Live Your Beautiful Life, Baby – All There Is with Anderson Cooper

Hey, thanks so much for listening. I hope wherever you are, you’re doing well. This time of year it can be fraught. It’s always been that way for me, at least as long as I can remember. Thanksgiving is on the horizon. And then, of course, Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate and New Year’s. And then for me, January 5th, the day my dad died. My mom and dad used to make a big deal about Christmas. There was always a huge tree, they’d decorate the whole house. They threw a big party Christmas Day, but I don’t remember any of that. I was too little. And I’ve only seen photos of it. The first Christmas I do remember is when I was ten years old. There were Christmas songs playing on a Victorian music box called The Polyphon. It had been given to my mom by Sidney Lumet, her third husband, who was a wonderful director and a great guy. My mom always played it around the holidays. That sound is so distinct. It’s always been the sound of Christmas in my mind. I vaguely remember opening presents in my pajamas in the living room that morning, but my dad wasn’t there. He was in the hospital. And the thing that really stands out in my memory about that Christmas was this feeling, this feeling of- of terror. Like we were perched on a precipice, and it was about to give way. I don’t know if anyone spoke about it to me or acknowledged it. I know I didn’t. I couldn’t.

My dad died 11 days later and we plowed ahead. We went through the motions in the years to come. We tried to build new traditions, celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving. But for me, at least, each holiday was a reminder of just how different our family had become. And then my brother died in 1988, and that was it as far as celebrations were concerned. He died in July, so we had a few months before we had to decide anything. And I think it was around October, my mom called me up and she said, “What do you want to do about the dreaded holidays?” We both started giggling. It was such a relief to hear her acknowledge what we were both feeling and such a relief to not have to pretend anymore. So we cobbled together a new tradition, she and I. No tree, no fuss, no turkey, no pie, no pressure. We’d come together on those days and Thanksgiving and Christmas. Have a meal at home, go see a movie, talk about it afterwards as we walked home. It wasn’t much, but it’s what we could do. And that was enough.

So many of you sent DMs on Instagram telling me about the loved ones you miss and which helped you in your grief. I’m putting together next week’s podcast and I’d love to include some of what you’ve discovered in your own experiences. I’m going to give you a number you can call and leave a voicemail, and if you can, I’d love you to tell me something that you think would be helpful for others who are listening to hear. Try to be as succinct as you can, but try to make it about something that’s really helped you. This voicemail I got from a woman named Cheryl:

Recently, you used the word overwhelm, which has so fittingly described my entire walk with grief. This year marks the 30th anniversary of my husband’s passing, when I found myself widowed with four children. Then came the phrase holding it all gently. Hold it all gently. Anderson. No expectations, no limitations or judgments, no time constraints, no preconceived beliefs. Just holding it all gently.

Holding it all gently. I hadn’t heard that phrase, and I like it. So if you’d like to call and leave a message, the number of (631) 657-8379. I’ll repeat it at the end of the podcast as well. But I want to be clear, there’s no way I’m going to be able to include everyone’s messages in next week’s podcast. So I don’t want you to leave a message if it’s going to hurt you to not have it included in some way. I understand how disappointing that can be, and it’s totally not worth it. I hesitated to even do this voicemail thing because I don’t want to disappoint you. But I think if there is some wisdom that you have that can help others, then maybe it’s worth a try.

This is All There Is with me, Anderson Cooper. My guest today is Elizabeth Alexander. She’s a writer, a poet, president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Before that, she was a distinguished professor at Yale for 15 years and chaired their African-American studies department. She’s written four books of poetry, one of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Elizabeth husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus was a refugee from Eritrea. He was a chef and an artist who died in 2012. They had two children who were 11 and 12 at the time. In 2015, Elizabeth published a memoir, “The Light of the World,” about their life together, his death, and its aftermath. Elizabeth’s father, Clifford Alexander Jr, died this past July among a lifetime of accomplishments, he was the first black person to be appointed Secretary of the United States Army. He was 88 years old. First of all, I’m I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband Ficre and and also recently for for the loss of of your dad. I know you just had the memorial service in late September. How was that?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:05:36

It was so beautiful. He lived 88 years and, you know, a true life of love and service, a full life, a complete life. A memorial always gathers people across the years and spaces, the community comes together to to send the person off. And I really felt we sent him off. It doesn’t mean that I’m not sad. It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss him. It doesn’t mean that grieving is not still ongoing. But we did the right thing. We did it right and it felt very powerful.

What an incredible life of service your father led. He had served government service going back decades and been instrumental in the lives of the Obamas and so many people over the course of his entire life.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:06:29

In the Johnson administration. He was the one who brought the civil rights leaders to the White House to be part of conversations about the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. He was chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and of course, also just the father who we adored and that my mother’s, you know, partner for the vast majority of her life. They started dating when she was 18 years old.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:06:53

Yeah. Yeah.

I read what his last words to you were. It wasn’t on his deathbed. It was days before. But the last thing he said to you, I just love.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:07:03

Yeah, he said, “live your beautiful life, baby.” And, you know, I was I was going to the beach with some friends. So I thought he was saying, have a wonderful and he was saying have a wonderful time this weekend. But-.

Live your beautiful life, baby.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:07:19

He was saying live your beautiful life baby. And you know, the poignancy is that when your dad is no longer on this earth to call you baby, even if you’re a grown up baby, that’s a moment. But on the other hand, what philosophically could be more powerful? And I, I used those words in- when I spoke at the memorial and many friends have written since to say that they’re sort of taking that as a mantra.

I’ve been saying it to myself literally out loud, live your beautiful life, baby, it’s so great.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:07:49

So you know what I great is powerful about it, too, is like, look, this is, you know, a black man born in Harlem, 1933. He’s seen a thing or two. But, you know, at the end of the day, every day you have this life you’re given and and you should live it fully. I think is is pretty powerful that nothing became cynical or bitter in him.

How is the grief you feel now about your dad? How does that sit with the grief you’ve experienced over your husband Ficre?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:08:25

You know, when we lost Ficre, we had celebrated his 50th birthday a few days before we had gathered. My sons and I, 11 and 12 at the time, had gathered loved ones and family together to celebrate him and tell him why we loved him. He was completely well, we thought. And he died of heart failure on the treadmill really completely out of- of a blue sky. So it almost feels like it’s a different genre of loss. Dad had his full life. You might always wish for more, but I think that also I felt gratitude that he was able to be at home at the end of his life and that he was fully with it in his mind, with Ficre the rug being pulled out from under and the responsibility of children. You know, on the one hand it gave me purpose. I mean, I knew that there couldn’t be a morning on this Earth when I would wake up and not be responsible for my children first. And I’ve loved following your new new journey in- in- in fatherhood. So you know what I’m talking about, you know, for the rest of your days.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:09:48

Everything is is reordered.

Yeah. I imagine it’s also a in some way a help in that awfulness of grief. It is a constant. It’s something to hold on to that that that tugs you along whether you want to go or not, because that responsibility doesn’t stop.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:10:06

Oh, yes. It gave me an unquestioned purpose. I don’t know if it meant that some things were tamped down. I mean, I guess what I would say about that is that I was surprised to find myself writing so quickly. You know, writing the notes that were not intended to be a book, but ended up becoming the book,”The Light of the World.” I wrote those words so that I could listen to myself and know what I was feeling and also grasp this beautiful soul you never forget. But paint him while I still knew what he looked like.

I so relate to that after my brother died. I immediately began writing down my feelings just to because I couldn’t really speak them out because I was so just shut down. But I wanted to at least write them down on paper to get them out. And also to remember the sound he made when he put his keys in the door and would come in. When you live with someone, you know the sound of them entering the room. And I remembered that sound. And honestly, I can’t remember that sound any more. Yeah, it’s a stupid little thing, but it makes me emotional.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:11:22

Yeah, I mean, it’s so poignant, isn’t it? Because I do think that there are sensations that get lost. Although also, I don’t know if you’ve found this because you have so- you have literally countless memories with someone who is an intimate and so many of them, I mean, maybe, I don’t know, maybe 10% of them live on the surface and the rest are within us. So I find that things sometimes come back sparked by a smell, a site visiting a place.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:11:57

In fact, I just had a very, very special visit with my kids to Paris. Ficre I was a painter, and he has- his first one person European show was in Paris.

Oh, my God. That’s amazing.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:12:11

Yeah. And so we went, and that’s been a very special thing. It’s remarkable to have the paintings because we get to look at the world through his eyes and to also be close to things that he made with his actual hands, things that hold his DNA. But I took one trip to Paris with Ficre, and I remembered, I forgot, you know. And I said, Oh, God, we’re in. We’re in the Marais. Let’s. The hotel was named, was named, was named. I remembered it. And I thought, Good thing I remember it because no one else on planet Earth knows the name of this hotel. And I found our way to it. And, you know, just stood with the kids in the courtyard and said, this was the first time we ever left you two. And there was only one other time that we left you all because we loved being with you and because you, you know, held us hostage. We were there and it was such a special moment. So my only point is I have not thought about that since it happened. So I say that to say that there are other keys in the door. Moments perhaps even just sensorily buried that I imagine keep coming for the rest of our lives.

And what a joy to discover them unexpectedly, they pop up. You wrote about the paint brushes and you said the idea of throwing away his paintbrushes makes me queasy. They’re somehow biological. There’s DNA in the brush fibers-

Elizabeth Alexander

00:13:42

I find a box of the very best paint brushes which are made of sable. I have long been obsessed with the story of the frozen wooly mammoth, how scientists used a blow dryer to thaw him and extract DNA from his fur. Now I read they have found liquid blood inside a 10,000 year old wooly mammoth. They will extract the DNA and eventually fertilize and plant an egg inside an elephant. Ficre’s DNA is everywhere in the studio and in the paint-

-brushes he held for so many hours. I found the box of my mom’s paint brushes and it’s the possession of hers that are the most important to me and that I’m so glad that I have. And the smell, the turpentine and the paint brought me to tears. But I loved that smell because it’s every studio she ever had going back from the time I was a kid and sitting on the floor of her studio doodling and stuff.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:14:33

Oh, that’s so special. I think a lot of time passed where I didn’t go into friends studios because I remember many years after a Ficre passed going into someone else’s studio and kind of feeling like womp.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:14:48

You know, that it didn’t smell exactly like his did, but there were enough of the familiars that just made me think sense memory is- is a powerful thing to have pass.

I was talking to a director in an earlier podcast and one of the things she talks about is how we can still learn new things about a loved one even after that they die. You can come to understand them more deeply, for instance, by talking to you about your experiences losing your husband at 50 and with two kids, I can perhaps understand better my mom’s feelings to suddenly find herself without her husband and these two kids.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:15:26

Well, I think that being a mom of sons is a particular thing, and being a single mom of sons is a particular thing. And and certainly for me, one of the things I thought about very intently is that I never wanted them to feel like and now you have to be the man of the house. I mean, you know, we didn’t kind of come out of that patriarchal order anyway, but I wanted them to feel that, okay, there’s just one of me, but like, I’m the grown up. I got this, you know, you still have a childhood. You don’t have to take on responsibilities prematurely, even though, of course, inside of them they took on so many worries. You know, now they’re 23 and 24 and we’re very, very close. And I think that it’s lovely to be able from sort of the other shore to say, okay, like you’ve made it to adulthood and that they can know more about me now, I find myself sharing a lot more about myself in all kinds of ways.

Ficre was on the treadmill when he died, you also write really movingly about hold- holding him there. And also in the hospital. You wrote when I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre-

Elizabeth Alexander

00:16:54

-When I held him in the hospital, as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself. When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us. Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it. I saw the body with the soul leaving. And I saw the body with the soul gone. And that is the truth as I know it. I am Episcopalian, but I did not grow up as a regular churchgoer, and it took me powerfully by surprise to be having this profoundly spiritual experience where all I can tell you is what I wrote. You know, I knew when his soul was there and I knew when his soul was gone. And it was palpable.

It’s so interesting for both you and I the importance of writing. I especially feel that now for my kids that I want them to have a record of every memory that I can remember about them, so that so that if I’m gone, that they, they will have this and it’s a touchstone for them. My dad wrote a book about growing up in Mississippi, about his family growing up and about his hopes for us, my brother and I, when we were kids, it’s a Bible in my life that I read every year because it’s his voice and it’s it’s my dad talking to me. I don’t know how much I remember of my dad and how much of it is just the memories I’ve read in the book that he wrote. And it doesn’t even matter to me because they make me feel grounded and they make me feel like I have a relationship with them and had a relationship with them.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:18:45

You know, it’s interesting because I think that what that kind of leads us into is the mythmaking that comes, you know, in the way that the scraps that we have grow larger and larger because we can never have enough. Ficre and I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and he was the magical uncle. And so one of my nieces sent me a voice message that he left for her. And it was just a message like, “Hi, sweetie, I’m going to make the tom-toma,” which is a red lentil Eritrean dish. “Do you know how to do it? You need to learn how to do it. I’m going to pick you up at such and such, and I’m going to bring you over. Okay? Ciao ciao.” And, you know, she listened to it 500 times. I listened to it 500 times. It’s a scrap that I think sometimes can feel more important than the memories we actually have within us. And I think that the the very emotional part is that, as I said, it’s never enough. And also the lives we continue to live, we add to memories, too. So what happens when, you know, the children have lived longer without their father? I wonder what you think about that.

Yeah, I’ve lived 45 years of my life without my dad. I had ten years with him and I’ve lived 34 years of my brother. I only knew him for 21 years. And that is stunning to me. And I remember I turned 21 and that was the year that I’d lived then 11 years alive, and I’d only lived ten with my dad. And I remember on that birthday, I don’t remember graduating college. It was around the same time, but hitting the milestone of having lived longer without my father and then I lived with him. That for me was a that was a big deal. Your kids have almost reached that point.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:20:40

That’s where we are.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:20:41

And that’s where we are.

We’ll be right back with Elizabeth Alexander.

You said I never wanted our home to be one where people who died were spoken of euphemistically or in hushed tones. So with them, your kids, the speaking about their father, was also keeping him alive and reminding all of us that when you know someone that deeply and that intimately, you really actually do know what they would think about a lot of things. You can talk to them. It’s not the same as presence, but they are in you lift someone’s name, keep lifting someone’s name, you said.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:21:20

Yeah. My friend Robert, who I mention in the book, he said not Ficre was my friend. Ficre is my friend. I love him. Not I loved him. I love him. And I think that- that that’s again, it it doesn’t take away, you know, loss and aches and absence. But it’s also saying, like, it’s not like nothing happened all those years.

I found it so hard after my dad died, to, to talk about my dad. And my mom would try to do what you were talking about. Do your mom- my mom would mention him or tell a story about him. And I just couldn’t- I couldn’t respond. I mean, I would listen and I would sort of, you know, nod along or something or say, Oh, yeah, I remember that or something. It was like such a deep wound that I couldn’t. Couldn’t bring it on myself.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:22:19

Yeah. Yeah. The thing I just didn’t want to have happen is I didn’t want to be part of drawing the shades. You know, I didn’t want to be part of making the house a dark house. And that didn’t mean forced cheer, but it did mean. He comes to us 100 times a day in ways large and small, and it would seem strange not to note those things.

See, a woman named Tawny reached out to me and her, her husband died unexpectedly of a seizure. Their child was five years old. She’s just not sure how to ensure that her child grows up okay. What would you recommend to her? How do you keep somebody’s memory alive and- and not have that death become what it was for me, which was the the defining event of not only my childhood, but sort of my life.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:23:20

Well, I think, you know, and this is said, with all due respect to everybody and what they’re struggling with, I think you have to raise your child the best you can. You know, you have to pack a lunch and take that kid to school. You know, you have to, you know, help that child be physically healthy, you know, and nourished and active. And I mean, there’s so much living to be done. And I think that we can get so bogged down by, I have to do the right thing. I have to keep the memory alive. And then, you know, you’re dressed in black for the rest of your life.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:24:04

And so, you know, I think live and let life.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:24:10

Yeah, because it’s okay to sometimes not think about the person you lost. My God, would they want that? They would not want that, Ficre would not want that.

Would not want- want his kids, your kids to be constantly in mourning and thinking about him?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:24:30

No, my goodness.

When Ficre died, there’s no guidebook for- for this. What do you- after you’ve said that is dead what’s the next step?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:24:44

Well, I think that I didn’t have people around me who had been through it, but I had people around me. And anybody who knows me knows that the concept of the village, the families we build, the communities we make, and the importance of that is of paramount importance to me. So I just felt like we couldn’t do it alone. So, you know, at the time I was chairing the African-American Studies Department at Yale. It was a beautiful student community, and they wanted to be helpful. And I knew that it was important to let them be helpful. Because they loved me and I loved them. So to say, okay, 5:30 every day for X amount of time, one of y’all bring some dinner. Please include a vegetable. I don’t need to know what it is. I don’t want to- like I’m not going to chitchat you just, like, bring it and leave it on the back doorstep. And it was so beautiful to see, first of all, people just made all kinds of things because they wanted to show their love that way. And my kids saw that my work life, a work life bound by mission and by love of culture and by the sacred duty of teaching, that that community was there for them, too. So I think that that that that that sense of circles and village and and adding chosen family to your your family has been the most important guiding force there.

You talk about the term lost and which the word lost. I always I hesitate to use. I mean, sometimes I find myself using it like, oh, I lost this person. You said lost implies we are looking, he might be found. Is lost a word you use?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:26:39

I don’t. I don’t I actually do like the phrase I like the word “passed” in the black sense, you know, because to me that is motion and movement from one world, one realm to the next. And those realms are connected.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:27:01

You know that journey. So I quite- I quite like that it was a loss. Absolutely. It was an indelible loss.

One of the things you said, “I feel like this is taking me somewhere. I don’t know quite where it is. I don’t know quite what it is. But I know that this is just the beginning of a very, very long road. I’m actually quite certain of that.”

Elizabeth Alexander

00:27:20

Hmm.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:27:23

Well, I’m surprised that I’m very emotional hearing you read that, because it makes me think back on how much journeying and reinvention and bravery I’ve shown and lived through in, in those ten, ten years. I find it so fascinating that you go through something collectively as a family. But of course, my experience is different from my kids. I mean, you know, there’s what we shared and the memories we shared together and the stories that we keep telling that are part of our grief journey. But there are things that I still don’t know that they felt and lived through. And the same with me. There are things that they don’t know, and some of that may remain a mystery and some of that may be over a lifetime for us to share.

Do you- do you feel like you are still grieving?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:28:25

Hmm. I mean, I think in some ways grieving is forever. But I mean, if grieving is being marked by and actively engaged with great loss, I’m not heartbroken all the time like I was. Certainly it’s that’s a very- it’s a, it’s a very different stage.

Do you remember the first time you laughed after?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:28:57

Well, you know, it literally it was probably the next day, I mean, and which I only say because and I think also part of this feels to me of the beautiful tragedy of black life and that great phrase laugh to keep from crying. And that the two things I think actually can come from similarly deep places and go hand in hand, and that there is absurdity as well even as it is truly terrible.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:29:32

But you know as I write in the book, one of the things and I guess it was many months later remembering and being conscious of the first day where nobody cried. That took a long time.

Yeah, I think in the book you said it was like a year and, and-.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:29:48

My younger son Simon at the time. You know, he’s like, you know, talking from he’s a narrator of life, you know, hollering out from the shower “Momma. You know, I started out like I was a ten and sad this morning and then I was an eight. He said, And now, you know, I’m a I’m a zero.” I can’t remember what his number was.

I wrote this down. I thought such a sweet thing. You wrote a bit later in the shower, Simon calls out to me, “I was a ten and sadness when I was crying Mommy, but now I’m a six. Whoops,” he says, “it just went down to five.” He comes out of the shower and puts on his pajamas. “Now it’s a three.” He brushes his teeth. “Now it’s all gone,” he says. “We were with Daddy when he died.” You wrote about this happening two days after the funeral. You said, I call out to no one. Will I remember everything? What am I meant to keep? How did you answer those questions?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:30:43

I think that they are never fully answered. I think for me it was- I just kept living an examined life.

Is it important to remember everything?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:30:58

You can’t. You can’t. You can’t. You cannot.

Because I realize I’ve been trying to and as some people as several people on this podcast have mentioned to me, and I think it’s I think it’s very true, it’s easy to become entombed by those things. I feel like I’m at risk of becoming entombed in the memories and entombed in all the stuff I’m trying to preserve because I don’t want to let it go.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:31:32

Yeah. I mean, I think about the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who’s very important to me. In one of her lines, she said, “This is the urgency. Live and have your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” And so I like that for so many reasons. But I think, you know, there is always the noise and whip of the whirlwind in our lives, in the light, the world outside of us, in our emotional lives. But what does it mean, you know, to live with urgency and to have your blooming and to honor the people we loved by continuing to live? I mean, I have by my bedside a little teeny, tiny- Ficre made a lot of paintings on, just found things and on a little tiny lumber yard square he, he, he just made a little painting that says, I wake up grateful for life is a gift. And we’re here. We are here. We are here.

I find that really hard. If I talk to my mom or my dad or my brother or my nanny, who was like a mom to me, they would all universally say, like, just get rid of all this stuff and just like live do your thing like you have an incredible life. Just enjoy yourself and don’t be entombed by all this stuff. But. I find that hard.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:33:04

Yeah. I hear you. I hear you. And I think that we’re all made differently, too, even with, like, the objects.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:33:12

I mean, we’re also all different stuff people and, and have different senses of what, like, talismanic power is is held in objects.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:33:27

But I think you don’t dishonor people by living in and with their spirit. Because we’re the ones who are here right now.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:33:43

Just right now. Just right now. We we don’t we don’t know the rest of it.

Your husband had experienced great trauma when he was a child. I mean, escaping Eritrea. Did that was that a shadow over his whole life?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:33:58

For him finding and making his own family was- that was everything. And it didn’t erase what what he had lived through. He certainly carried all of it with him. But also he had the forward moving energy of, of a survivor.

A year after he died, you and your kids moved to New York. You wrote. “Soon after that, we walked forward into a new story, each of us carrying the old ones across our shoulders in bandannas tied to sticks,” which I love that image. “Something is fading. You said, not the memory of him, but the press of memory, the closeness of him. He’s somewhere in the atmosphere, but also not. He is 50 and I’m 51. He’s a photograph in the living room. He is for the moment, still.” Having kids for you. I mean, I’ve noticed this in my kids already. I see my brother. I see my mom’s face. I see my dad’s eyes.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:35:09

Yeah. And I think that, you know, what you’ll probably find over the years that I’ve been enjoying so much is as the kids change, I see different faces passing through them. One of my kids has just started really to look a lot more- he’s in a different shaped body, but really to look a lot more like his dad. The other one looks a tremendous amount like my father.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:35:34

At his same age. And so that to me feels like just a just a delicious gift. So it’s the light of their ancestors passing through, but they are still very much themselves.

You’ve written about rituals. You wrote. What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? Are there rituals that you have embraced?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:36:00

I think, you know, we’ve made some beautiful rituals and sometimes stumbled upon them. It was my younger son, Simon, who said, I don’t want to mark the day he died. I want to mark the day he was born. So the boys and I do celebrate his birthday.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:36:18

And it’s wonderful to celebrate his birthday. It’s wonderful to sit in the gratitude and to talk about like he was born, my God. And to think like again. What are the odds that two people born halfway around the world would find each other and make a family? It’s miraculous, actually. So that’s an important ritual for us.

I do not celebrate my dad’s birthday or my mom’s or my brother’s. But but the date for my brother and my dad, the day of their death, it looms large in my life and always has, and I wish it were otherwise. I think that’s a healthier way to go about it. I’m going to, I guess, work on that.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:37:01

You can do it.

Stephen Colbert said, I think there’s a fear of grief. The grief the grief itself is a form of death. That grief itself is a form of defeat. And we want to stay on top and we want to win and we don’t want bad things to happen. Whereas grief is not a bad thing. Grief is a reaction to a bad thing. Grief itself is a natural process that has to be experienced.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:37:32

I love that. I love that. You know, I keep thinking in this conversation about a lot of beautiful African-American sayings, you know, like it’s it’s so high, you can’t go over it. You know, you can’t go around. It’s you got to go through it, through it, through it. And I think you really you really do. Even though, you know, functioning and here’s where it gets tricky. I mean, you have to get up and go to work. You know, I had to make a living. I did have to be okay ish. So there are some things you have to do. But I think even why I’m having this conversation with you is I think that if grief is something that you can do in public a little bit, if grief is something that you can do in my case with, you know, words, if you can invite people into knowing what’s happening, I hope that that’s a way of being in our common humanity because we will all experience profound loss in our lives.

A lot of people who are listening to this are going through something right now. What do you say to a friend who’s going through something?

Elizabeth Alexander

00:38:56

Oh, my goodness. I mean, you know, it is so deep and it is so painful. But I wish for people the ability to love and have compassion for themselves in that there is no one way to grieve. There is no one timeline with which you need to get over it. There’s not a handbook on how to do it. You know, it’s a common denominator of life. But we each do it differently. So, you know, show yourself love and compassion, I think is is the most important thing.

Thank you so much for talking. I really appreciate it.

Elizabeth Alexander

00:39:35

Thank you so much. And thank you for heart to heart.

Elizabeth Alexander, thank you.

By the way, in my thirties I did start to celebrate Christmas again, Thanksgiving as well. I was initially pushed into it by my boyfriend at the time. And while I didn’t find it easy and in some ways still don’t, I continue to do it. Now of course, with kids it is much easier because it’s all about them and creating new memories and new traditions. And yeah, the holidays still make me a little sad, but I can enjoy the joy my kids take in them, and I no longer dread them in the same way my mom and I once did.

Thanks so much for listening. Just a reminder, if you want to call and leave voicemail with something that you think might help others in their grief. The number you can call is (631) 657-8379. I hope you join me next week for another edition of All There Is.

All There Is with Anderson Cooper’s production of CNN Audio. Felicia Patinkin is the supervising producer and showrunner. Our producers are Lori Galarreta and Rachel Cohn. Sonia Htoon, Audrey Horowitz and Charis Satchell are associate producers. This episode is mixed by Tommy Bazarian.

Our technical director is Dan Dzula. Artwork designed by Nichole Pesaru and Jamus Andrest.

With support from Charlie Moore, Jessica Ciancimino, Chip Grabow, Steve Kiehl, Anissa Gray, Francisco Monroy. Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Lindsay Abrams, Megan Marcus. Alex McCall and Lisa Namerow.