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Politics

9/11 Anniversary Will Be The Latest Instance When Biden Has Given A Voice To Grief

NOEL KING, HOST:

This weekend, President Biden will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Some people laud the president for his ability to communicate both national and personal grief. But are there limits to his empathy and to how it is received? Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: A month into his presidency, Joe Biden marked an awful milestone - 500,000 deaths in the U.S. from COVID. He said he could relate to what the families were going through.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That black hole in your chest - you feel like you're being sucked into it. The survivor's remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.

KEITH: It's a line Biden uses often, sometimes connecting it to his own experiences with grief. His son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. His wife and daughter died in a car accident decades earlier. But after 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terrorist bombing in Kabul, it's a sentiment that hit some people the wrong way. In his remarks that day, the president referenced Beau, who had served in Iraq as a member of the National Guard.

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BIDEN: We have some sense, like many of you do, what the families of these brave heroes are feeling today. You get this feeling like you're being sucked into a black hole.

KEITH: At Dover Air Force Base, Biden met with the families of the fallen. Mark Schmitz showed Biden the last photo he had of his son, a Marine Corps lance corporal.

MARK SCHMITZ: I just flat out said to him, that's Jared. That's Jared Schmitz. Don't ever forget that name, and don't forget the name of the 12 others. And you need to spend some time learning their stories, who they were. And then that's when he kind of - I've described it as barking back because I don't know how else to really describe it. But he says, I know their stories.

KEITH: Schmitz, who told his story to NPR's Rachel Martin, wondered why the president was arguing with him.

SCHMITZ: And then, of course, he mentions his son again.

KEITH: But he gives the president some credit for showing up. When Biden approached Alena Knauss that day, she couldn't stand. She was shaking too much.

ALENA KNAUSS: So he actually bent down to me.

KEITH: Her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Knauss, was the last U.S. service member to die in Afghanistan, and his flag-draped case was the first to be brought off the C-17 at Dover. Knauss told WUNC reporter Jay Price about talking with Biden.

KNAUSS: He had shared a lot of information that I found comforting about his personal life and his losses and just telling me that there's no right way to do it. Just - not that he's sorry, because I'm tired of hearing sorry.

KEITH: Consoler in chief is a role required of every American president, but few have embraced it quite as fully as Biden. And Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, says she can't think of a president who has approached the role by sharing so much of their own story so frequently.

BARBARA PERRY: We want presidents to grieve with us because we view them as the fathers of our country and the leader of our American family. But we also want to make sure that that leader is not oversharing or being tearful or collapsing with us.

KEITH: Grief specialist David Kessler says there's no perfect way to offer comfort, and it's normal for people in grief to be angry. Kessler, who lost his own son, spoke with Biden after Beau's death.

DAVID KESSLER: And there's no clear rules on do bring up your own child, don't bring up your own child. I would say most bereaved parents absolutely bring up their own child right away as a way of connecting and showing empathy.

KEITH: Biden, who was elected in part because of his intense empathy, is unlikely to change. Wearing his grief on his sleeve is who he is. But offering condolences gets all that much more difficult when you're commander in chief.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "WRINGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.