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.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 01, 2008

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.

"Talking about a loss is a way to make it real," Worden says. "Part of how you make meaning is by telling others about the loss. ... It brings the reality home."

Cooper knew this to be true. He had seen others survive by sharing their suffering, as the grieving widows and mothers did in Sri Lanka. Yet he himself remained incapable of doing so until he began to write his own story. Since the beginning of his career he had been planning to write a book; he'd considered its structure and how it would jump back and forth in time and crisscross the globe. "It was always about loss -- an exploration of [it] and what other people have experienced," he says now.

But it took a brutal swipe from nature in the Delta to motivate him to begin writing. After years spent trying to escape those buried feelings, he landed at a place that reopened the original wound: New Orleans, a place his father once called home.

The Storm Hits

While covering Hurricane Katrina last September, Cooper found himself overwhelmed by memories of his father, who had lived in the Big Easy as a teenager and who had taken Cooper there as a child to visit. He passed his father's high school, and ran into his dad's former friends. "The past was all around," says Cooper. "I had forgotten all that, and it came rushing back."

Cooper's age when his father died, says Worden, is one of the toughest ages at which to lose a parent, especially a parent of the same sex. And sudden deaths are particularly difficult.

"Losing a parent at an early age, [kids] are not prepared. Their coping strategies are not matured," says Worden, author of Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. "And sudden deaths are more difficult to wrap their minds around. There is hurt and often a feeling of the need to protect oneself against loss. ... If you feel vulnerable and have no resources to talk, you close down."

Which is just what Cooper did: "For years I tried to swaddle the pain, encase the feelings. I boxed them up along with [my father's] papers, stored them away, promising one day to sort it all out," he writes. "All I managed to do was deaden myself to my feelings, detach myself from life. That only works for so long."

He put off his pain by being constantly on the move, moving from one tragedy to the next, like an addiction. He writes of the world's most tumultuous regions: "The pain was palpable; you breathed it in the air. Back here [in the United States] no one talked about life and death. No one seemed to understand. I'd go to movies, see friends, but after a couple of days I'd catch myself reading plane schedules, looking for something, someplace to go."

Wherever he landed, others' tragedies made his seem less significant. Surveying the carnage after the tsunami and talking with its survivors, he says, "It's a strange calculus of survival. I've lost two people. They've lost whole families; they don't even have any pictures left."

For psychologist/author Worden, that type of reflection is often healthy -- especially for a child. When a young person suddenly loses a parent, it is often as if his whole world has collapsed. Later, witnessing greater suffering can "give perspective on his own pain ... and it's helpful to see that others survived."

It shows the child that he can, as well.

Living With Grief

As a boy, Cooper reacted to his father's death not only by closing himself off to the world but also by determining to become absolutely self-reliant: He wanted to prepare himself for future losses. He took survivalist courses while in high school, earned his own money despite being born to wealth, and made his own way in his career, starting as a fact-checker, then working as a freelance journalist, traveling alone with a fake press pass to cover conflicts in faraway places like Burma and Bosnia. He often reflected on survival, both others' and his own.

"I wanted to know why some survived and some didn't," he says.

After reporting from Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Cooper had seen enough death. He took a job as a correspondent for ABC, working mostly in the United States, "which was fine by me," he writes. "I needed to stop searching the world for feeling. I needed to find it closer to home."

And find it he did, with Katrina. After returning from New Orleans to New York, he spent the next five months writing the book. Monday through Friday, he wrote from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then went to CNN, where he worked until midnight. He went to sleep at 2:30 in the morning. When he woke up, he'd start again. On weekends, he wrote nonstop.

"I wanted to get it all out before I forgot it," he says. "It was a hard thing to write. ... I stayed focused on the sentences, how the words go together -- all very clinical. In some ways that's easier, because you're not affected by what you are writing. But then you tell the stories and relive what you are writing."

The book was published in May 2006, 18 years after his brother's death and 28 years after his father's.

"An assumption one cannot make is that grief ever ends," says Kenneth Doka, author of Living With Grief: Who We Are and How We Grieve and a professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle. "You have to live with it. But over time, bad days are fewer and farther between."

His father's heart diseaseheart disease has been a lesson to him. Cooper gets his heart checked regularly, along with cholesterol and stressstress tests. He says that he goes through cycles of regular exercise followed by long stretches spent traveling, when he isn't able to work out at all. His diet follows a similar pattern. When he travels, Cooper says, "Some food can be pretty tough to swallow -- literally. I bring Power Bars and canned tuna."

Nowadays, though, life has slowed down some. Although Cooper still goes where disaster calls him, "the idea of decompressing is new to me in the last several years. I'd always stay in motion. I was always driving fast, always going out at night. But it lessens your creative abilities. Now I go out to my house on Long Island for two days and do nothing."

He pauses. "I used to be afraid of stopping. Now I have a life, a home, a mortgage."

And, it seems, a degree of peace.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Anderson Cooper, CNN Anchor and Reporter. J. William Worden, PhD, co-director, Harvard Child Bereavement Study; professor, Rosemead School of Psychology; author, Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. Kenneth Doka, PhD, professor of gerontology, College of New Rochelle; author, Living with Grief: Who We Are and How We Grieve. Cooper, A. Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival, Harper Collins, 2006.

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