Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was 10, said experiencing loss at a young age changed his life

By Jodi Guglielmi
August 16, 2019 01:26 PM

Anderson Cooper is still processing the loss of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.

Cooper became emotional during a powerful discussion with Stephen Colbert about the complexities of grief that aired Thursday night on CNN.

“You told an interviewer that you have learned to ‘love the thing that I wish had not happened,'” Cooper said, pausing as he began to hold back tears. “You went on to say, ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?”

“Yes,” replied Colbert. “It’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”

Colbert, who lost his father and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash when he was 10, said experiencing such a tragic loss has taught him empathy and compassion for others.

“If you are grateful for your life…then you have to be grateful for all of it,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”

“What do you get from loss?” he continued. “You get the awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it’s like to be a human being if it’s true that all humans suffer.”

Colbert said the loss helped shape him into the man he is today and allowed him to connect more with his loved ones.

“At a young age, I suffered something so that by the time I was in serious relationships in my life, with friends, or with my wife, or with my children, I’m understanding that everyone is suffering,” he said. “And however imperfectly, acknowledge their suffering and to connect with them and to love them in a deep way that not only accepts that all of us suffer but also then makes you grateful for the fact that you have suffered so you can know that about other people.”

Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert
| Credit: Scott Kowalchyk/CBS

Vanderbilt died at age 95 in June in her Manhattan home with friends and family at her side. Cooper, 52, announced his mother’s death with a touching obituary on CNN, explaining that the family had learned earlier that month that “she had very advanced cancer in her stomach and that it had spread.”

Cooper told Colbert that he’s found comfort in connecting with other people who have experienced grief in the months since her death.

“I found that the most helpful thing, I found it to be the most powerful and moving thing,” he said, adding that people often stop him on the street or send him messages through social media.

“And I kind of, oddly, don’t want that to stop because in regular times, people don’t do that,” he added.