(CBS News) Speaking to military families who endured the anguish of losing a loved one, Vice President Joe Biden today recalled the car accident that took the lives of his wife and one-year-old daughter in 1972.
In a tone both measured and thoughtful, Biden described receiving the unthinkable news: "And just like you guys know by the tone of a phone call, you just knew didn't you?," he told the audience. "You knew when they walked up the path, you knew when the call came, you knew. You just felt it in your bones. Something bad happened. And I knew. I don't know how I knew. But the call said my wife is dead, my daughter was dead, and wasn't sure how my sons were going to make it."
Biden's first wife, Neilia, and his daughter Naomi were Christmas shopping with sons Beau and Hunter on December 18, when a tractor trailer fatally broadsided their station wagon. The critically injured boys went on to make full recoveries.
The vice president drew knowing laughter as he described the daily trials of grief. "I knew people meant well, they'd come up to me and say 'Joe, I know how you feel. I knew they meant well, I knew they were genuine, but you knew they didn't have any damn idea, right? Isn't that true?"
He spoke of a "black hole" survivors feel in their chest before acknowledging that for the first time in his life, he "understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they'd been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they'd never get there again, that there was never going to get, never going to be, that way ever again."
Biden, who has shared memories of his loss before, had a message for the mothers and fathers in the audience. "No parent should be pre-deceased by their son or daughter. I unfortunately had that experience too," he said, before describing his anger. "I don't know about you guys, but I was angry. Man, I was angry. You guys probably handled it better than I did."
A practicing Catholic both then and now, he pointed to a crisis of faith: "I remember being in the [U.S. Capitol] rotunda, walking through to get to the plane to get home, to get to identify," he said, before choosing not to complete the sentence. "And I remember looking up and saying 'God,' as if I was talking to God myself, 'you can't be good, how can you be good?'"
The vice president made special mention of his second wife, Jill, whom he married in 1977. "This woman literally saved my life 5 years later."