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Anderson Cooper explores his grief and loss in his podcast, 'All There Is'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Most of us are used to hearing CNN's Anderson Cooper sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANDERSON COOPER 360")

ANDERSON COOPER: We begin tonight with breaking news. Moments ago, a federal judge at least temporarily reversed...

KELLY: There you have the serious, in-control anchor of "Anderson Cooper 360." But have you heard him sound like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ALL THERE IS")

COOPER: This will be great for our cabaret act.

GLORIA VANDERBILT: Yes.

COOPER: What should we call it? Gloria and Co.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: And that way, if you fire me, you can get somebody else and not have to change the title (laughter).

KELLY: Or have you heard him sound like this?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "ALL THERE IS")

COOPER: Somewhere in these notes and these boxes that I got to go through, I hope to find something that helps me to make sense of all this, that eases the pain of their absence.

KELLY: Those last two are Anderson Cooper on his new podcast, "All There Is." It's about the grief he felt when his mother died and the grief that has defined his life since his father died when he was 10 and his brother, who died by suicide when Anderson was 21. Cooper explores that grief with guests, including Stephen Colbert, Laurie Anderson and Molly Shannon, who've weathered their own losses.

Anderson Cooper, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COOPER: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: Can we start with that giggle, which makes me laugh? You sound exactly like your mom. Did you know that before you recorded her?

COOPER: No. It's the weirdest thing. I didn't know that - I mean, I've always had this weird giggle. I never knew where it came from. And my mom didn't find out she had cancer until about 12 days before she died. And the day the doctor told her that she had cancer and that there wasn't really - nothing to be done about it, she had made a joke, and she started to giggle, and I started to giggle, and I was recording it. And it was only after she died that I listened to it that I realized we had the exact same giggle.

KELLY: (Laughter) Which is a great giggle.

COOPER: Yeah. It was so crazy that I hadn't known that previously.

KELLY: Yeah. The thing you said about this that resonated so with me was that feeling of when you lost her, you lost, you know, the last of your original nuclear family, the family of four who knew, like all the stories, all the memories.

COOPER: Yeah.

KELLY: And now you're the last one standing. Stories like what? I mean, would you share one?

COOPER: You know, just the millions of things that happen in your childhood; those small, minor, you know, nothing things, like the sounds my brother made when he would come in and put the keys down on the table next to the front door and take off his shoes; and, you know, the way he would, like, swipe his hair while talking sometimes; you know, and moments of me curling up on my dad's lap and hearing the sound of his heartbeat; and all these things. Yeah, to realize - I had anticipated my mom's death, obviously. I knew I'd be ready for it. I wasn't ready for that feeling of loneliness.

KELLY: I - you know, the other death that, listening to the podcast, it's clear you still can't talk about without choking up was your brother by suicide when you were both very young. And as I listened to you talk about it, I kept wanting to answer back to you and say, I'm so sorry. I'm just so sorry. And as that went through my head, I thought, you know, it's so necessary to say that to someone, and it also feels so utterly inadequate to the...

COOPER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Loss you still feel. Have you, as you made the podcast, as you've investigated your grief and others', figured out, is there a right thing to say? Like, are there right words?

COOPER: Yeah. You know, I've thought about that, gosh, a lot. You know, one thing I would - I do think it's nice to ask somebody - people often say, like, my mom died. Or, you know, if you meet somebody on a date, say, and you're getting to know them, they'll say, oh, my brother died or my mom died. And people rarely ever ask you what the name of your loved one was. And I think there's something nice about not just saying, I'm sorry for your loss, but, what was their name? Because I think there's great power - excuse me - I think there's great power in saying somebody's name and keeping the name alive.

KELLY: May I ask you that? Would you name your family for me?

COOPER: Yeah. My brother's name was Carter - Carter Vanderbilt Cooper. My dad's name was Wyatt Emory Cooper. And my son is named Wyatt after my dad.

KELLY: And your mom, Gloria.

COOPER: Yeah, my mom, Gloria. And I also, in the podcast, included my - I had a nanny who was as much a mother to me as anybody has been, and her name was May McLinden.

KELLY: I've never spoken to you before today, but I've watched you on screen a lot, and you strike me as a very private person carrying something heavy and doing a very public job. Is that fair?

COOPER: Yeah, that's totally true. And yeah, it's an odd thing. I am in a - I have a public job, and my parents were well known, especially my mom. I knew a lot of famous people growing up. And so I was a witness to people who had public jobs. And I saw the benefits of it, and I saw the price of it. And I became very reserved and very private as a little kid and remained that to this day even though I have projected myself into the public sphere in the job that I do.

KELLY: You put the same question to every one of your guests on the podcast, and it was this - any advice for someone out there who has lost someone or is losing someone? So I'll put it to you - any advice?

COOPER: I think the thing I've struggled with the most is a feeling of loneliness and isolation and grief. And look; I didn't deal with a lot of this stuff for a long time. My dad died when I was 10 years old, and I retreated into myself. I became a much more reserved person. And something I learned through, frankly, talking with the people I talk with in the podcast and from the listeners who have written to me are a number of things. One, the knowledge that I am not alone in this; that all of us have gone through loss or will go through loss; and to know that this is a road that generations of people have traveled; and that this is part of what being a human being is. And you can't have joy without sadness. You can't have life without death. And that helps. You know, Stephen Colbert, I think, who I think was one of the most powerful - I think he's an extraordinary...

KELLY: Extraordinarily thoughtful conversation he had with you.

COOPER: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah.

COOPER: He's able to speak about this in ways that really blew my mind. And one of the things he has talked about, he references a Tolkien quote. Tolkien wrote to somebody saying, you know, what if God's punishments are not gifts? It talks about learning to love the thing you most wish had never happened; coming to love even the things which are terrible which happened to you - the death of my brother, the death of my mother, the death of my father and my nanny - learning to be grateful for their lives and also grateful for what their deaths have taught me and what their deaths have opened up in me and enabled me to do. They've enabled me to feel the feelings that I'm feeling and feel love and feel a connection to people I don't know and have a bond with them and understand some of what they are experiencing. And there's tremendous beauty in that.

KELLY: Anderson Cooper of CNN - his new podcast is great, and it is called "All There Is." Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits - 9, 8, 8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.