Just after the bombings in Afghanistan killed American soldiers as well as Afghan citizens, President Biden addressed the families of the dead by saying, “You get this feeling like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There’s no way out. My heart aches for you.”

 I heard one news commentator say that Joe Biden is known for his empathy, which is true. But I wonder if the value of that has been given the attention it deserves. Leading people through grief is an art, a gift, and not everyone has it. I don’t believe it’s something that can be faked or manipulated. When we are wounded to the depths of our souls, when we feel lost in that black hole, we’re raw enough to know instantly if someone is lying to us.

 President Biden’s decisions and actions in Afghanistan will be debated for years, and ultimately judged by history. But buried in the quagmire of whether the withdrawal was handled properly, whether a terrorist attack could have been thwarted, whether we weren’t prepared enough, is the small but meaningful fact that the President of the United States stood knee-deep in the waters of grief and said to the families and loved ones who had lost one of their own, ‘Here’s my hand. I’ll help lead you across.’

We don’t like to talk about grief. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. And it frightens us because we don’t know if we’ll ever be whole again. A country in grief is a daunting thing to handle, and not everyone who leads a country knows what to do with that. 

In 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in front of us, my father said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

Peggy Noonan wrote those words, but if they hadn’t been spoken from the heart, from someone who knew how to reach out to the grieving, they would not have resonated.

George W. Bush went to Ground Zero on September 14, three days after the towers fell and thousands of people died horrible deaths. Through a megaphone he said, “America is on bended knee.” Bush was not a likely person to address our collective grief. We hadn’t seen that ability in him before. But that day, he grabbed on to our pain, our fear, and our anger. He understood how to lead from the heart.

In 2015, President Obama sang Amazing Grace at a service following the Charleston church shooting. His voice trembled a bit, as if weighed down by the grief of yet another mass shooting. As if weighed down by the sorrow of a nation that had seen too many massacres and too many funerals. His instincts were right – that song traveled into people’s hearts and wrapped itself around their grief.

In all of the analysis, the dissection, and the political posturing around President Biden’s decisions in Afghanistan, maybe we could take just a moment to be grateful that, after four years of a president who had no empathy, no capacity to comfort anyone, we have as a leader a man who understands broken hearts, who knows what it’s like when tears fall endlessly, and who is willing to talk to us about our grief, who is willing to linger there until some of the darkness lifts and we remember what light looks like. 


  1. Sharon Barnett says:

    You are so right Compassion and understanding of grief is of the is essence during these trying times

  2. BG says:

    Empathy and compassion are actually components of emotional intelligence and they’re sorely needed in our leaders. Your exemplars are all excellent at conveying those components. Thank you for reminding us that we do need to walk a mile in another man’s moccasins whenever possible.

  3. Edward Jenny says:

    Once again on the money in your ever compassionate work, thank you Gracie for telling me where to look

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