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CNN's Anderson Cooper Copes With Grief

The famous journalist has made a career of tracking grief around the globe while drowning out his own feelings of loss – until Hurricane Katrina.
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WebMD the Magazine - Feature

While in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, in which 35,000 of that country's people perished, CNN reporter Anderson Cooper met a small group of women, each of whom had lost a loved one to the sea. Cooper envied their ability to talk through their pain. "I still find myself unable to do it," he writes in his new memoir, Dispatches From the Edge. "Walking in this village, listening to these people, is as close as I can come."

From the outside looking in, it would seem that Cooper has led a life of privilege, not of pain: a child of wealth who grew up in Manhattan's toniest neighborhoods, the son of successful fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, and a rising star in the dog-eat-dog world of television journalism. Even so, Cooper seems to identify most with the grieving, the shell-shocked, and the abandoned, whether he finds these citizens of loss in Southeast Asia or in his late father's former stomping grounds, New Orleans.

In fact, Cooper has made a career out of pain: The newsman has reported from many of the world's most dangerous places. In addition to his tour of Sri Lanka, he has witnessed the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda, and has filed countless stories on human suffering and against-the-odds tales of survival. But it was only in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- an American tragedy that saw the anchor, live on CNN, interrupting authorities, demanding answers, pummeling bureaucrats with unflinching questions, and fighting tears of enraged frustration -- that he started to come to terms with his own family's tragedies and how they have influenced him, on and off camera.

Love and Loss

When Cooper was 10 years old, his father died unexpectedly during heart surgery. His older brother and only sibling, Carter, killed himself 10 years later in a surprising jump from the family's 14th-floor balcony window. The combined loss overwhelmed Cooper and left him numb, he says now. He never talked about what had happened, not even with his mother. Instead, he found comfort in reporting on the tragic losses of others, if only to drown out his own grief.

"I had cauterized my feelings," he explains. "I wanted to feel -- to match my pain with what I was witnessing ... at first, I didn't even realize why I was always covering war. I just felt like a shark that had to stay in motion in order to live."

Everyone experiences grief in his or her own way, but there are certain tasks that each person who loses a loved one must undertake, says J. William Worden, co-director of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study and a professor at the Rosemead School of Psychology. The first task is accepting that the death has happened.

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