Grieving With Anderson Cooper

CNN host’s podcast on grief is surprisingly authoritative and insightful–and it definitely helped me

Why is grief so hard to talk about? We have language for various addictions, the dissimilitudes of mental health, and major physical changes such as pregnancy. But we exclude grief, that enormous iceberg of emotion and suffering, from our day-to-day language. Interestingly, mega commentator Anderson Cooper takes on this weighty subject in his eight part podcast, All There Is (available wherever you get your podcasts).

The premise is simple: a well known media personality (Cooper) undertakes cleaning out his mother’s New York apartment a year after she dies. The mother in question, however, is luminous 20th century icon Gloria Vanderbilt. Like my reactions to a lot of star vehicles, I met the series with some skepticism. Who is Anderson Cooper, of CNN, of Hurricane Katrina and Mogadishu, to tell me how to grieve? I rejected his authority on the outset. He quickly disarmed me.

What did me in was the sound of him weeping in the first episode when he finds himself simply overwhelmed by the task of going through piles of ephemera in his mother’s apartment. Decades of artifacts, receipts, letters, garments, many of which had pre-death notes written to Anderson, for him to find, when he did the cleanout. This audio verite rocked me: Here is a pod that examines the truth of the inevitability of deep grief and gets it right out into the open air, with wonderful, thoughtful, liberating discussions along the way.

As far as I’m concerned I could have stopped right there. I’m so glad I didn’t. Over the next seven episodes, Anderson unpacks all kinds of grief: family of origin, suicide, partner grief. Grief experienced by super duper bold faced names like Steven Colbert and Laurie Anderson. Everyone honing, shaping, sharing their own “griefs” to assist Anderson process his.

And here’s what I learned: As sure as death and taxes, grief will hit us all. Nobody is immune. Grief is a part of life, not a detour from it. From comedian Molly Shannon (ep. 4), I learned how grief can become a driver of achievement (pot, meet kettle), but all that running and hustling will not bring the person or people back. Rather, how does all that running prevent us from committing to life on earth?

Laurie Anderson taught me that we can still be in a relationship with our dead. Through AI, she is still collaborating with long time partner Lou Reed. She speaks of the talismanic power of objects: What you can and cannot hold onto– literally, physically, spiritually, personally. How the grief of a new death, say, the death of a dog, can be release for your primary grief, and open you up to greater vulnerability and connection.

I myself was raised in a household where the outward expression of grief was a form of defeat rather than a reaction to a bad experience. My older sister died from a brain tumor in 1982. She was 18, I was 12. My sister is not lost. She is dead. I did not lose her. I lost the incredible envelope of sisterly love she wrapped me in. Rather than falling down the dark chasm of grief, I consider myself, in the indelible words of writer Cheryl Strayed, “joy on wheels.” This is a choice. I am here, committed to this life on earth, so that I can experience the incredible catharsis of parenting, so that I can live and model an optimistic life. So that I can experience and share joy. All There Is makes me feel comfortable with my choice.

I see additional signs that, like menopause, discussing grief in the public arena is on the rise. In the most recent Black Panther movie, Wakanda Forever, T’challa’s sister Shuri’s grief and anger is central to the movie’s narrative. Watching a sister and a community grieve openly and shamelessly in a $250M Hollywood blockbuster was its own kind of cleanse (see also season one of the dramedy The Bear). Shuri’s ultimate lesson, to echo the guests on All There Is, is that there is meaning, motivation and propulsion in the hard times.

So thank you, Anderson Cooper, for providing a gateway to processing sorrow. It will be magical if you take on more variations of grief: mass population grief, like that of war veterans, victims of genocide, survivors of atrocities, multi generational grief, grief movement therapies and more. Way to go, Anderson. I’m listening.

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Shira Levine

Shira Levine is a digital customer engagement and online community expert living and working in Melbourne, Australia.

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