I binge listened to 5 of the 7 episodes of Anderson Cooper’s podcast on grief, All There Is. Cooper’s openness in talking about his own losses—in these episodes, those include his mother, his father, his brother, and his nanny—captivated me. He shares intimate details of his relationships with those people, gets choked up or cries in every episode, and really dives into the messiness and ambiguity of grief.
It seems to me that a podcast like this from someone with a following and a platform is important because it normalizes loss and grief. In fact, Cooper talks about how although loss and grief are universal experiences, they make us feel alone and not talking about them makes it even worse. As I am learning, everyone is grieving. My grief experience actually connects me to others.
In addition to the message that grief is normal, a theme threaded throughout the episodes is the idea that grief is not bad. In several episodes, Cooper talks to someone who has found a way to turn their grief into something lovely. In episode 5, for example, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson talks about how even after a person dies, we can still have a relationship with them and even change our relationship with them.
Johnson says, “it’s never too late to get to know someone differently and even more deeply. We let the idea of death trap us, but we don’t have to.” She and Cooper talk for a bit about that concept of “letting death trap us,” that we think because a person is dead, the relationship is what it was when they died. But Johnson disagrees. She says that as we change, “we have new capacity to know someone,” which gives us an amazing opportunity to reframe our relationship with the person who died.
I am seeing that happen with my mom, who died when I was 12. For a long, long, long time, I had a 12-year old’s relationship with her, remembering her as she was when I last saw her. She was an alcoholic, which gave me lots of reason for anger and resentment toward her. When I turned 47, officially outliving her, my relationship with her shifted dramatically. I started understanding everything I was experiencing as something she would never experience and feeling both grateful for my experiences and sad for her not being able to have them herself. I softened toward her, feeling less anger and resentment and more compassion. My memories of her are different now because they aren’t framed with anger and resentment.
Episode 3 speaks more directly to the theme of grief not being necessarily bad. In this episode, Dr. BJ Miller says “sorrow isn’t an enemy.” He goes on to say, “[Sorrow and sadness] don’t poach my joy or my happiness in this life. In fact, as foils, they kind of set each other up. You don’t get life without death. These things must go together. They’re not at odds.” He and Cooper talk about how they are the people they are in part because of the losses they’ve experienced, crediting grief with helping them cultivate character traits they are proud of.
I can recognize my own sense of deep connection to others because of shared grief as a development in myself since my husband died that I like. I wrote last month about how hard it was for me to accept that I’ll never again be the person I was before he died. I can identify other positive changes in myself brought on by my grief experience: I am certainly more patient, more accepting and less judgmental of others and myself, and even more apt than I was before to find joy in nearly everything.
The podcast title, All There Is, echoes Oliver Burkemann’s 4000 Weeks, which my friends and family are probably tired of me weaving into every conversation. Burkemann’s title references the length of the average human lifespan: 4000 weeks. He argues that coming to terms with “life’s finitude,” as he calls it, is the key to really enjoying the time we have. That seems to be where Cooper is going with his podcast.
Even if you’re not grieving right now, you have before and you will again. Cooper’s podcast can help you feel less alone when that next time comes.