On April 4, 1996, the lives of Elizabeth and former senator John Edwards changed forever when their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a tragic car accident.
"I looked out the front window. I saw two trooper cars pull up. And I knew immediately that must mean that Wade was in a wreck. I opened the door and went out onto the front porch and I said, 'Tell me he's alive'. All I cared about was that we had a chance to save him," Elizabeth says. "They said he was dead."
Wade and a friend were on their way to the beach to meet Elizabeth and the rest of the family when, without warning, a gust of wind overturned Wade's car, killing him instantly.
"I just collapsed [when they told me]. And, of course, was screaming. Our first thoughts were, how are we going to fix this?" says Elizabeth.
In her new book, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, Elizabeth describes how the days, months and years that followed Wade's tragic death left an unbearable emptiness on the Edwards family.
"My life was just completely decimated, in a sense," says Elizabeth. "It's like you're hollowed out. Everything that we were doing or thinking about, it was all wiped away."
One way the family tried to come to terms with their loss was to write letters to Wade and place them in his casket at the funeral. "I sat down to write mine and, our relationship was so complex and complete with this boy that there was almost no way to write it. So, I just wrote the words 'you know' and put them in."
Elizabeth says that after Wade's death she prayed for God to take her. "That was the one thing that I didn't want was for me to [have] to bury him. It was okay for him to bury me, but not the other way around."
Elizabeth says that even though she'll never understand the "why" of Wade's death she has made peace with God. "My daily prayer is that I have enough faith that I will one day be reunited with him."
For the first few years after Wade's death, Elizabeth says she would visit his grave every day and read to him. She read the Bible and Sages and Dreamers by Elie Weisel, a gift from Wade's godfather. She then made her way through the entire 12th grade reading list from Wade's school.
"It's sort of the same way we spent time together before he died and that gave me great comfort," says Elizabeth.
Another "enormous" comfort for the family was Wade's personal journal, which Elizabeth found after his death. In it he wrote, "I really want to do something great with my life. I want to start a family when I grow up. I'm going to be as good a parent to my kids as my parents are to me. But more than anything, when I die, I want to be able to say that I had a great life. So far, I've had a wonderful life. And I hope it keeps up."
After the tragic loss of a child many marriages struggle, some leading to divorce. John Edwards says through their grief, his relationship with Elizabeth got stronger. "She's the most extraordinary person I've ever known. I call her my conscience," John says. "She knows intuitively the difference between right and wrong. She seems to have an understanding of what to say and what's real and what's not. She is an extraordinary woman."
For both Elizabeth and John, grieving Wade was something they did on their own terms. "I think the most important thing is to deal with it in your own way, and not have people tell you what you're supposed to do. There is no 'supposed to do,'" says John.
As time passed, the Edwards knew they would have to make a decision to continue moving forward with their lives. "The choice is go crawl into a corner and wither away, or to go try to do something with your life—that doesn't mean it's easy."
John and Elizabeth's daughter Cate was just 14 years old when her brother died. For the first two years after his death, Cate couldn't bring herself to sleep upstairs by herself. Instead, she slept in her parent's room.
"It was a sort of strange thing to be doing, going into your freshman year in high school, I suppose, but it was comforting. I didn't want to sleep alone," Cate says.
Cate says one of the things she craved the most after Wade's death was a sense of normalcy. "Part of me just wanted things to be the way they had always been. And there was no way we could make that happen, but I thought in little things maybe we could. So, we tried to have dinner as a family and tried to do the sorts of outings that we did before."
One of Elizabeth's greatest fears was that Wade would be forgotten. "You're just afraid that they're going to be erased somehow. So you want to do something to make certain that they're not erased."
To honor their son's memory, Elizabeth and John Edwards opened the "Wade Edwards Learning Lab," or WELL (right), in their hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. The WELL is a place where students can have free access to computers and tutors.
Elizabeth says that it bothered Wade that students with typewritten reports would always get higher grades than students who had to turn in hand-written papers. "He felt really badly that he was going to have an advantage over them. And [that] the message it was sending to these children is you can't be the best in the class because you don't have what it takes," says Elizabeth.
Another memorial, called "A Place In Time," was created by Wade's friends so his memory could live on at their high school. The structure has a bench shaped like a comet that is more than 100 feet long, and a wall of handprints. "These are the hands of young people that he went to school with, that he played soccer with. It's all the people of his life," says Elizabeth. "These are the people who made his life rich. And this is a place that's alive."
A few months after Wade's death, Elizabeth and John decided to expand their family. Before making it official, Elizabeth and John felt it was important to talk to Cate since it would affect her life as well. "I said if it makes you happy, do it," says Cate.
Elizabeth gave birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and to Jack when she was 50.
"We didn't want to replace Wade," John says. "We would never have wanted to replace him. He was a part of our family and always would be. But children brought joy to our lives, and we did everything together, our family did, and we wanted that joy again."
Just when life seemed back on track for the Edwards family, Elizabeth made a terrifying discovery. On the campaign trail in Kenosha, Wisconsin—two weeks before the 2004 presidential election—Elizabeth found a lump in her breast.
Convinced it was a cyst, Elizabeth decided not to tell John and remained on the campaign trail. Upon returning to Raleigh, she went for a mammogram.
Elizabeth says she knew that she was in trouble as soon as she saw the technician's face. "Her face was a portrait of gloom," says Elizabeth. "Now a walking testament to get[ing] your mammograms," Elizabeth admits it had been at least 4 years since her last test. "It's much worse than it might have been if we'd had caught it earlier."
For Elizabeth, finding out she had breast cancer wasn't "overwhelmingly devastating" because, unlike Wade who was killed instantly, she says she had a chance to fight.
"One thing we learned with Wade and with trying to get pregnant and all the other things is there's no reason to give up hope until you absolutely have to. And so we didn't," Elizabeth says. "There's no reason to start dying early, you know? Just keep living every day, fighting every day, and win or lose, that's a much better way to have spent your time."
After four months of grueling chemotherapy, surgery and months of radiation, Elizabeth's cancer went into remissiong. But in March 2007, she and her husband announced that the cancer has returned and spread to her bones and her battle continues.
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