My mother died on Sept. 29. I don’t know how to grieve.
I cried when she took her last breath. I cried a couple of days later when I eulogized Arlene Malkin from the pulpit of a Long Island funeral home in front of about 75 friends and family members.
The crying actually began about six months before, when my mother was put in hospice care. She wasn’t admitted to a facility but taken care of at home. In her own bed. There was nothing more to be done. There would be no more doctor visits or trips to emergency rooms. The poking, prodding and testing were to stop.
I traveled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles several times during her final months. As my mother’s health deteriorated, I told her on many occasions that it was OK to go if she wanted to. She no longer had to hold on.
I was at home, sleeping, when my phone rang on Sept. 25 at 5:30 in the morning.
“Hello,” I said.
It was my mother’s twin sister, Barbara. She was crying. “I think you need to get to New York,” she said. “She’s transitioning.”
A couple of hours later, I was at LAX, waiting to board my flight, when I came across “All There Is,” Anderson Cooper’s new podcast about grief and loss. I downloaded the first two episodes, one featuring an interview with Stephen Colbert, who was 10 years old when his father and two brothers died in a plane crash. By way of introduction, Cooper narrates what he finds and how he feels as he unpacks storage boxes of his late mother Gloria Vanderbilt, who died in 2019. He also discovers items that belonged to his late father, Wyatt Cooper, and late brother, Carter.
In other words, Cooper is trying to learn how to grieve. Like me, like most people, he isn’t sure how to navigate such enormous loss. “I’ve been doing it a long time, but I’m not sure I know how, as odd as that may sound,” the CNN anchor tells me. “I don’t think I’ve done a very good job over my life of dealing with it or just figuring it out.”
On the flight to New York, I listened to Cooper cry and laugh and search for answers in his talk with Colbert. He’d do the same in later episodes with guests such as Laurie Anderson, who opened up about her late husband, musician Lou Reed.
Cooper has helped me realize that I am not only mourning my mom but also my brother, Kevin, who died in 2021 of a massive heart attack. Mom and I had to say goodbye to him via a video call as he lay in a coma in a Pennsylvania hospital at the height of COVID. I am also once again grieving my father because with my mother’s passing, I now become the last one standing of my immediate family.
As I write this, I cry remembering the final word my mom ever said to me. Sitting alone in her room, I leaned over the bed so I could look her in the eyes. “Mom, you don’t have to hold on anymore,” I said. “You can go now. Go be with Kevin. I promise I’ll be OK. I love you.”
Her eyes blinked. We stared at each other for what seemed like forever. Her lips parted slightly before she simply said, “Love.”
My mom died about an hour later.
As I headed back to Los Angeles and wondered what life would be like without my mother, I knew I had to talk to Cooper about “All There Is.”
When my brother died, I realized I was now an only child. When my mother died, I became an orphan.
I totally understand that. I don’t know about you, but for me, I’ve viewed a lot of my life through the eyes of the 10-year-old kid that I was when my dad died. During my talk with Laurie Anderson, she pointed out that that child is now dead. That with the dying of my mom and the last person in my immediate family, that little kid’s memory is no longer in anyone’s head other than my own. And in that sense, that little child has ceased to exist. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the hell that means, but I feel like it means something major, that I’m suddenly an adult.
When we were clearing out my mom’s apartment, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to hold on to. We found thousands of coupons she collected from the packs of Raleigh cigarettes she smoked in the ’80s. The coupons were redeemed for cash or merchandise. I was thinking of using them for some sort of papier-mâché collage art project.
I found hundreds of bills from the 1950s and ’60s of my mom just spending ridiculous sums of money. As a little child I would stay up at night worrying about this furnace burning money that was my mom. This was a major part of my childhood and shaped my life, this concern over stability. I told Laurie Anderson, “I was thinking about wallpapering a room with these old bills.” [Laughs] But I am a big believer in just erring on the side of keeping stuff. I have talked to a lot of people who were the opposite, who did throw stuff out, and they’ve told me now that they regret that.
You’re so open and vulnerable during your interviews on the podcast.
I don’t know why I was willing to do this now, and it’s not something I had ever thought to do before. It wasn’t like I needed another thing to put on my plate in terms of work; produce and write a podcast. I had anticipated my mom’s death and I had been ready for it, as best as anyone can be. And she and I had a great relationship, and there was nothing left unsaid between us. But the thing that surprised me was this loneliness, but talking about it and recording it on my iPhone helped me. And then I thought, “This is so strange because this is something that we will all go through. Everybody is going to have to, at some point, go through the belongings of a loved one.” I would never call up Stephen Colbert, even though he and I had had a brief discussion three years ago about this. I would never call him up and just say, “Hey, let’s talk. I want to just talk to you privately about grief.” I’m too shy to do that. I would be too embarrassed to do that. But to be able to say, “I’m doing this for this podcast,” it allowed me license to reach out to people I wouldn’t ordinarily ask of to do something with.
As much as I have friends and family who have been by my side through all of this, I sometimes feel so alone.
I think that loneliness, particularly of no longer having immediate family, that’s a long loneliness. That’s the loneliness of the long-distance runner. It obviously ebbs and flows, and it certainly has for me.
What do you think your mom would think of the podcast?
She would love it. I think my mom wanted me to be able to talk to her about my dad and my feelings. My mom responded best to emotion and to feelings. I was very rational, and I viewed myself as her consigliere, and it was my job to give her rational, thought-out advice. But when I related with her on a more emotional level, that is when we had our best conversations.
I have been looking for signs from Mom that tell me she’s still with me. Do you believe you’ve gotten signs from your mother?
I love the idea that she might be somewhere with my father and brother. [Cooper pauses as he chokes back tears.] I certainly hope that’s true. I would love that. But I don’t know. I think there’s certainly plenty of things that are inexplicable in the world.
One of the first things when my son Wyatt was a few months old and started to be more present and sit up upright, and even before he was crawling but would really start to engage more, he became obsessed with this painting that my mom had done of my mother and father that was in the main room where we would sit and play. Every day he would want to go up and touch her face. One of his first words was “painting,” and it was because of that. Could I read a sign into that? I’m skeptical by nature, but I’m open to acknowledging there’s many mysteries that I do not understand.
Is there a guest you’re still hoping to book for the podcast?
I don’t know because I think I’m going to pause doing more for a little while because I want to collect myself. I want it to keep having resonance in people’s lives, and I don’t want it to just be something that I have to do because there’s another week coming. I need a break because I’ve been getting thousands of direct messages from people that are incredibly moving and, at times, difficult to read. It’s been a lot, and this has been very difficult for me. I just want to take a break and breathe a little bit. It can live as this eight-episode thing for a while, but if there’s more life to it, then great. And if there’s not, then that’s OK too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.