Hey, it’s Anderson Cooper. If you listened to Episode 1 of the podcast last week, I want to say thank you and thanks for coming back to Episode 2. I’ve gotten so many comments from you and direct messages on Instagram, which is pretty much the only social media place I am anymore, and it’s been really beautiful to read them. They’re personal, they’re intimate. They’re deeply felt – except for the ones about buying cryptocurrency, which I haven’t, because frankly, I don’t really understand what it is. But so many of you have been willing to share with me the names of your loved ones who have died and how you faced and are still facing their loss and that sadness. As isolating and lonely as grief can be, as sadness can be, it’s also something that links all of us together. And I’m really grateful for that. And I’m grateful for you for listening. If this is your first time listening to the podcast. I’m going through my mom’s apartments, packing them up, going through all her things, but in going through her things, I’m also coming across things that belonged to my brother, who died when I was 21. He was 23 by suicide and things that belong to my dad who died when I was ten years old. I keep opening up closets and boxes and finding new things, and I’m still struggling to figure out what to do with them all.
Turn on the lights. Yea, that’s up there. On the top shelf of one closet. I just found this. So there’s this big red box, and in it are all these belts. This must have been my dad’s, yeah, like 40 years ago. And they’re all, like, very groovy 70s belts. I mean, one of them has, like, aqua stones on them? There’s no way I would wear these. So there’s a lot of history here. I don’t know what to do with these belts, though. I remember as a kid, when you go in the bathroom with your dad and he’s shaving and you watch dad and the smell of the shaving cream, that’s what the belts bring back to me. Like my dad getting dressed to go out with my mom somewhere.
About two months after my mom died in June 2019, I was back at work and I sat down with Stephen Colbert for an interview on CNN. I’d read that Stephen’s father and two of his teenage brothers were killed in a plane crash when Stephen was ten. It’s the same age I was when my dad died. I was feeling lonely and sad after my mom’s death, and I decided to see if Stephen might be willing to talk with me about some of his experiences with grief.
You told an interviewer that you have learned to, in your words, love the thing that I most wish had not happened. You went on to say, What punishments of God are not gifts? Do you really believe that?
Yes. It’s a gift to exist. And with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that. But if you are grateful for your life. Then you have to be grateful for all of it. And so, at a young age. I suffered something so that by the time I was in serious relationships in my life with friends or with my wife or with my children, is that I have some understanding that everybody is suffering and however imperfectly, acknowledge their suffering and connect with them and to love them in a deep way that makes you grateful for the fact that you have suffered so that you can know that about other people. I want to be the most human I can be, and that involves acknowledging and ultimately being grateful for the things that I wish didn’t happen because they gave me a gift.
Stephen’s words blew my mind, and I’ve been thinking about them ever since. Can we really learn to love the things we most wish had never happened? Can I love the death of my brother and father? My mother? Can I love the sadness of it? Can I see those things, those deaths as. As gifts? I mean, it’s asking a lot, isn’t it? But the truth is, I’ve been working on that since that conversation three years ago. And I want to ask Stephen more about it when he joins me in just a moment. Welcome to All There is with me, Anderson Cooper.
Whenever I put on a earphones, I suddenly feel like I start talking like NPR.
Sure. Welcome. Good evening.
So, you know what this podcast is basically.
Okay, fine, great. We’ve lured you here under false pretenses.
Well, no, they were like, “Oh, you want to do Anderson’s podcast?” I said, “Sure, that’d be fun. Anderson’s a great guy. He’s always ‘Johnny-on-the-spot’ for me. I’d love to do it.” Couple of days ago, somebody goes like, “And it’s a podcast about grief.” I’m like, “Let’s go have some fun, let’s go do it.”
Well, I think I’m going to start this podcast with something you said to me back in 2019, in our conversation, and you said, “What of God’s punishments is not a gift?” And you said, “If you’re grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it.” How can you be grateful for the death of somebody you’ve loved, or how can you be grateful for a terrible loss that you’ve experienced?
I haven’t the slightest idea. I just know the value of it.
I lost my father and my brothers, Peter and Paul, when I was ten. And that realization did not come until, you know, I’m on the doorstep of middle age. Literally walking down the street, I was struck with this realization that I had a gratitude for the pain of that grief. It doesn’t take the pain away. It doesn’t make the grief less profound in some ways. It makes it more profound because it allows you to look at it. It allows you to examine your grief in a way that it is not, like holding up red hot amber in your hands, but rather seeing that pain as something that can warm you and light your knowledge of what other people might be going through. Which is really just another way of saying there is a value to having experienced it. Now, how does that become gratitude? That’s the part that shocked me, so I can’t tell you how to get to it. I think that would be really a little Olympian of me to tell people like you should be grateful, you know? What a great thing that happened to you. Oh, I’m so happy. That’s wonderful for you. 40 years from now, you’re going to feel a little better about it. No, I’m not. I’m not here to tell you.
Was that a member of the royal family you were doing?
But when your mom died, this was 2013, were you able to feel grateful?
Well, grateful for her life. Grateful for her life, for sure. I suppose grateful that she didn’t die in pain, but no that that feeling of gratitude is a general one for my existence that encompasses the bad things that happen to me. And the worst thing that had happened to me was this thing when I was a child. And so to discover that it encompassed even the thing that I wished hadn’t happened was a profound feeling for me, because that is such a cliff that I fell off emotionally and psychically and spiritually at that age. That if I can be grateful for my life, am I also grateful for this? Yes, I am also grateful for this.
So for for people who don’t know you’re a family of 11 kids, you were the youngest.
Jim, Ed, Maribel, Margot, Tommy J. Lulu, Paul, Peter, Stephen. And the next two up, Peter and Paul died on September 11th, 1974, along with my father in Charlotte, North Carolina, on flight 212, Eastern Airlines. I remember my brother Billy picked me up when I was ten. He was 11, 12 years older than I. So he picked me up, I think, in his powder blue Ford Pinto, which was later my car.
He sold it to me for a dollar. And as my brother Ed said, “You got ripped off.” He also had an AMC Gremlin. So he picked me up and I said, “Why are you picking me up?” And he didn’t answer. And I knew something was wrong. And then he drove me home. And I knew that dad and the boys had left that morning, but I hadn’t quite done the math. And because how are they ever. What is death? What does that mean? I walked into the room where my mother was lying on the bed and my mom said, “There’s been an accident.” That’s all she had to say. It’s all she could say. It’s all she got out. But as soon as she said it, I knew what she meant.
And things were never the same after that. You were never the same after that?
No. No. Matter of fact. Matter of fact. I’ve a pretty good memory of Bill picking me up because it’s all one contiguous event. But September 11th, 1974 for me, everything before that’s in black and white. And matter of fact, I have trouble remembering things. I mean –
Before that moment it’s it’s all. There is such a break in the cable.
Everything from each memory is just a little shard, but I can’t really piece it all together. The timeline of things. Pre-death..
It is. It’s flashes, and it kind of is in black and white in my mind. And so did everything change? My awareness of the world changed. My emotional life changed. My relationship with my mother changed. I’m assuming the relationship with my father and our brothers changed too, because now I never really got to know my father, you know. Always Olympian. Always the sort of saintly figure in a way. And my brothers are always, you know, about to go play baseball. They’re about to go play baseball all the time. They’re just looking for their gloves all the time.
It’s such a strange feeling. My brother was 23 when he died. He’s always that person I knew at 23, and it’s been 34 years since then. So that image of your brothers always playing baseball for me, sadly, the image is often the end of his life, which was a very violent and awful suicide. So I get stuck in that image. How old was your father?
I’m 58, man. That’s weird.
Isn’t that? That’s what I was, yeah.
My dad died at 50, and I’m 55 now, and me hitting 50 was a big thing.
Sure, I did all, especially like, I mean, you had children after you were older than your father ever was.
Because I waited, because I –
I’ve always assumed I would die at 50. So when I hit 51, literally, I said to my doctor, you know, I’ve been thinking I would die all this past year. And he looked at me like I was an idiot and he was like, “You, you got you got a good amount of time.” So that’s when I decided, okay, I’m actually going to have kids because he’s assured me I can live to see them through college.
Well, since my father, my brothers died when I was ten, when my kids were younger, it would hit me at unexpected moments. In moments of great happiness, like even just my daughter, like jumping off the swing at the right point and landing and being happy about and running over and saying, “Did you see Daddy?” and, you know, giving me a hug. That moment of absolutely inexpressible transporting joy. And she’s six, let’s say in this memory. I go, I’d go like, “Oh, isn’t this great? Four more years!”
That I would think, how lucky that I get to experience this for four more years before I die. My age wasn’t important it was how old they would be when I die. Because I had no model in my head of a relationship between someone older than ten and a father. But constantly I would do that horrible math all the time. I did it all of the kids, you know, as they would approach ten, I would do that math. And then as I approached my father’s age, ooo, I started doing that math seriously everyday I did a countdown. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing the countdown, but did that countdown. And then the day I was one day older than my father ever was. It was the first day of of a break off of the show, had a week off and so I thought, “God, what would my dad want to do? What can I do that my dad never got to do?” And I thought, well, he’d want to see us. I think if he’s anything like me, he’d want to see his children. So I just showed up. I had lunch with each of them. I just showed up. I went to one college, I went to another college. Like I flew around the country. And then went out and did something with my son, who was still at home and none of them asked me why I was there.
They I mean, why should they? I’m glad it didn’t occur to them. But then that weekend I went down to D.C., where most of my brothers and sisters still live. And I was having dinner at my brother’s house and everybody was over around the table and they said, “So what brings you to D.C.?” And I said, “Well, on Friday, I turned 53 years,” and then the people around the table were like, “274 days old?”. They had done the math, too.
In their own lives on that day.
Wow. Something I’ve I’ve been feeling a lot with my kids because they’re so perfect. There are these moments of such frailty that, like I my heart is breaking at just the beauty of this experience. And yet there’s this sense of sort of the awareness of the frailty of it. Awareness of –
The first experience that I had holding my first child, my daughter. The first thing that occurred to me was, How beautiful and how wrong that this will ever end.
Meaning, as happy as I was at that moment, I was aware that all of us.
Would be gone someday. But it was never quite so poignant to me as when I held this perfect, beautiful girl in my arms.
It’s interesting to me how people don’t really talk about grief and loss in public very much or in public life very much. And you and I had a conversation in 2019, a few weeks after my mom died. You had a conversation with Andrew Garfield on your show as well?
I know that you yourself have suffered great grief just recently with the loss of your mother. And I’m sorry for your family’s loss.
Thank you. I love talking about it, by the way. So if I cry, it’s only like, mmm. It’s only a beautiful thing. I hope this grief stays with me because it’s all the unexpressed love that I didn’t get to tell her.
It’s interesting how both those conversations received an enormous amount of attention simply because I think it’s so rarely talked about.
It is a need everyone has eventually to deal with in their lives, if they’re lucky, in a strange way, and means they’ve lived long enough to experience the loss of someone else and some they have loved or been loved by enough that it deeply affects them. And yet it’s a subject that just doesn’t get addressed, partly because of the lack of common public ceremony associated with anymore and I mean, the fact that people used to be in mourning for a year. So you would know that they were mourning and you could address their grief. And it was an invitation to have knowledge of their loss. That doesn’t exist so much as a tradition anymore. And yet it’s this thirst that everyone has and no one’s pouring any water for anybody.
Yeah, people are suffering inside and there’s not a lot of outlets for that.
I agree. I was wait – I thought there was a question there.
Sorry. There wasn’t any question.
Are we recording? Are we in the podcast? Are we podding right now?
I, no, I agree. I think that one thing that people who haven’t experienced profound grief in their life, yet, sometimes don’t know what to say. And that is totally understandable. What do you say? It’s like this person is in this completely foreign land to you. You know, it’s a real thing. It is like they are going through a physical event that you can’t you can’t perceive the forces that are on them. It’s like they’re in a wind, but you can’t see their storm, but you can just see the effect of it on them. And it can be harrowing to the people who see it. They don’t know how to address it. They think that maybe nothing that they say is worth saying.
Or saying the wrong thing that.
Right. Whereas just acknowledgment of that person’s experience so often, so often as human beings, all we want is someone to acknowledge the reality of our experience and to know that they’re were being held in someone’s thoughts. Because what do we most want to be? Not alone. And the loneliness of grief is extraordinary. And just someone acknowledging that you’re going through it is a consolation.
After the break, I’ll talk with Stephen about his mom and her death in 2013 and what he did with the thing she left behind.
I want to play something that you said about your mom when she died, you said this on The Colbert Report.
I’m sorry. The Colbert Report? Did you say The Colbert Report?
I’m sorry. Colbert Report.
Who knows how many degrees Anderson Cooper has? 270 some nights.
She had trained to be an actress when she was younger and she would teach us how to do stage falls by pretending to faint on the kitchen floor. She was fun. She knew more than her share of tragedy, losing her brother and her husband and three of her sons. But her love for her family and her faith in God somehow gave her the strength not only to go on, but to love life without bitterness. And I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish. It only magnifies the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.
That phrase, the enormity of the room, whose door has quietly shut. It’s such a beautiful phrase.
Well, you know, in the mansions of your mind, all these people whose lives you get to be part of the room of their life, you get to walk into and you invite into yours. And my mother had this enormous room. She was this enormous, comforting, beautiful, welcoming room. And the quietness, the gentleness makes that door shut quietly. You know, the door of my father, my brothers lives shut violently, but it shut quietly. And there’s no knob on the side. If you know what I mean. You can’t open it again. You can just never go in again. The loss of learning more about this person, the loss of the exchange of love, you know, in that room, like loving is a physical thing, regardless even if you’re going with that person. There is a food that’s exchanged there. And grief is like starving for that food. So that’s a bit of a meandering metaphor, but that’s what I meant.
The idea of her doing pratfalls is I love that idea. I mean, wouldn’t she just like absolutely drop or?
Well she would do like how to fall down like you had fainted or died on stage. And that is the ankle and the knee and then hip and then ribs and then shoulder and then head. She would fall down slowly, you know, like not in one piece, not like a tree. And so you could do without hurting yourself. And then the arm goes out last. The arm goes out last.
I’ve been so sad and lonely going through my mom’s things because I’m going through her things. I’ve also been going through my brother’s things and my dad’s things because she basically couldn’t deal with their things when they died. So-
I’ve been going through a lot of boxes and it’s so fraught with emotion because in many ways, I feel like I am. Excuse me. I’m sort of the last one standing and I’m the last one who remembers all these, these moments. Excuse me.
Isn’t that extraordinary? To know you’re the last one who knows that story?
Which is why it’s so important to tell the story. And really does keep them alive and make you less lonely. Someone else knows part of you because that story is part of you that’s built into the fabric of it. It’s part of the marble that is Anderson Cooper and –
It’s got a few veins in it.
It’s Carrara, but David’s got nothing on you. But telling that story is so important. I remember years ago, after my brother Billy died, a friend of mine was asking me if I’d ever gone hunting and I said, “Oh yeah. I went hunting with my dad,” for a marsh hen down in South Carolina when I was I might have been, I might have been ten. I was pretty young. I was close to it when Dad died. But so we got in our little boat and just one one of these hands just peels off from the group and lands between two stalks of grass in the marsh. And my dad goes, ‘flush it out.” And so my brother Billy pulls us a little bit closer so he can take the orr he’s gotten his hand and flush the duck out. He’d bring it down exactly where that marsh hen landed and nothing happens. And my dad goes, “Try it again.” So hits it exactly again. And then hits it again. Hits it again. My dad says, “You can stop. I think you drove it down into the mud,” because it didn’t startle. It didn’t come out. And so I’m pretty sure my brother Billy, the only bird we got that day, my brother Billy killed with an orr. And so my friend was laughing. He goes, “Is that, is that a true story?,” and I said, “Oh, there’s nobody to ask.” Dad’s gone, and now Bill’s gone. I’ve always thought that was a true story. But I, I mean, I was nine. Maybe it’s not a true story. I can’t tell you. And that’s a profound feeling to know that you’re the only one with that story.
Yeah. Were there things that you kept from your dad? From, from your brothers?
I’ll tell you something I kept for my brothers. And this is. This is one of my favorite stories, which I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody. Certainly not publicly. So my brother Peter died when I was ten and he was not quite. Was he 15? I guess he had just turned 15.
And fast forward to a few years ago. So my son Peter is, he needs a belt for something. Got a growth spurt and nothing was fitting him. And I said, “Oh, I might have a belt that’ll fit you.” And I went into my closet. I pulled out a belt. It’s this Yves Saint Laurent woven belt, which I never wear, but it’s a hanging in my closet. And Evie said, “What’s that belt?” I said, “That’s Peter’s.” Then it occurred to her what I’d said. There was a pause, she goes, “That’s your brother’s belt?” I said, “Yeah.” But I wasn’t, you know, choked up at the time. I said, “Yeah.” And then she said, “You’ve been carrying that belt around for 40 years?”. And it didn’t even occur to me that I had done that. It didn’t occur to me that you would do anything else either, that I never wore the belt. How many places have I lived since I was ten? I mean, I used to move every two years when I was a young actor. And every place I went, I found a place to hang up that belt. Never looked at it. Never touched it. Until I moved to the next place. Until my son named Peter needs a belt. And I gave it to him.
Sort of the perfect new life for that belt.
I think he gave it back to me. I’m sure if he like the belt. But, but that moment. That moment. And she recognized it. I didn’t even realize I had done it. I didn’t realize that the belt was him. If you know what I mean.
And that gave me a very interesting perspective on how I had, in some ways, quite physically and overtly carried him around, but subconsciously never recognized it or never acknowledged it. I’d literally move that belt from peg to peg for 40 years without thinking about it. When my mom died, she had a very interesting will. Anything physical that she had, she had itemized and manifests made.
Of everything. And everything had a number. And it was distributed like this. Upon my death, or however she put it on my death, her children without their spouses were to come together under her roof one last time. There was a bowl that had numbers one through eight in it. Little tags. There’s a one through eight. And every round you would reach in to see what number you were that round. And then you got to go pick the thing of hers.
And she did it because A. she wanted us all to be together. And she wanted us to tell stories about those things.
Because we sat there and first of all, we all had different ideas of what the first round pick was going to be. We all picked something different and we all thought somebody else would pick our first round pick. We’re all sitting there going, Oh, don’t let them pick that, don’t pick that. And we all got our first round picks. As far as I know, I think I think we all got our first round picks and maybe even our second round picks because we all had different things that we associated with our our mother. And then we all told stories like, why was that? Why that thing for you? As you said, your mother kept things of your father’s and things of your brother. And there was in some ways not to analyze your mother posthumously, but there was sort of unaddressed.
Grief there, possibly. And then you are left with not only your mother’s death, but then it reopens your own feelings about your father and your brother that manifests through those those objects as well. We had that with my mother because the strike against our family, the blow, I mean, of my father and my brother’s death was too great for any of us to really process that much. And I think I said this in our last conversation in 2019, that after mom died, my sister Mary said something about that was profound and real, which is that she sort of took them with her. That there was a renewed grief over their loss because we hadn’t been able to defer it somehow. Because the fullness, the totality of that grief somehow resided in our wanting to sustain her. Even all those years later. And the ultimate companion in that grief is the woman who lost her husband and her children, and she’s gone. And then we are left with our relationships with each other and our relationship to that grief. But in some ways, she removed some lynchpin of commonality of that experience.
What was your first choice?
Oh, my mother’s crucifix. I was sure somebody was going to grab that.
I know. I would think. Did it hang in her room?
Hang in. It hung in her room. Hung In her bedroom, yeah. It’s a simple wooden cross and a very simple corpus, almost Franciscan. Like, it’s really simple. And the second choice was a painting that she had done right after my father and my brothers died. And because she was a painter and this, that expression of her grief and rage and confusion is in that painting. And now it hangs, hangs in my home. I don’t have anything on my brother Paul’s, but I have a few things of my dad’s. I have his old Hamilton watch.
With a curved top from the, it was his dad’s.
My mom, unbeknownst to me, left me notes hidden away. So I would open up a drawer and it’s a drawer, sweaters. And I’d be going through the sweaters. And then there’d be a note from her.
Well, in the sweater drawer there was a some sort of a package wrapped in tissue paper. And I opened it up and it’s like a ratty pair of pajamas. And the note said, Andy, these were your father’s pajamas.
And and when did she prepare these notes?
Unclear to me. I mean, my mom was talking about her death for a long time, like I’d been in Iraq and she sent me an email, the yellow Fortuny in the closet. That’s what I want to be buried in. And that would be all that was in the email. She was like, Id be like, “Mom, is there something I should know now?” and she was like, “No, no, this just so you know where it is.I put it away.”.
Is that what she was buried in?
No. Well, her housekeeper, Leonora, informed me after she died that my mom had actually changed her mind and she wanted this other, more simple thing. So that’s what. That’s what she got. But. But I came across a box. I opened it up in tissue paper, and I opened up and there was a a blouse and a skirt. And I know from my mom saying, Andy, this is the the blouse and skirt I wore when when Carter died. So when my brother killed himself in front of her, this is what she was wearing. And that was something which talk about you bringing the belt with you wherever you went. I had no idea. She had sure kept that.
You know, I want to say something about living with grief. It occurred to me as as we’re telling these stories to each other, I feel like there’s physically a thing in the room with us right now, or at least with me to my right. I don’t know why to my right, but there’s a physically a thing over here and it’s kind of a dangerous thing. It’s like living with a beloved tiger. And it’s that feeling. It’s that grief. There are times when it is when I say grateful for it. I don’t want to say that it’s no longer a tiger. It is. And it can really hurt you. It can surprise you. It can pounce on you in moments that you don’t expect. Or at least that’s my experience. I don’t, I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s my tiger. And I wouldn’t want to get rid of the tiger. I have such a relationship with it now and. I just want to be clear that it’s painful. And it’s going to live as long as I do.
But that there’s some symbiotic relationship between me and this particular pain that I’ve made peace with. So I don’t regret the existence of it. That again, does not mean I wish it had ever become my tiger.
Well, that Tolkien quote, which is, what you had said to me, “What of God’s punishments are not gifts?”
I’ve thought about that endlessly. And I mean, it relates to the tiger. I think I, I think I can accept it now, like. I am the person I am because of these things that I have gone through and the people I’ve known and loved. And I’ve been lucky to have that experience with them and, and you talked about being the most human you can be. And in order to be fully human, you have to, you have to go through this suffering. You have to, suffering is a is a part of of existence.
And acceptance of that suffering is not defeat.
We think we can win against grief. We think we can fix it. But you can’t. You can only experience it. And to fully experience that, you have to accept that it’s real. The loss is real. I don’t know about you, but I’m very good at rewriting reality to fit what I’d like it to be on any given moment. And in my entire life, I’ve had to work very hard to not do that. So I can actually see what’s actually happening and I think there’s a fear of grief. That grief itself is a form of death. That grief itself is a form of defeat. And we want to stay on top and we want to win. We don’t want bad things to happen, whereas grief is not a bad thing. Grief is a reaction to a bad thing. Grief itself is a natural process that has to be experienced. I’ve hasn’t used the word endured because endured sounds like resistance. And you can’t win against grief because you’re the one doing it to you. You can’t beat you. You know all of your buttons, you know all of your secrets, and you’ll never get around this grief.
The one thing that I have found tremendously helpful is being able to talk about it and hear other people’s experiences with it.
I completely agree. But but that’s that’s accepting it. Talking about it is, is another way of making your loss real, I would say. Years ago, there was a guy named Robert Bly, and he was a, he was a poet. And he became famous for the men’s.
Drum circle men’s movement.
Kind of a New England shaman quality to him.
A lot of elderly men in drum circles.
Exactly. That that I would say that is not his greatest contribution to our culture.
He was a writer, who wrote a wonderful book called Iron John, which I actually think it has a lot of resonance to it.
You were in a drum circle.
I was never a drum circle, but one of the things he talked about was grief. He said to Bill Moyers how our loss of ritual in the modern world, we’re not equipped to deal with things that happened to all humans like grief, because we’ve lost sort of the ritual of public mourning in many ways. He uses this example in this interview he did with Bill Moyers, which is worth taking a look at.
Grief is the door to feeling .
I have grief. What do I do about it?
I don’t know that you have to do something with it, but I think it’s a choice at any second, you know, in a conversation, there are little terms you can turn up or down. Someone says, “I lost my brother five years ago.” At that point, you can say, “Well, we all lose our brothers,” or you can touch your hand, or you can go into the part of you that lost a brother. You can follow the grief downward in this way, or you can go upward in the American way.
He said THAT moment is opening the door and going down with that person into their grief. To be able to share that moment with them is the gift that you can give somebody else. And that we think grief is going to shut us down and we’ll be sad forever. But in fact, addressing your grief and sharing your grief and telling that story and and you telling me about your brother and me telling you about my brothers, actually opens us up to other feelings and other possibilities. And we, we often in the modern world think that excitement is the path toward feelings, you know, happy music or happy stories, and that’ll lead us to joy. When in fact, grief, the thing we most don’t want to experience, I would say, we often shut that door with anger, which is not actually an emotion. It’s actually an attempt to not feel an emotion. Anger is an armor against how we actually feel. But if you can share your stories and if you can address your grief through that storytelling as you’re saying and hearing from other people, then, then, then it turns the cave into a tunnel and there’s some way to get on the other side. It adds oxygen to your life. It doesn’t, it doesn’t cut you off. It opens you up. And I think people are afraid to talk about grief because they think it’s a it’s a it’s a trap of depression or something like that. When, in fact, grief is a doorway to another you.
Because you’re going to be a different person on the other side of it.
Yeah. And I’m a prime example of somebody who, you know, when my brother died, my mom went to compassionate friends and to talk with other people in groups with strangers. And the idea of doing that was impossible for me. I saw a therapist who was immensely helpful, but the idea of talking with other people, I couldn’t do it. But that stuff doesn’t go away. It’s a lot of stuff I’ve been holding on to for a long time. I realized when I had kids I did not want to pass on to them my sadness. I want them to know about, you know, their grandparents and my brother. But I don’t want it to be infused with this kind of secret, hidden sadness that they feel strange about.
It will only be strange if it’s secret and hidden, I would say.
What’s the thing about dad that he won’t share with us? Then it’s secret and strange. But if you’re, you know, if you share it publicly, then it’s a gift. And then you’re explaining to them this part of the human experience and that it is possible to deal with in healthy ways and to come out on the other side. I don’t think you’re doing anything other than helping your child by sharing how you feel.
After the break, more of my conversation with Stephen Colbert.
You know what’s interesting to me?
I’ve come to realize recently that I cry a lot, but I don’t, I don’t, I don’t cry over grief. Like, I’m not crying over the death of my father and my brothers and my mother or my other brother, or even the condition of the world or you know, or every sparrow that falls. I end up crying over beautiful things. Because they’re beautiful, despite the grief of the world. And my experience with grief in my life has made me long for beauty, in ways that I’m not even aware of. Like I was in vacation, I was in Saint Remy de Provence, and there’s a sanatorium there where Van Gogh ended his life. I believe he killed himself while he was there, and I didn’t know he painted Starry Night there, but I came around the corner and there is this beautiful portrait because they have copies of everything he did when he was there. The beautiful, you know, skyscape nightscape of Starry Night. And I see Starry Night on the wall and I just burst into tears because it’s so beautiful and is so vibrant and so alive and so cool and soothing, even though it’s so energetic. And I think of him in the depths of his depression, creating that and the juxtaposition between how he must have felt and the beautiful thing he put into the world, was so poignant to me. The tension between those two things is so great that I realized, Oh, that’s why I cry in the middle of stories that make no sense — is that I’m about to tell you something that I think is beautiful. And because it will sometimes baffle my, you know, Evie and the kids like, why is he crying now? I’m like, because the world can be so sad and you can be so shattered and so sad. But. It can also be so beautiful. And the juxtaposition between the grief of the world and the beauty of the world is ecstatically agonizing.
For somebody who is listening to this, who has had a loss, who is listening to this for a reason, do you have any advice?
I don’t know. It’s a little cavalier for me to say my experience is going to be your experience, but I would say try not to be alone. Talk to somebody if you can. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. And also, don’t be afraid to talk to somebody who has lost because the person who has experienced the loss is often bewildered about what they do with how they feel. And so it’s like, catch a fainting person in a way, like this person is has been struck, like physically struck. I remember the images I had of my mother when I came into the room to find out that my father, my brother had died. I walked into the room where my mother was lying on the bed, but it looked like she’d been thrown there. Like she had been standing next to the bed and a giant had struck her. And these people who have lost are struck and don’t think you have the answer or have a way to fix it. But don’t be afraid that this moment of loss will last forever. Your memories and your love for that person will last forever. And the pain will change like wine into something else. And that grief can become a form of wisdom about your human experience that you can share with other people. But for now, accept help when it’s offered, if you can. Be patient with yourself. And if you have the opportunity, talk to someone about it.
I found something a few years ago. As I was going through old boxes, I found a cassette tape and I put it in. I put it in the the the tape deck. And I was listening to it and I was like, “oh, this is me. I remember this Christmas I was nine.” So it’s the last Christmas when Dad and the boys were alive. I got a, you know, one of those kachunk tape decks in like pushed the record and play button at the same time. The kind had a little handle on it, weighed about, you know, 40 pounds, and you, you, you held it next to you as you walked around. I recorded everything. I secretly recorded my brothers and sisters. And I would record television shows that I liked so I could play it back secretly when I was going to bed and listen to the TV like it was a radio. And and I had an episode of M.A.S.H on there, and suddenly there’s a conversation going on between two people, and I don’t recognize either voice. And ,and I think I identify myself as like, “I’m Stephen.” And my brother Peter says: “And I’m Peter.” And I hadn’t heard his voice because back then home movies were silent. But I had recorded him, a conversation between me and him ,making up, we were making up some game, we were making up some almost like a little skit. And then. And then he and I started singing a song together. And I went, “that’s Peter.” I didn’t recognize his voice at all.
And seeing your life or your grief through the eyes of someone who loves you is extraordinary. The same way that Evie teared up when she saw that belt and realized who it was in the same way she came in at that moment and said, “Who’s that?”. And I was just fascinated by it. I hadn’t, I hadn’t had an emotional reaction. I’m just fascinated. I said, “that’s Peter.” And she burst into tears. She never met him. She saw my grief. She saw through my heart, not even my eyes in that moment. And I guess that’s one of the values of sharing your grief with those that you love, of not keeping it inside all the time, is that they can experience it with you and sometimes in those moments for you to be a spirit guide and an emotional compass for you. Because the profundity of me hearing my brother’s voice did not strike me until I saw it through her eyes.
Mm hmm. My dad died January 5th, 1978. And he, he knew he was going to die. And he was in the hospital for about a month. And we were only allowed to visit once because they didn’t allow kids in the intensive care.
A heart disease. And he was died during surgery and. And he had asked my mom to get, um, excuse me, tape recorders. Those tape recorders that you just talked about because he wanted to record, he wanted to record his voice for my brother and I. By the time my mom got the tape recorders, he couldn’t speak anymore. So anyway, I didn’t have any recordings of his voice. And about six years ago, I got an e-mail from a guy named Charles Ruas, who had a radio show on public radio in 1976. My dad had written a book and done a radio interview with him about the book, and some organization had restored this interview and sent me the link. It was in my office and I clicked on the link and it was the first time I heard my dad’s voice since I was ten years old and I didn’t recognize it at all. And not only was he being interviewed, he was being interviewed about my brother and I, and he was talking about my brother and I and what he hoped for.
Yeah, it was. I’m going to play some of that in a later episode.
Did you get what he hoped for you? Because that’s a long time between him saying it and you finding out what they hope was.
Yeah, I mean, it was more about being the kind of people he hoped we became. He cared a lot about being a decent human being and a moral person. And, yeah, it made me feel good because it just confirmed to me that, it just confirmed to me that he would be proud of me. And so, yeah. But it was funny, I sent that thing to my mom and she was like, “who’s that?” And then I sent it to a friend of my dad’s and he goes, “Oh, yeah, that was your dad’s mid-Atlantic accent.”
Yeah. He had been, he was from Mississippi and he’d been an actor in the fifties. And so he had sort of been able to change his Southern accent.
And it was like this weird sort of mid-Atlantic accent that he would put on for like radio interviews, I think, to make himself seem. I think he felt like he was this kid from Mississippi. And so he should, like, adopt, you know, a New York kind of fancy speech.
Yeah. But anyway, thank you so much. I really. It’s been incredibly moving
Happy to Anderson. Please promise me you don’t cry with anyone else. Only just me.
Believe me. I’m a WASP. I push down all my emotions. That’s why they bubble up in very uncomfortable ways.
You’d make a great Catholic, by the way. Doors always open. Thanks, Anderson.
When I got back to my office after that interview, I actually had to change my shirt because it was wet from tears. I got kind of embarrassed. I picked up one of my favorite books that was in my office. It’s called “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and it’s by a concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl. It’s one of my favorite books and I highly recommend it. I opened the book to where I’d last, left it off, and a few sentences in, I came across these words: “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that.” Stephen helped give me the courage to suffer three years ago when my mom died. And he gave me courage today. And I hope he did that for you as well.
Next week on All There Is, I’ll take you back to my mom’s apartment where I’m cleaning up, and I find a desk calendar near her bed. It’s frozen on the day that my brother killed himself 34 years ago: July 22nd, 1988. She woke up and looked at that calendar every day. She relived that day, every day since he died. And I guess in some ways I have as well. I’ll take a look at the ripple effects of suicide and the people left behind. And I’m going to talk to a really wonderful physician. His name is BJ Miller. His sister, Lisa, died by suicide. BJ is a palliative care specialist, and he’s helped hundreds of caregivers and people as they face terminal illness and death.
Pain’s part of life. Just no two ways about it. Loss is part of life. There’s no two ways about it. In fact, I’ve met people who have not had much pain in their lives, who haven’t suffered much, and they seem to be the more miserable people that I’ve ever met.
Thanks for listening and take care.
All there is with Anderson Cooper is a production of CNN audio. Our producers are Rachel Cohn, Audrey Horwitz and Charis Satchell. Felicia Patinkin is the supervising producer and Megan Marcus is executive producer. Mixing and sound design by Francisco Monroy. Our technical director is Dan Dzula. Artwork designed by Nicole Pesaru and James Andrest. With support from Charlie Moore, Jessica Ciancimino, Chip Grabow, Steve Kiehl, Anissa Gray, Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Lindsay Abrams, Alex McCall and Lisa Namerow.
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