Losing a parent during childhood is a loss that forever shapes and somehow defines you.

One of the most powerful podcasts I listened to recently was Anderson Cooper’s All There Is. It’s a podcast he created specifically around the topic of grief. The idea came to him while attending to the things his late mother had left in her New York apartment. Gloria Vanderbilt, Cooper’s mom, passed away in 2019.

In its second installment called “Grateful for Grief,” Cooper talked about the experience of childhood grief with late night show host Stephen Colbert. I have been a huge Colbert fan since I found out that he had lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old. Cooper, just like him, also lost his father when he was 10 years old. Both of them bereaved children like I was.

Colbert shared that on 11 September 1974 everything changed for him.

Photograph courtesy of ig/anderson cooper
Anderson Cooper, ‘All There Is’ podcast host.

“Everything before that is in black and white, and blurred. Afterwards, my awareness of the world changed. My emotional life changed,” he said.

What is admirable about Colbert is that in spite of his many childhood losses, he remains grateful. “With existence comes suffering. If you are grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it,” he said.

One of the most striking questions he posed to Cooper during the show, which he had already asked of him in 2019 while guesting on Cooper’s show soon after his mom died, was this: “Can we really learn to love most the things that we wish never happened? Can I see those things as gifts?” Colbert’s quote took inspiration from something JRR Tolkien had said: “What punishments of God are not gifts?”

In a GQ interview dating back to 2015, Colbert had said, “It would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both ideas in my head.”

photograph courtesy of pexels/Kate Gundareva ‘With existence comes suffering. If you are grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it.’ — Stephen Colbert

What Colbert said struck me and reminded me of the wounding, or the breaking points we all go through in life. How that wounding can be a portal for a greater grace. We grieve our losses, rightly so, and give thanks and rejoice for what has been given. In the process we also learn to love, not just the Giver, but ironically, the wound itself that opened the door to a deeper relationship with Him.
Colbert further explains why he has been grateful for the grief that he has experienced even as a young child.

“It allows you to examine your grief like not holding up red hot ember…seeing that pain as something that can warm you and give you some knowledge of what other people experienced,” he said.
Grief teaches us to be more compassionate towards others.

Those of us who lost a parent, or both parents, in childhood understand this very well. I always like to think that when you lose a parent as a child, you become imbued with a superpower. And this is a belief illustrated in the films and stories that cater to children. Think Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, even Batman. Many of the superheroes had a tragic event happen to them in childhood.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between me and my grief,” Colbert shared in the podcast. It was a statement that resonates deeply with me. He encouraged those who have lost loved ones to continue telling stories about their loved ones, to talk about the story of their grief. Doing so, he said, keeps them alive, and makes the griever feel less lonely.

Photograph courtesy of pexels/Karolina Grabowska
Grief teaches us to be more compassionate towards others.

“I think there’s a fear of grief like grief is defeat. Grief is a reaction to a bad thing, a natural process that has to be experienced. You can’t win against grief. Talking about it is about making your loss real,” Robert explains.

And this is why so many years after my father has passed (41 years now) and my son’s death (24 years), I continue to write and speak about my losses. In my work now as a grief coach, I encourage and help people to tell their own stories, and to find and create the narrative of their loss and healing.

Colbert spoke so profoundly about grief because he knows it so well and has lived it for so long.

“Grief, that thing we don’t want to experience we shut it down with anger. But if you can share your stories and address your grief through that storytelling turns the cave into a tunnel. It doesn’t cut you up, it opens you up. Grief is doorway to another you because you will be a different person on the other side of it.”

You can listen to Anderson Cooper’s “All There Is” podcast through Apple and Spotify podcasts.

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