Tragic Details About The Biden Family

In the run up to the 2020 US presidential election, American televisions were infiltrated with what seemed to be Amtrak commercials but turned out to be campaign ads for presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Biden's campaign strategy was built around portraying him as an Everyman who took public transportation and understood working families. But Biden has faced more tragedy than the average Joe, and the reason why he took trains was due to his commitment to fatherhood in the wake of grief. Biden's devotion to his sons, Hunter and Beau, has deepened over the course of several hardships the family has faced, including multiple deaths, addiction battles, and political targeting.

The Biden family's darkest days have allowed them to build empathy and resilience and to understand the most profound struggles of the American public. This understanding of human struggle has helped train-riding family man Joe Biden to fight for Americans over several decades, from Scranton, Pa., to the White House.

Students and teachers teased Joe Biden for stuttering

Joe Biden has called his struggle with stuttering "the single most defining thing in [his] life." As he explained in a 2008 speech for the American Institute for Stuttering, "I can think of nothing else that has ever stripped me of my dignity as quickly and as profoundly and as thoroughly as when I stuttered in grade school." In high school, other students gave him nicknames, including the Latin-informed "Joe Impedimenta," and "Dash," because they thought his stutter sounded like Morse code.

Biden's teachers weren't much kinder. When one teacher, a nun, made fun of him by calling him "Mr. Bu-bu-bu-Biden," Biden walked out of class. According to his 2008 memoir, Promises to Keep, his mother told the teacher, "If you ever speak to my son like that again, I'll come back and rip that bonnet off your head." Biden's sister, Valerie, recalled that their mother also supported Joe by saying things like, "You're so smart, you can't get the words out fast enough" (via Los Angeles Times).

These days, while Biden's political critics often point out when he stumbles over his words, he sees his speech impediment struggle as useful to his political career. "It teaches you to memorize and anticipate," he said in a 2016 speech. "It makes you focus on what the other person is made of, what may be on their mind. It's an incredible asset in my business" (via Los Angeles Times).

The Biden family lost a mother, wife, sister, and daughter in 1972

On December 18, 1972, Neila Biden — Joe Biden's then-wife of six and a half years — drove through rural Hockessin, Del., on her way to do some Christmas shopping, per Biography. Joe was working in Washington, D.C., at the time, but Neila was accompanied by their three young children: three-year-old Joseph "Beau" Biden III; two-year-old Robert "Hunter" Biden; and 13-month-old Naomi "Amy" Biden. At around 2:30 p.m., Neila "either accelerated or drifted" (via Delaware Grapevine) past a stop sign and into the path of a full-speed tractor-trailer, and the impact reportedly sent Neila's station wagon 150 feet into an embankment. The family was pulled from the wreckage and rushed to the Wilmington General Hospital, where Neila and Amy were declared dead on arrival.

Joe and Neila's two sons survived the collision: Beau with a broken leg, and Hunter with a fractured skull. According to the Los Angeles Times, Joe considered resigning from his political work in order to care for his sons, but then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield convinced him not to. When Joe was sworn into the Senate less than a month later, his sons attended the ceremony, with Beau's leg still in traction from the accident. "We had a number of plans, Neila and I, for the swearing-in day," Joe said at the time (via the Spokane Daily Chronicle). "My children were to have been with us... I felt I should be sworn in with my children today."

Joe Biden struggled to cope with his grief

Consumed by grief in the wake of the loss of his wife and daughter, Joe Biden thought — if abstractly — about suicide. "I thought about what it would be like just to go to the Delaware Bridge and just jump off and end it all," he told CNN correspondent Gloria Borger in an interview for the 2020 documentary Fight for the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey. "But I didn't ever get in a car and do it, or was ever even close."

The experience built his empathy for those who have experienced profound mental health issues. At the 18th annual seminar for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors in 2012, Biden said he understood why people commit suicide: "because they'd been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they'd never get there again, that it was never going to be that way again."

According to Biography, Biden would sometimes "[roam] the streets at night with the hope that someone would pick a fight with him." He searched for ways to cope with his grief. "I don't drink at all, I've never had a drink in my life, but I remember taking out a fifth of, I think it was gin, and put it on the kitchen table," he told Borger. "But I couldn't even make myself take a drink. What saved me was really my boys."

The loss of Beau and Hunter's mother added weight to Joe's second marriage

In 1975 — three years after the tragic accident that killed his first wife and daughter — Joe Biden met Jill Jacobs. "When we came home [after our first date] he shook my hand good night," Jill said in an interview with Vogue. "I went upstairs and called my mother at 1:00 a.m. and said, 'Mom, I finally met a gentleman.'"

Even so, a marriage to Joe Biden came with strings attached. Not only did he carry the weight of his recent grief and the responsibilities of a career in the Senate, but he was also a devoted father. Joe waited for a while before introducing Jill to Beau and Hunter, but soon enough, the boys were accompanying them on dates, per Harper's Bazaar. In a 2020 Democratic National Convention video, Joe recalled the boys saying, "Dad, we think it's time we married Jill."

The first five times Joe proposed to Jill, she declined, saying, "Not yet. Not yet. Not yet." As she explained to Vogue, "By that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work. Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn't have them lose another mother." She finally accepted on Joe's sixth attempt, and the couple married in 1977 before leaving on their honeymoon with Beau and Hunter in tow.

Joe Biden suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms in 1988

In February 1988, after experiencing severe headaches and neck pain, Joe Biden passed out in a hotel room in Rochester, N.Y., and lay unconscious for five hours. It was the first of two life-threatening brain aneurysms he would suffer that month.

While laying on the operating table for his second surgery, Joe Biden asked his doctor, "What's the most likely thing that'll happen if I live?" The doctor, Dr. Neal Kassell, told him that "the side of the brain that the first aneurysm is on controls your ability to speak." Recalling the exchange in a 2013 speech at the National Conference on Mental Health, Biden joked, "I thought, 'Why the hell didn't they tell me this before the '88 campaign? Could've saved us all a lot of trouble, you know what I mean?'"

Biden also addressed the experience in his 2008 book Promises to Keep. "Maybe I should have been frightened at this point, but I felt calm," he wrote. "I had no real fear of dying. I'd long since accepted the fact that life's guarantees don't include a fair shake." Despite the two brushes with death — and Biden's critics' frequent jabs at his mental faculties — Kassell told Politico that the aneurysms were fully treated and that Biden did not end up with any brain damage.

Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015

Joseph "Beau" Biden III — the eldest son of former vice president and president-elect Joe Biden — died on May 30, 2015, at the age of 46. According to The New York Times, he had been receiving treatment for brain cancer at the Walter Reed Medical Center for more than a week prior to his death.

"It is with broken hearts that Hallie, Hunter, Ashley, Jill and I announce the passing of our husband, brother and son, Beau, after he battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life," the older Joe Biden said in a statement he released that night (via The Washington Post). "In the words of the Biden family: Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known."

Joe's 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad, delved into the painful year of Beau's brain cancer battle. In the memoir, he recalled Beau's words to him shortly before his death: "You've got to promise me, Dad, that no matter what happens, you're going to be all right. Give me your word, Dad, that you're going to be all right. Promise me, Dad."

Hunter Biden has battled drug addiction

In 2014, Robert "Hunter" Biden — Joseph R. Biden. Jr.'s youngest son — was discharged from the Navy after testing positive for cocaine use, per CNN. He insists he had not used cocaine and had instead unintentionally smoked a cigarette laced with the substance. Still, according to Business Insider, Hunter tried various addiction treatments following his discharge, including meditation, yoga, and ibogaine, a psychedelic drug derived from a West African shrub. While he was struggling with addiction, his brother died, and his marriage to Kathleen Biden fell apart.

"Look, everybody faces pain," Hunter told Adam Entous of The New Yorker in 2019. "Everybody has trauma. There's addiction in every family. I was in that darkness. I was in that tunnel – it's a never-ending tunnel. You don't get rid of it. You figure out how to deal with it."

When Donald Trump referred to Hunter's Navy discharge in a September 2020 presidential debate, Joe Biden defended his son. "My son, like a lot of people ... had a drug problem," he said. "He's fixed it, he's worked on it. And I'm proud of him. I'm proud of my son."

Hunter Biden has faced targeted political attacks

Donald Trump and his political allies have used Hunter Biden's work in regions like China and Ukraine as ammunition against Joe Biden. Before Election Day 2020, Trump pushed a New York Post article about Hunter's alleged "secret emails." He also urged US Attorney General William Barr to launch a probe into Hunter's business dealings (Barr refused and resigned shortly thereafter). After hearing about Trump pushing an investigation, Hunter told The New Yorker that he noticed a helicopter circling above him. "I said, 'I hope they're taking pictures of us right now. I hope it's a live feed to the President so he can see just how much I care about the tweets,' " Hunter said. "I don't care. F*** you, Mr. President. Here I am, living my life."

Though the attacks on Hunter Biden are politically motivated, Joe and Jill Biden have discussed their impact on a personal level. "This is a guy who's done nothing but good things his whole life, my son," Joe said during his 2020 presidential run (via The Washington Post). "But look, it's what it is. We knew it was going to be ugly." Jill echoed her husband's statement: "They've been really hurtful," she said. "I mean, to hear your son attacked — you know, I expected that Joe would be attacked. But not your children. Not your children." She later added, "It's ugly. But I can take a little bit of ugly if it means Joe is going to be president."