Exclusive: Anderson Cooper more vulnerable than ever in new grief podcast: 'We all get stuck'

If Anderson Cooper understands anything – or doesn't – it's grief.

The CNN anchor, 55, lost his father, Wyatt Cooper, at age 10, and his brother Carter at 21. Three years ago, when Cooper's mother Gloria Vanderbilt died, his nuclear family was whittled down to just him.

Now, he is "the only one who remembered stories, who remembered all the people who were in and out of our house and all the little moments that our family had," Cooper says, fresh off a shift covering Queen Elizabeth II's death on Sept. 8. He sneaks in time to chat with USA TODAY over the phone while snaking through the streets of New York. It is as natural a time as any to talk about his new CNN podcast about his grief journey, "All There Is with Anderson Cooper" (now streaming; new episodes drop Wednesdays).

As natural time as any, because grief doesn't appear and disappear. You're stuck with it forever.

"Your relationship with the person who has died can change, and you can continue to have a relationship and it can change over the years," Cooper says. "I can have a relationship with my dad now, even though he's gone, through the things he left behind and through things he wrote and recorded. And I can have a relationship with him now through the eyes of a 55-year-old person as opposed to just through the eyes of a 10-year-old."

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"All There Is with Anderson Cooper" premieres Sept. 14 on CNN Audio.
"All There Is with Anderson Cooper" premieres Sept. 14 on CNN Audio.

Cooper – father of Wyatt, 2, and Sebastian, 7 months – didn't set out to make a grief podcast, though "obviously this is something I've lived with for a long period of time," he says.

The podcast grew out of the harrowing-but-healing process of going through his mother's possessions after her death.

"If I don't write them down or preserve them, they'll just disappear, and it'll be like the people who lived disappeared and never existed," Cooper says. "And that's one of the hard things also about going through a person's things is, these are the last tangible memories and pieces of that person and to try to figure out what to do with them and how much – they have a lot of weight to them in many ways."

On the podcast, listeners will hear the voices of the late Vanderbilt and guests such as Stephen Colbert, Molly Shannon and artist Laurie Anderson. And of course, Cooper.

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The newsman recorded himself via voice memos as he pored over his mother's things – thousands of cards and photographs – in an effort to stave off feeling so alone.

While not unexpected, the loneliness hit him like a ton of emotion-laden bricks.

"Sometimes it helps me to narrate events as I'm going through them, and particularly if they're painful, because it helps put them in perspective," he says. "I was seeing it as a reporter, almost, although it was very personal."

The CNN anchor (right), 55, lost his his mother Gloria Vanderbilt (left) three years ago.
The CNN anchor (right), 55, lost his his mother Gloria Vanderbilt (left) three years ago.

Not that everything was sad, exactly. Did your mother keep a telegram from her former flame Frank Sinatra, for instance?

He accumulated recordings over the course of months and realized how grief affects all of us. Wouldn't it be interesting to empathize with others about it, and learn from them, too? He invited some of his mom's friends over to talk to them, and with their permission, he recorded them. He also invited other guests, like Colbert, to share their grief stories.

The guests helped Cooper process his own grief further.

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"We all get stuck in our own narratives," Cooper says. "We all have these narratives that we tell ourselves about who we are. And, 'Oh, I'm the kind of person who does this. And this is my story. And this is what happened to me.' The more we tell those narratives, we get stuck in them and think that those are the only narratives that exist."

But they don't have to be. Cooper's vulnerability, for example, shows his progress.

"Doing this was certainly exposing myself more in a way that I traditionally would not have done," he says.

His voice cracks even now, just talking about the process.

"I've always kept this very much to myself, and just believed in dealing with it in my own head," he says.

Cooper hopes to spare his children the same grief shadow that loomed over him.

"I don't want my kids to feel this burden or this weight of the past," he says. "I want them to know who my mom was, my dad was, my brother was, and find them interesting and want to know about them, and ask questions."

Something he can tell his sons, eventually: Cooper actually shares his iconic, infectious giggle with his late mother. He didn't know it until he played back a voice recording he made of her toward the end of her life.

For now, Anderson has plenty to giggle about amid his grief.

"Being a new parent, I'm still trying to figure out how to talk to my kid about not pooping his pants," Cooper says.

Just another topic for him to try to understand.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anderson Cooper talks new CNN podcast, grief, mom Gloria Vanderbilt