Anderson Cooper on Brother's Suicide: Grief Never Ends

Suicide experts applaud new TV host with helping families, potential victims

September 20, 2011, 5:24 PM

Sept. 21, 2011— -- Anderson Cooper, whose 23-year-old brother Carter, a promising Princeton graduate, jumped from the family's penthouse balcony to his death nearly two decades ago, knows well the word that so disturbs grieving families -- "closure."

That, he said Monday on his new syndicated daytime talk show, "Anderson," is a "TV word."

For the first time publicly, Cooper, 44, openly talked with his 87-year-old mother, former fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, about the day in 1988 his troubled brother threw himself off the balcony of the family's 14-story New York City penthouse. At the time, Cooper was 21.

"There is this word 'closure' that they talk spoke so much about today, but there's never closure on something that happens like that," said Vanderbilt. "You never get over it, but you learn to live with it," she said.

Cooper agreed as his eyes welled with tears as he interviewed his mother.

It was a remarkable and emotional on-screen moment, a rare look at one family's grief and an open discussion of that wrenching day on the balcony of a New York high-rise.

Carter, who had been in therapy and was showing signs of depression and disheveled behavior, had recently moved back into his mother's apartment.

In Monday's interview, Cooper asked his mother, "Do you still think about that day?"

"All the time, I still run through it," she said. "There was a moment when...he did not jump. He was sitting on the wall thirteen floors up, on the balcony. With one foot on there and one foot hanging down, he kept looking down.

"I kept begging him too...and then when he went, he went like an athlete and hung over the wall like this. I said, 'Carter, come back,' and for a minute I thought he was going to come back, but he didn't. He let go. There was a moment when I thought I was going to jump after him. But then I thought of you and it stopped me from doing that."

Coping With the Suicide of a Loved One

Lawrence Calhoun, a suicide expert and professor of psychology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, said there is never closure, only a diminishing of the intensity and frequency of grief over time.

"No, you do not get over this," said Calhoun. "There is a line in a poem about the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11. Something like, we didn't survive, we just didn't die. I am very much with Anderson on this one.

"Bereaved parents say how angry they have gotten when they hear that word," he said. "For most people the pain is reduced in intensity and frequency over time, but great pain is always present."

Some regard the concept -- a jargonized symbol of closing a visual circle -- as "a betrayal of a lost one, somehow minimizing the death."

Vanderbilt, who wrote about the suicide in her 1997, "A Mother's Story," blamed side effects of the asthma drug salbutamol for the death of her son. "The fatal loss stripped me bare," she wrote.

Anderson, who has said he has drawn inspiration from his mother's courage, said in a 2005 interview that his brother's suicide sparked his interest in journalism.

"Loss is a theme that I think a lot about, and it's something in my work that I dwell on," he told New York magazine. "I think when you experience any kind of loss, especially the kind I did, you have questions about survival: Why do some people thrive in situations that others can't tolerate? Would I be able to survive and get on in the world on my own?"

He also wrote about the death that same year for CNN, where he is anchor of the show, "Anderson Cooper 360", using his mother's words to describe the way Carter sat then clung to the balcony for a moment, then swung "just like a gymnast."

"I try not to imagine him hanging from the ledge," he writes. "Try not to imagine him falling. Did a couple out for an evening stroll catch a glimpse of him before he let go? Did a family gathered around the dinner table see him plunge past their window?"

"That's the thing about suicide," he writes. "Try as you might to remember how a person lived his life, you always end up thinking about how he ended it."

For years after his brother's death, Cooper writes, "I rarely say his name out loud anymore."

Suicide experts hailed Monday night's open discussion as important for both survivors of suicide and its victims.

Calhoun said the public discussion of such a private death, "shows a combination of strength and the desire to have this difficult set of circumstances be helpful to others facing similar kinds of valleys of the shadow."

"When you think you have the loss of a beloved child -- he chose to end his life and I saw him do it," said Calhoun. "And I was there and I did not have the superhuman capacity to prevent it. That is a combination of poisons [that] I think would take down just about anybody.

"The fact that Miss Vanderbilt has resilience and courage to still keep living and to talk about it is remarkable."

John Draper, executive director of TThe National Suicide Prevention Lifeline agreed that it was "brave" for mother and son to open old wounds.

"A lot of people don't want to talk about their pain," he said. "There is a lot of stigma talking about it. It took courage and strength to bare their souls in front of others and, in fact, help others."

The organization's online Lifeline Gallery features more than hundreds of personal stories from families who have mourned loved ones to those who contemplated suicide, then were inspired to seek help.

Hearing about the pain of losing a loved one can have a "profound preventive effect," said Draper.

"People who are in the throes of suicidal thinking are so caught in their own pain and wish for it to end," he said. "Often they believe they others are better off without them and a burden to others."

As Cooper and Vanderbilt share their grief, those contemplating suicide can see the "legacy of pain" that survivors carry, often through generations, said Draper.

But when those who consider suicide hear the pain loved ones like Cooper and Vanderbilt feel, "it's often it's a revelation to fully confront and realize that others suffer so much when they are gone."

If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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