Bereaved again: How Joe Biden's faith will be tested again, and how the Bible can help

Beau Biden with his father Joe at the Democratic Nation Convention in Denver in 2008.Reuters

The son of the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, has died aged 46 of brain cancer two years after he was diagnosed.

In itself, that's sad enough: Beau Biden was a rising politician who served two terms as Delaware's attorney-general and was planning to run for state governor in 2016, a military veteran with a wife, Hallie, and two children.

However, there are added levels of poignancy. In 1972, when he was only three years old, Beau and his brother Hunter survived an appalling car crash that killed their mother and sister. Joe Biden had just been elected to the US Senate and took the oath of office in the hospital chapel.

Years later, in 2012, he spoke to bereaved military families at the Arlington cemetery. It was a mesmerising display of honesty about grief, in which Biden reflected on what had happened in an address full of insight, humanity and hope. Among other things, he spoke of the magnitude of loss that could remove all incentives for living: "For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again."

He spoke of the weight of constantly returning grief: "Just when you think, 'Maybe I'm going to make it,' you're riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, 'Maybe I'm not going to make it, man.' Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news."

A believing Catholic, Biden spoke of his anger with God and how he would say: "God, you can't be good, how can you be good?"

Having faced appalling tragedy once, now Biden has to do it all over again. In a statement he said: "The entire Biden family is saddened beyond words."

The simple human response to this tragedy is deep sympathy. We wonder, though, how anyone comes back from this and finds joy in their lives again. Joe Biden has spoken of this, too, and of the sense of guilt that overcame him when he began to be attracted to women again after his bereavement.

Biden's insight into grief is more than most of us can match. However, there is biblical wisdom to share, which might help us to understand and help us to pray.

First, God knows what the bereaved suffer. "Jesus wept" is the shortest verse in the Bible, in John 11:35, and the context is the death of Lazarus – whom Jesus was about to raise. Why, then, the tears? Because Lazarus had died, and the human Jesus was conscious of the weight of human experience and the ultimate, appalling cost of love. No, of course this doesn't help, at the time, but it is a profound statement that God is not alien to our human existence: he shared it, and shares it. Biden spoke of his frustration when well-meaning people said they knew what he was going through. In some way theologically mysterious but profoundly true, God knows.

That phrase "I know what you're going through" is one that should rarely if ever be used. Other people's experience is not the same as ours. When Job was afflicted by the loss of his children and his possessions, his three friends came and sat with him in silence for seven days and seven nights (Job 2:13): "No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was." They were at their wisest when they remained silent: the problems started when they opened their mouths. We will not always have the right words to say. Sometimes the right thing to do is to say nothing, but to show in other ways, as best we can, that we care. CS Lewis in his reflections after the death of his wife Joy, A Grief Observed, wrote: "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand." 

Consolation does come, but it comes imperceptibly, over time, not all at once. Biden received a phone call out of the blue from someone who advised him to keep a diary, scoring each day as a 'one', as bad as the day he first heard the news, or a 10. "The down days will be just as bad, but they'll get further and further apart," he was told. "That's when you know you're going to make it."

God brings joy into the lives of bereaved people again, but he doesn't make it as though the loss had never happened. The image of Jesus appearing to his disciples in the upper room after his resurrection is a powerful one because of what it says about healing. He appears with his wounds, showing his disciples his hands and side. He invites Thomas to put his hands into his side. In Revelation 5, John speaks of seeing "a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain" – sacrificed, in other words. Once someone has been crucified, they may be raised, but they cannot be un-crucified. They carry the scars into whatever future they have. 

But God helps those who suffer to do more than endure. Biden's comments about understanding the temptation to suicide because of the sense that life will never be as glad, full and rich as it was – "they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again" – ring absolutely true. But though life will be differently full and differently joyful, it can still be joyful. After a devastating famine caused by an insect plague, God promises through the prophet Joel: "I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten" (2:5, KJV). The image is of a landscape in which every green thing has been devoured by an implacable enemy, leaving no resource or hope for the future behind it – just how we think of the years of sorrow following our own tragedies. But God says, "I will restore it." 

Towards the end of his speech, he said: "There will come a day – I promise you, and your parents as well – when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen." He doesn't promise that there'll be no tears, and that's wise, but he's right to say that there will be smiles. 

He and his family are not the only people to face multiple tragedies in their lives, but their story will move many to pray for them, that God will bring them peace.  

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.