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Biden encourages Americans to 'find purpose' as nation mourns 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

“Let this not be a story of how far we fell, but how far we climbed back up," Biden said ahead of a moment of silence for those who died from the virus.
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President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, hold a moment of silence and candlelight ceremony in honor of those who lost their lives to coronavirus on the South Lawn of the White House on Feb. 22, 2021.SAUL LOEB / AFP via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

As the nation marked 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, Monday night President Joe Biden addressed the country and honored those lost during the pandemic.

"That's more Americans who've died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War combined. That's more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth," Biden said. "But as we acknowledge the scale of this mass death in America, we remember each person and the life they lived."

He spoke for several minutes, encouraging people to remember the lives of their loved ones who have died.

“We often hear people described as ordinary Americans. There’s no such thing, there’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary,” he said.

Biden went on to say he could empathize with the surviving families.

“I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there holding their hand, looking in their eye and they slip away,” he said, briefly losing his composure. “That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. Survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.”

Biden speaks about lives lost to COVID-19 after the United States death toll passed 500,000, in the Cross Hall of the White House on Feb. 22, 2021.SAUL LOEB / AFP via Getty Images

As he alluded to in his speech, Biden is no stranger to grief. His first wife and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car crash in 1972. Biden's sons, Hunter and Beau, were 3 and 4 at the time and were also seriously injured in the crash. Beau, a former attorney general of Delaware, died of brain cancer in 2015 at 46. He is buried in the same cemetery as Biden's first wife and daughter.

“The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. The everyday things, the small things, the tiny things that you miss the most,” he continued. “That scent when you open the closet. That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile, the perfect pitch to her laugh.

“To those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They’re never truly gone. They’ll always be part of your heart. I know this as well, this seems unbelievable but I promise you: The day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye … That’s when you know you’re gonna be OK.”

Biden added that his way through sorry and grief is to find purpose “worthy of the lives they lived and worthy of the country they love.”

“This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again. And as we do we’ll remember each person we lost, the lives they lived, the loved ones they left behind. We will get through this — I promise you.”

Biden and first lady Jill Biden hold a moment of silence on Feb. 22, 2021.Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Monday night after his speech, Biden, along with the first lady, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff held a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House in honor of those who lost their lives to the coronavirus. In front of 500 lit candles, the four quietly stood at the base of the steps and looked out over the lawn.

A White House aide told NBC News the Monday event was meant to be parallel to the event held on the eve of Biden’s inauguration last month. That event, which featured 400 lights surrounding the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial, was in honor of the then-400,000 lives lost during the pandemic.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden, and President Joe Biden watch as a COVID-19 Memorial is lit at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Jan. 19, 2021 to honor the lives of those lost to the coronavirus.JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images

"To heal, we must remember that it's hard sometimes to remember. But that's how we heal. It's important to do that as a nation. That's why we're here today," Biden said at the time. "Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection, remembering all whom we've lost."

Harris also spoke at the January event and encouraged the country to “begin healing together.”

"Though we may be physically separated, we the American people are united in spirit. And my abiding hope, my abiding prayer, is that we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom: to cherish simple moments. To imagine new possibilities. And to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another."

Elyse Pham contributed.