Families hurt by addiction know exactly the pain (and love) Joe Biden feels for his son, Hunter

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is seen in Wilmington, Del., Sept. 16, 2020, giving remarks about his plans to develop and distribute a safe coronavirus disease vaccine. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

A friend who had a baby several months before I had my first child told me that one of the best parts of becoming a parent is that it gives us a glimpse into the beginning of our own lives, the period of our infancy that we don’t remember. As we diaper and feed our newborn, as we marvel and coo at this miraculous being, we get to see how our parents once marveled over us. We new parents, instantly on the giving side of unconditional love, are granted insight into the parents who gave us life. And we suddenly get how our parents can still love us with such holy ferocity even though we have grown up and messed up and disappointed them and maybe even broken their hearts.

I remembered the power of that realization when I recently read the message that the former vice president and now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden allegedly wrote to his son Hunter while Hunter was in rehab for drug addiction. Hunter had texted an apology to his dad for being a “f***ed-up addict” and for possibly damaging his father’s political aspirations. “Good morning, my beautiful son,” Mr. Biden wrote back, “I miss you and love you. Dad.”

So much about this simple exchange of text messages flooded my heart with emotion and empathy. First, that the elder Biden signed his message, as though Hunter couldn’t see who it was from, because my daughters always find it hilarious and old-school when I sign a message or identify myself in a voicemail. “We know who you are, Mom,” they’ll say with fond exasperation.

Joe Biden made the perfect reply to a child who is sorry and shaky and demoralized and has no idea how to fix the damage caused: the recommitment to unconditional love.

Second, as the parent of a child who has battled the kind of addiction that led to some very “f***ed-up” situations, I suspect that this text was possibly Hunter’s attempt to make amends to his father because making amends is an essential part of any 12-step program of recovery. And his father made the perfect reply to a child who is sorry and shaky and demoralized and has no idea how to fix the damage caused: the recommitment to unconditional love.

A parent of an addict believes fervently in the God of Second Chances. We pray to the God of Second Chances—that our child will not be found dead, that our child will know that the door home is always open, that our child will find a way out of pain and peril to health and happiness. We pray for a helpful stranger to reach out to our child because we know any path to healing will not be through us, even though we would do anything for that child. We wait, like the father of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel. We, too, watch and hope for our child to appear on the horizon. Sometimes our son or daughter does come home, dirty and sick, out of options and having landed at the bottommost bottom of their addiction. Sometimes we get the phone call: Come pay the bail bond. Come claim the body. Sometimes we just never hear.

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So many families, not just parents, know the worry and torment of loving an addict. When I first read Joe Biden’s message, I imagined I was not alone in descending into the deep well of this all-too-common experience. I know that pain and that love. It seemed to me that the opposing candidate would use that pain and that love as weapons of ridicule at his own peril. The love of a parent for a child who looks like a failure to society cries out to all parents who continue to love and pray for their children no matter their flaws. A parent’s compassion for a suffering child is fully operational from the moment of the child’s birth, from cradle to dreaded grave and even beyond, summoned by ancient strands of DNA and the sacred urge to nurture this beautiful and beloved life.

So many families, not just parents, know the worry and torment of loving an addict.

And third, the sweet reminder of a father’s message to “my beautiful son” resonates with every parent who has paid the bail, who has provided access to rehab, who has helped clean up the past wreckage of a child who is committed to recovery. Recovery from addiction is a personal endeavor, an ongoing process, a journey rather than a destination. “One day at a time,” and all that.

You know as a parent that you cannot do the work for your child, even though you wish you could: You would gladly give your own life to save your child. You cannot coerce the commitment to clean living. You cannot force the 12 steps on anyone not willing to take the first step. You are powerless, except for prayer. But in the midst of praying to the God of Second (or Third or Fourth) Chances, you can take a moment to send the text message about loving and missing your beautiful child, the child you have loved from birth, the child who has gladdened your days, the child who has broken your heart but will always own your heart.

Rather than blame or chastise, Joe Biden, who already knows the immeasurable grief of losing a child, told his son that he was more important than a campaign, than a reputation, than an election, than anything. Joe Biden’s text made me remember all the hard times with my daughter, all the progress she has made, how grateful I am for her life and how proud I am of her. I imagine a cosmic union of hearts with all the other parents who are similarly moved. I tell you, for us, that text is the essence of God’s grace.

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