Can traumatic grief make a person more compassionate? Joe Biden's supporters say yes. Here's what experts say.

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·10 mins read

Throughout this week’s Democratic National Convention — and at various points in his near-five-decade career — Joe Biden’s public narrative has, overwhelmingly, been one linked to compassion resulting from his own traumatic grief, thus making him an empathic leader.

“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole,” the presidential nominee’s wife, Jill Biden, said in her virtual convention speech on Tuesday night, hearkening back to when she had first met Joe and his two young sons, Hunter and Beau, all bereft following the car accident that had killed Joe’s wife and baby daughter — the boys’ mother and sister — Neilia and Naomi. Biden’s sons had survived the crash, but many years later, Beau would die of cancer, in 2015, leaving his father a bereaved parent all over again.

Now, as the nation confronts an unprecedented moment of crisis and loss, due to both the coronavirus pandemic and the outbreaks of violence related to anti-racism protests, Biden is being positioned by his party and his supporters as someone with a uniquely relevant skillset — as a compassionate leader who speaks the difficult language of grief and mourning, who has survived enough heartbreaking loss to be just the healer the country needs right now.

Indeed, in his speech Wednesday night, Barack Obama noted Biden’s “empathy, born of too much grief.”

Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Nelia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, De., not long after Nelia would be killed in a car accident along with their baby, Naomi (not pictured). Sons Hunter and Beau would survive the crash. (Photo: Getty Images)
Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Neilia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Del., not long after Nelia would be killed in a car accident along with their baby, Naomi (not pictured). Sons Hunter and Beau would survive the crash. (Photo: Getty Images)

In June, Biden spoke of bereavement himself, as he’s done before and will certainly do again, in a funeral video message to the family of George Floyd, the man whose death at the hands of police sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. “Jill and I know the deep hole in your hearts when you bury a piece of your soul deep in this earth… We know you will never feel the same again,” he said. “Unlike most, you must grieve in public. And it’s a burden. A burden that is now your purpose, to change the world for the better.”

Traumatic grief — defined as the emotional reaction to a loss that is sudden, unexpected, or violent, or any death of a child — can of course affect people in a range of different ways. But there is some evidence, both anecdotal and research-based, that such a shattering of the heart can lead to an opening of the heart, allowing an individual to become more compassionate than they had been before.

“I have seen for myself that people who allow themselves to feel their grief in perpetuity, without end — because it doesn’t end — are more sensitive to other people,” Arizona-based psychologist, professor and grief expert Joanne Cacciatore tells Yahoo Life. “They’re able to volunteer and do peer work and show compassion, and not just for those who are like them but to others who are not like them. [Grief] increases our capacity for compassion and sensitivity to others who are in pain.”

In this Jan. 5, 1973 file photo, 4-year-old Beau Biden, foreground, watches his dad, Joe Biden, being sworn in as the U.S. senator from Delaware, in a Wilmington hospital. Beau was injured in an accident that killed his mother and sister in December. (AP Photo/File)
In this Jan. 5, 1973 file photo, 4-year-old Beau Biden, foreground, watches his dad, Joe Biden, being sworn in as the U.S. senator from Delaware, in a Wilmington hospital. Beau was injured in an accident that killed his mother and sister in December. (AP Photo/File)

Cacciatore, whose books include Bearing the Unbearable and who runs a therapeutic care farm in Sedona, Ariz., where bereaved adults and children can process their grief by working with rescued animals, adds a caveat: “I don’t know anything about Joe Biden and what he’s really done with his grief. You can’t know that. We all have a private and public face.”

But, she says, “I would like to think that someone who has endured such trauma and such loss will have had the kind of love and support and compassion through that [to allow him to have] fully inhabited it and that it’s transformed into an unstoppable compassion. This is the goal,” she says, adding that the bereaved, she believes, “Are ultimately the ones who can bring peace in the world because they’re the ones who see oneness in suffering.”

Cacciatore points to a variety of studies on grieving parents, some based upon her own collaborative research, which has shown some evidence of an increased propensity, post-loss, for “pro-social” behaviors (benefitting others). That includes volunteering, activism, nurturing rescue animals, fundraising, providing peer counseling or simply stating that they want or need to help “those who feel pain like I do,” indicating a state in which the person, as a result of their loss, “undergoes a change in awareness from acute introspection to a sense of compassion initially for like others, and eventually for differing others, correspondingly engaging in ever-broadening spheres.”

She explains that “when you’re had deep profound loss, and if you can stay with the emotions around that loss, then when you see someone else who has some emotional or psychological pain, your propensity is not going to be to turn away but, we hope, to turn toward them in an effort to help them and support them — because you yourself know what it’s like to have suffered.”

Cacciatore, who lost a daughter to stillbirth 26 years ago, thrusting into her work and life’s purpose, notes that by allowing herself to stay close to the pain, she has been able “to really cultivate a sense of sensitivity and a civic love for others — humans and animals and the earth.”

Of course, loss does not turn everyone into loving, compassionate activists.

In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the 18th annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Seminar, which helps families who have lost a relative through military service. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
In 2012, Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the 18th annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Seminar, which helps families who have lost a relative through military service. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“On the other side of this is, people suffer trauma and loss and become quite guarded… they’re afraid to open their heart again. And when we’re afraid to risk because we might lose, we can appear to be disconnected, detached, hardened and bitter.” She stresses how crucial it is to not blame victims of loss for these reactions. “Often they are like that because they bought into the myth of our culture that you have to get over grief… and when there’s incongruence with what you feel inside and what society tells you, the only thing you can do is disconnect from your own pain.”

Elements of post-traumatic growth

For those who do feel and work through their pain and wind up more empathic as a result, that may indicate they’ve experienced a psychological phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth (PTG). That’s the idea that positive change occurs as a result of struggling with a major life crisis or a traumatic event, such as death or a brush with death — sometimes leading to “an increased sense of connection to others who suffer,” according to the Post-Traumatic Growth Research Group, part of the Psychology Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“With respect to post-traumatic growth, there’s not a lot of data. But it means you’ve undergone a tremendously stressful experience and have emerged from it changed in a fundamental way. One can be that you have better relationships with people, that you value them in a different way,” Amy Canevello, associate professor of psychology at UNC Charlotte and part of the PTG Research Group, tells Yahoo Life. While “trauma” here can refer to anything from surviving a catastrophe to simply dealing with a lot of stress, she says, “The more stressful the event, the more potential for growth, usually.”

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church Tuesday, June 9, 2020, in Houston. David J. Phillip/Pool via REUTERS
In June, Joe Biden spoke via video link as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd in Houston, saying, "Jill and I know the deep hole in your hearts when you bury a piece of your soul deep in this earth." (Photo: David J. Phillip/Pool via REUTERS)

Canevello adds that while, “I don’t know Joe Biden, I don’t know if he’s experiencing post-traumatic growth, it is a very plausible hypothesis. I think you could make the link.”

And based on his catalog of losses, she says, “It sounds like he’s gone through enough negative experiences…that it could have increased his compassion, even if he started as a compassionate person. Those events sort of broaden your perspective and make you see the world differently.”

Taking that even further, she notes, “If you’ve experienced a trauma and another person experiences something similar, you’re going to know what that felt like… and there’s a piece of me that knows it’s so obvious that it should increase your empathy. There is every reason to think that that’s the case. Like, with Biden, if your wife and child are killed in a car accident, it’s hard to think you’d see that with someone else and not feel for them. That’s what makes you a human being.”

The role of mourning

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, an author, educator, grief counselor and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado, also does not know Joe Biden, so I cannot really speak specifically to how his traumatic losses might have transformed him,” he says. But through working with many who have experienced similar tragedies, Wolfelt says, he knows it’s plausible that Biden has become more empathetic and supportive to others, depending on how he has privately worked through his grief.

“I teach that active and outward expression of grief — which is what we call mourning — is what helps people integrate loss into their lives. Without active mourning, people tend to carry their grief inside them and end up with long-term problems with potential symptoms such as anxiety, depression, substance use, relationship issues, and more,” says Wolfelt, who explores this topic in his book Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Grief.

“In my professional experience, not only does mourning help people reconcile their grief and heal, it also helps them become more emotionally intelligent,” he says, noting that many people who open themselves to “authentic mourning” are able to develop the capacity to express their emotions in healthy ways. “They often end up modeling these behaviors for others,” he adds, “and they can also become more discerning about how to support others who are authentically mourning, as well.” It can wind up making them better listeners and better friends — even, perhaps, better politicians.

Further, Wolfelt explains, “If normal grief can help people become more empathetic, traumatic grief can be even more transformative.” That’s because traumatic grief, he explains, “stops people in their tracks and forces them to rethink everything about their lives. Over time, they may work more deeply on developing new self-identities, and they often make more transformative choices directed at living life with more meaning and purpose.”

He adds, “Grief can help people grow emotionally and spiritually as well as lead with empathy and compassion. I have seen it many times, and it is beautiful and an honor to see it unfold.”

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