In Jill Biden's autobiography Where The Light Enters, Jill describes meeting Joe Biden's then-wife Neilia in the winter of 1972. "She had an easy, natural beauty," wrote Jill, adding that Neilia, then 30, had a "warm, genuine smile." Jill went on to describe learning one month later that Neilia and the couple's daughter, Naomi, had passed away suddenly in a car crash. "It was profoundly unfair," Jill wrote. "To take a mother from her children; to take a daughter from her father. Joe Biden had had everything, and in a horrible second, it was gone."
Years later, Biden spoke about the tragedy in a 2015 Yale commencement speech. He described how, in 1972, he had just been elected a senator to Delaware and was waiting to take office. "While I was in Washington hiring staff, I got a phone call," he said. "My wife and three children were Christmas shopping. A tractor-trailer broadsided them and killed my wife and killed my daughter."
Neilia was 30 years old, and Naomi, known as "Amy," had just turned one. (Biden's granddaughter Naomi, now 25, is named in her honor.) Their two sons, Hunter and Beau, who were four and three years old, respectively, were in critical condition, leaving Joe forced to hold his Senate swearing-in at his sons' hospital bedside.
In his Yale commencement speech, Joe explained: "Many people have gone through things like that. But because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help," he said. "By focusing on my sons, I found my redemption."
During his speech, Biden spoke movingly about the closeness he felt with his sons after the accident, noting: "The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through."
The years that followed the tragic passing of Neilia and Naomi were understandably difficult for Biden, as he tried to try to balance the responsibilities of raising his sons on his own with the new pressures that came with being a member of the United States Senate. However, his coincidental meet-cute with Jill Jacobs in 1975 led to love, bringing him the strength that he so desperately needed after his massive personal loss. "She gave me back my life,” Biden said of Jill in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep. “She made me start to think my family might be whole again.”
Jill, knowing how deeply young Hunter and Beau were affected by the tragic passing of their mother and sister, turned down Biden's first five marriage proposals. "Because by that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work," she told Vogue in 2016. "Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn’t have them lose another mother. So I had to be 100 percent sure.” When she was finally sure, the couple tied the knot in 1977, and in 1981, they welcomed their daughter Ashley into the world.
Years later, Beau, who followed in the public-service footsteps of his beloved father by becoming attorney general of Delaware, passed away from brain cancer in 2015, and Joe Biden once again wrestled to find the good that could come of tragedy. He became passionate about cancer research, heading up the Cancer Moonshot program of the Obama administration. This past month, he told supporters, "I promise you, if I'm elected president, you're going to see the single most important thing that changes America—we're gonna cure cancer."
Biden has also become a fierce advocate for mental health in the years since, making it a priority as vice president. “Imagine what it would mean if people felt as comfortable saying they were going for counseling as they were going for a flu shot?" he marveled in 2013.
The former vice president has been more open about his experiences with grief this time around on the campaign trail, frequently mentioning Beau and speaking intimately with bereaved voters. In January, Politico's Michael Kruse described empathy as Biden's "superpower," writing: "There is no person in American politics today whose life has been so shaped by loss and grief. The long arc of Biden’s career is all but bracketed by tragedy."