Anderson Cooper has never been a big crier.
In fact, he has been a model of cool when covering world conflicts and natural disasters as a CNN anchor and “60 Minutes” correspondent. In person, he can come across as removed, dispassionate, unflappable.
But undertaking a podcast about grief and loss opened up something in him, providing access to a deep and formative pain that also enabled him to connect with the anguish of others.
“What has struck me is the degree to which I had not dealt with this stuff at all,” said Cooper, 55, at a recent interview in his West Village townhouse. “I mean, the fact that my voice wavers even now …”
That “stuff” includes losing his father, Wyatt Cooper, to illness when he was 10; losing his older brother, Carter Cooper, to suicide when he was 21; and losing his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, when he was 52.
He hadn’t planned on making a podcast. But while recently sorting through the boxes of his mother’s belongings, Cooper found himself unsure of what to do with all the strong feelings. So he started documenting them. Knowing that his father had died at 50, Cooper liked the idea of leaving behind a record for his two young boys — Wyatt, 2, and Sebastian, 9 months.
“When I get overwhelmed — when things are extremely dangerous around me or chaotic — I narrate myself through them from a slight distance,” Cooper said.
But this time, he added, “rather than narrate in my head, I just started recording it on my phone. It helped me approach the thing like a correspondent, like I was writing a story about doing this.”
While sorting through the boxes of his mother’s belongings, Cooper found himself unsure of what to do with all the strong feelings. So he started documenting them.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times
The result is the personal and poignant podcast, “All There Is With Anderson Cooper,” in which he explores his own grief and loss as well as that of guests, including the talk show host Stephen Colbert, the poet Elizabeth Alexander and the comedic actress Molly Shannon.
The podcast reached No. 1 on the Apple Podcasts charts in the United States on its first two days of release in September. The eight episodes, produced by CNN, have so far been downloaded more than 4 million times.
Speaking to others about their struggles helped Cooper make better sense of his own. He had put off dealing with his mother’s Manhattan apartment on Beekman Place. But when he finally started going through it, the experience was both cathartic and lonely.
“I was spending hours by myself, reading every Christmas card from the 1970s that my mom received, because I just felt this obligation to have eyes on every piece of paper,” he said, mentioning notes to his mother from the photographers Gordon Parks and Richard Avedon, the writer Dominick Dunne, and the cartoon artist Al Hirschfeld.
Although there are several other podcasts about grief (“Grief Talk”; “The Grief Coach”), Cooper hadn’t listened to them — or many podcasts of any kind, for that matter; he simply wanted to use the format as a way to reach others.
“I just felt like, ‘Why am I so alone in this? This is something we all go through,’” he said. “And this idea gave me great strength, that I’m on a road that has been traveled by everybody, in one form or another. Why every time somebody is going down this road should it feel like the first time?”
Initially, producers from CNN came to his mother’s apartment to interview Cooper for the podcast. But he quickly realized that he did not want to be interviewed; the presence of other people in his mother’s home — and their questions — felt invasive. So he asked his colleagues to just leave the equipment and he taped himself.
“I didn’t want it to sound perfect,” Cooper said. “I just wanted it to be me, in my mom’s apartment, going through this stuff and not have it be somebody else’s idea of what I was thinking or asking me about what I’m thinking. I just wanted to talk.”
When it came to choosing guests, Cooper knew that he wanted to speak to Colbert about the talk show comedian’s philosophy on approaching grief with gratitude.
“To be the most human means you experience loss and death and suffering — that is part of what it is to be human,” Cooper said, summarizing Colbert’s perspective. “So if you’re grateful for being human, you have to be grateful for that.”
The performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson, who talked in a segment about losing her husband, the singer Lou Reed, in 2013, said she was impressed by the podcast’s depth and sweep. “Having someone who is a war reporter talk about grief in such a personal way,” she said. “These are epic reports.”
For his final episode, Cooper featured some of the 1,000 messages he received from listeners. Kerri D’Alessandro, 52, a third-grade teacher from Glenville, N.Y., called in with the story of finding her father floating in the ocean when she was 18, holding him there till help came.
“When you have a day like that — a terrible day — it’s a lonely thing,” D’Alessandro said in a telephone interview. “To hear people talking about the long term effects of their grief — Molly Shannon saying she could never put down roots because the world felt so unstable (she couldn’t hang a picture) or Stephen Colbert saying he thought he wouldn’t be able to live past the age when his father died — it just brought home to me what we all carry around.”
“He created a community that I’ve been looking for for 34 years that just didn’t exist,” she added of Cooper. “It’s been healing.”
Working on the audio series has helped Cooper conceptualize his own losses in new ways. He was intrigued by an idea discussed on the podcast, for example, by B.J. Miller, a hospice and palliative care doctor at the University of California: that you can get to know people after they’re gone, as Cooper has hoped to better understand his brother, who leaped from a balcony within view of his mother.
“I was always in this defensive crouch after my dad died,” Cooper said. “It made it very difficult for me to get to know Carter or expose myself to him.”
The podcast has also made it easier for Cooper to give in to tears, as he does at several points during the series and did during this interview.
“At the end of the first episode, I cried and I seriously thought, ‘I should delete this immediately.’ I mean, who wants to hear some middle-aged guy cry? It’s not exactly fantastic listening,” he said. “But then I thought, how many people have I interviewed and asked them incredibly personal questions at incredibly difficult moments of their lives? I believe in asking people those questions. I believe in bearing witness to the suffering of others. Why should I be exempt from this?”
Given the strong response to the podcast, Cooper is considering another season, though he does not know what form that might take.
In the meantime, he continues to find himself moved by the messages from listeners. “I could sort of feel them out there,” he said. “And to suddenly realize that I don’t necessarily have to go to a place that has collapsed in order to connect with people in the most secret, important places — that’s been interesting to me.”
“I’m not good with the cocktail party chatter,” he added. “I’d much rather have these conversations.”