WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden is facing the daunting decision of how and when to re-enter public life after burying his 46-year-old son, Beau Biden, whose death has put a somber pause on the vice president's usually frenetic schedule.
As Biden mourns with his family in Delaware, Obama administration officials describe the vice president's office as essentially in a holding pattern, with aides working to give Biden complete flexibility to grieve as he sees fit. Although Biden is being kept up to date and has participated in some official activities, aides used phrases like "uncharted path" and "touch and go" to describe the situation, in which the vice president is determining one day at a time how best to proceed.
Only a handful of times in U.S. history has a president or vice president lost a child while in office. Yet for Biden, the hardship is not completely unfamiliar.
After spending most of the last 11 days in Delaware, Biden returned to the White House on Wednesday for lunch with President Barack Obama and a meeting with the Ukrainian prime minister. Yet Biden planned to head straight back to Wilmington in the evening, evoking memories of his nightly train trips home after he lost his wife and baby daughter decades ago at the dawn of his political career.
"This will continue to be a difficult time for the Biden family, and for all of those of us who care deeply for the vice president and his family," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, adding that it would surprise no one that Biden was deeply dedicated to his job. "We obviously are pleased that he was able to return today and be focused again on the many difficult policy challenges that he has assumed in his role."
The vice president's office declined to comment for this report. But officials familiar with Biden's plans said he has not conveyed to staff when he plans to return to a normal schedule. They described a communal sense of mourning at the White House, where staffers are close to the vice president and many knew his son personally. They said that other top officials have eagerly stepped up to attend meetings or perform ceremonial functions normally left to Biden in an attempt to free the vice president to be with his family.
Still, many previously scheduled commitments are being kept on Biden's schedule even amid uncertainty about whether he'll ultimately attend.
A Friday meeting with visiting Iraqi Parliamentary Speaker Salim al-Jabouri is still on the books. Biden may also travel Saturday to Mobile, Alabama, for the christening ceremony of the USS Gabrielle Giffords, in which Biden's wife, Jill, has an honorary role.
After that, it's unclear how many of his public duties Biden will choose to resume in the short term, said the officials, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss Biden's plans by name.
Dr. Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist and grief expert at Columbia University, said grief is often a lifelong process for those who lose a child. She said the grief process progresses best when individuals alternate between confronting the pain head-on and seeking respite through distractions, such as work.
"We naturally do that, and it's very important that we do it. How we do it is a totally other thing. That's where it becomes very personal," Shear said.
Other politicians confronting similar tragedies have adopted differing approaches to that personal decision.
When President Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son, Willie, died while Lincoln was in office, he waited before fully resuming his official duties, although he couldn't avoid them completely, said Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who wrote several books about Lincoln. President John F. Kennedy, whose newborn son Patrick died while he was president, seemed intent on keeping busy, returning to the White House almost immediately to confer with Senate leaders about a critical vote on a test ban treaty.
Aides who have worked with Biden say he's spoken of a lesson he learned in 1972 after the car accident that took his wife and daughter: You've got to keep going. Some said it was possible or even likely that Biden will apply that truism once again, throwing himself with vigor into his duties.
Looming in the background is another decision that Biden must make: whether to run for president in 2016. Prior to his son's death, Biden had said he would make a decision by the end of summer, although most Democratic operatives have long since assumed he's not running.
Draft Biden 2016, a super PAC formed earlier this year to recruit Biden, has put most of its activities on hold out of respect for the vice president. But the group's founder, William Pierce, said not to count Biden out.
"He's a man who has already overcome a lot of adversity. Now his oldest son has been taken away as well," Pierce said. "In my head, I can see him running again, because this is a man who sees a challenge in front of him but overcomes it."
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP