Talking About Grief with Anderson Cooper

When the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper was ten, he lost his father, Wyatt, to heart disease; when he was twenty-one, his older brother Carter died by suicide. In 2019, his mother, the artist and clothing designer Gloria Vanderbilt, passed away at ninety-five, of stomach cancer. (Vanderbilt had watched, desperate and helpless, as Carter leapt from the terrace of the family’s fourteenth-floor apartment in Manhattan.) For Cooper, who is now fifty-five, loss has become an unexpected beacon in his life—a way of constantly reaffirming his humanity. “My mom and I would talk about this a lot,” Cooper said recently. “No matter what you’re going through, there are millions of people who have gone through far worse. It helps me to know this is a road that has been well travelled.”

In September, Cooper started “All There Is,” a seven-episode podcast about his passage through grief. It is a tender and elegantly honest exploration of how death can crack open the lives of the people left behind. Full disclosure: I am also grieving. This past August, my husband of seventeen years passed away; we have a beautiful one-year-old daughter, Nico. So far, I have found the experience of grief bewildering. Sometimes I feel like a zombie that’s been stabbed in the heart with a sharp stick, but rather than collapsing, or dying, I just keep on lurching about, moaning haphazardly, stumbling toward the horizon. I found my way to Cooper’s podcast when I was feeling hungry for fellowship and support. It really helped.

On a recent weekday morning, I met with Cooper at his home, a restored 1906 firehouse in Greenwich Village, which he shares with his former partner and current co-parent, the night-club owner Benjamin Maisani. Their sons—Wyatt, two and a half, and Sebastian, eight months—were playing upstairs. Cooper showed me around the place, which was stylishly appointed with period-appropriate antiques and art work, including several paintings by his mother. He dug some lukewarm bottles of water out of a small refrigerator. “I wanted an ordinary kitchen, because I don’t care at all about food,” he joked. The basement contained dozens of boxes of papers and other ephemera excavated from his mother’s apartment and art studio. He has been reluctant to hand the project over to a professional archivist, in part because the work of sorting felt too idiosyncratic and too intimate. “My mom saved everything. These are letters that have significance,” he said, digging through an overstuffed cardboard box. “These are letters and doodles from Richard Avedon. This is Dominick Dunne’s Christmas card from the late sixties. These are Truman Capote letters. These are from Gordon Parks,” he said, holding up fistfuls of paper. “And then some of them are just purely love notes between my mom and Sidney Lumet. Or letters between my dad and my mom.” He sighed.

Cooper and I settled in his library to talk. I told him that in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, I felt repelled by the literature of grief, with its platitudes and gauzy reassurances. He nodded. “I, too, have avoided any sort of grief literature, which is probably more about my own limitations—I’m sure there are really brave people doing incredible things,” he said. “My thought going into this was not to become a part of that. I’m clearly not a professional in this realm; I didn’t really even plan on doing a podcast.” Instead, Cooper had been thinking about one of his favorite books, Viktor E. Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” from 1946, which describes Frankl’s gruesome imprisonment at Auschwitz and the techniques and philosophies that he honed to survive. “He would narrate what he was going through to himself while he was going through it, almost looking at it clinically, or from a slight distance. Not to compare my little feelings to his experience at Auschwitz, but as I started going through my mom’s stuff I found it overwhelming, and I started recording myself because I needed someone to talk to,” Cooper said. The process was immediately healing. “Then I thought, Oh, well, maybe I should share this.” Within two days of the show’s launch, it was No. 1 on Apple’s podcast chart in the United States. The final episode of the season will air on Wednesday. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” Cooper said. “I didn’t know that anyone would listen, frankly.”

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

In the second episode of “All There Is,” Stephen Colbert introduces the idea of cultivating gratitude for loss. You’re skeptical of whether that is truly possible. But outside of gratitude, which I agree is a tall order, I’m curious if you found that grieving made you feel extra-human. Parenthood and grief—which I happened to experience in very quick succession—both opened something up in me. It reminded me of a line from Walt Whitman’s correspondence, taken from the ancient Greek play “Heauton Timorumenos,” or “The Self-Tormentor”: “I am human; I consider nothing human alien to me.” Has the experience of profound grief expanded your humanity in a way that you find useful?

Yes, totally. Yes. If you are open to that, grief has that potential. Stephen talked about wanting to be the most human you can be. If you want to be the most human you can be, then this is part of that. Grief enables you to love more fully, to experience things more fully.

Three years ago, Stephen and I did an interview on CNN, just a few weeks after my mom died. The ideas that he brought up to me then were truly stunning, and they remain stunning. One was a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” The other was, “Learn to love the thing you most wish had never happened.” Those are such next-level ideas. Am I grateful for this? That’s a really hard thing to wrestle with. But it’s also an interesting frame to have on the shelf as a possibility one day. I’ve thought about those words endlessly over the last three years. He opened my mind. There’s this accumulated wisdom in people who have gone through this, and for there not to be a daily WhatsApp chat group where people are sharing the accumulated knowledge . . . just think about all the attention that’s paid to birth, and all the silence surrounding death.

I like that Whitman quote. One of the things I repeat to myself is, “This is what humans do. This is what happens to humans. This is what happens to humans; this is what humans do.” Part of it is, I’m sort of socially awkward, so I also have to tell myself, Oh, humans say good morning to each other. If you’re in the elevator, humans say hello.” But on a larger level this is simply what humans go through, and I am not the first human to go through this. My mom used to say to me, “Why not me? Why should I be exempt from this?”

There’s a strange power in grief, too. For a moment, I felt almost invincible.

Oh, totally.

For me, the feeling quickly faded. But during those first few days it was, You can’t hurt me; I’m too hurt already. I am the most hurt already.

I went to places where I would test my invincibility all the time. I tested it for years. I revelled in it. I don’t have that feeling anymore, but I had it for a long time. We all have this illusion of what death looks like—the world stops spinning, and people die in slow motion. Then you see the reality of it, and you see how easy it is to die. The more you see how easy it is to die, and what death actually looks like, the less invincible you start to feel. There’s always something else that can be taken from you.

Was there any part of you that thought, consciously or unconsciously, Perhaps if I expose myself to enough death and suffering, I will become numb to it?

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