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Biden often delivers a familiar public message after tragedies, but in private he consoles with a personalized touch

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden comforted principal Mandy Gutierrez outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, after a mass shooting in 2022.Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press

See the Globe’s complete coverage of the Maine shootings.

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s words in times of tragedy come from someone who knows the pain of loss and the burden of trying to console others facing it, as he’ll do again in Lewiston, Maine, on Friday.

“It’s like a black hole in your chest you feel like you’re being sucked into. Suffocating, hardly able to breathe,” he said in Monterey Park, Calif., in March after a gunman killed 11 people there several weeks earlier. “But I promise you . . . the day will come when the memory of your loved one brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”


Those words have echoed in speeches he’s given after other mass shootings during his presidency, in Buffalo, Atlanta, and Uvalde, Texas, drawing on the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident more than five decades ago, and his son Beau in 2015.

But in private, when he met individually with each of the families of the Monterey Park victims, Biden delivered a message tailored to what each of them needed, just like the hugs he offered if they wanted one, said Representative Judy Chu, who accompanied him during those visits in the community’s library.

President Joe Biden greeted Brandon Tsay, left, who disarmed the Monterey Park mass shooter, as he arrived in Los Angeles on March 14.HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

“He took as long as he had to, to make sure that he heard what they had to say, that he expressed his own empathy for the grief they were going through and that he could hear what the folks that were killed meant to these family members,” said Chu, a California Democrat who represents Monterey Park. “He talked about his personal experience . . . and said, ‘You can get through this, but we will never forget the loved ones that you lost.’ ”


Biden will be in familiar emotional territory when he travels to Lewiston with first lady Jill Biden after the mass shooting last week, which killed 18 people and injured more than a dozen others. The Bidens will “pay respects to the victims of this horrific attack and grieve with families and community members, as well as meet with first responders, nurses, and others on the front lines of the response,” the White House said.

“Unfortunately, this type of trip by the president has become too, too familiar, far too familiar,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “Too many times, the president and the first lady have traveled to communities completely torn apart by gun violence. As the president said last week, this is not normal. And we can’t accept it as normal.”

Biden again called for Congress to pass tougher gun safety laws after the shooting, including a ban on assault weapons, measures that are highly unlikely given Republican opposition. But Jean-Pierre said that Friday “will be a solemn day, and a time for the president to be with Americans for mourning.”

Based on his past visits to communities grappling with mass shootings, that time for mourning will last as long as the families want.

President Biden and Jill Biden visited a memorial for those killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, outside the school in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022.CHERISS MAY/NYT

“They were visiting with everyone. They were not in a hurry, and the people . . . were expressing their feelings. Some of them were crying,” said Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio, who accompanied the Bidens when they met with families of the 19 students and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in 2022. “There were embraces and kisses. It really was an expression of care.”


Each family was seated separately at tables spread out around a large hall inside an arena in Uvalde, he said. The Bidens spent three hours there after visiting a memorial at the school and attending a Mass led by García-Siller at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, according to White House pool reports.

During the service five days after the shooting, García-Siller asked all the children to come to the front of the church. It got so crowded that the Bidens moved over in the first row to let a mother and her child sit down, he said.

“It’s a simple thing but shows they care,” he said. “I really believe that their presence there was because of care. It was not because of duty.”

The White House schedule sets aside more than two hours Friday for the Bidens to meet privately with families and victims in Lewiston. That comes after the couple is slated to spend 30 minutes with first responders, nurses, and others who dealt with the shootings, followed by public remarks to them by the president.

Consoling grieving Americans has become a job of modern presidents since Ronald Reagan eulogized the astronauts killed in the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986. Barack Obama took it to a new level with his ability to stir emotions when he visited the sites of mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Charleston, S.C., said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.


President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" during services honoring the life of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

“Ostensibly, a Biden visit helps heal the family. It shows that your loved one mattered, that America hasn’t forgotten you,” he said. “He is the grieving heart of America and it means that we care.”

Biden’s own experience with tragedy makes him good at it, Brinkley said.

But his attempts to use his personal losses to make a connection with families didn’t work with one father when Biden traveled to Dover, Del., in 2021 for the transfer of the bodies of 13 service members killed in the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

“When he just kept talking about his son so much it was just — my interest was lost in that. I was more focused on my own son than what happened with him and his son,” Mark Schmitz, a Missouri man whose son, Marine Jared Schmitz, 20, was one of the soldiers who died, told the Washington Post. “I’m not trying to insult the president, but it just didn’t seem that appropriate to spend that much time on his own son.”

Schmitz said Biden kept checking his watch during the service. And when Biden approached him, Schmitz showed the president a photo of his son, he said. He told Biden not to forget him or the other victims and to take time to learn their stories..

Biden bluntly responded, “I do know their stories.”

Biden did not give a speech in Uvalde. But he did in Monterey Park in addition to Atlanta, where eight people, six of Asian descent, were killed in 2021, and Buffalo, where 10 Black people were gunned down in a racist shooting at a supermarket in 2022. In Buffalo and Monterey Park, Biden had something to say publicly about each of the victims in addition to meeting privately with the families.


President Biden delivered remarks on the racist massacre at a Tops Friendly Market supermarket during a speech in Buffalo in May 2022.Doug Mills/NYT

“My message was: They’re going to be in pain for a long while,” Biden told reporters in Buffalo about what he said to the families. “But they will get to the point where something — they’ll open a closet door or they’ll ride by a park or they’ll eat their favorite ice cream, and they’ll think of the person they lost and they’ll smile before they cry. And that’s when they know you’re going to make it. Until then, you’re not sure. But it will happen. It’ll come.”

Chu said Biden’s speech in Monterey Park about seven weeks after the shooting helped the community heal and move forward. Biden’s visit to Lewiston comes much sooner after the tragedy, Chu said, offering the same opportunity but a potentially more difficult challenge.

“It’s going to be very, very raw there,” she said. “But I do have to say that when anybody in the community is recounting the shooting in Monterey Park and what happened since then, they always talk about President Biden’s visit as a turning point.”

Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.