, Princess Diana, died in a car accident.
The Prince chose not to dwell on his mother’s death, since he was constantly in the public eye, but avoiding the situation only exacerbated his emotions. Research shows that losing a parent before the age of 18 can result in increased risk for long-term mental health issues. In a 2017 interview with The Telegraph, he revealed that he “shut down all his emotions” for nearly two decades.
“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12 … has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” he said.
He bottled up his grief through his twenties, and it was only recently that he finally decided to seek professional help. Mental health experts like Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, have praised the Prince’s willingness to share his mental health issues with the public and encourage others to address their grief instead of coping in silence.
“He has a reach across the world that people like me can only dream of — he will have communicated in a way that I have been working all my life to achieve,” Wessely said.