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Kathie Lee Gifford recalls comforting a devastated Ethel Kennedy after death of son Michael

Kathie Lee Gifford has opened up about consoling Ethel Kennedy at her late son Michael’s bedside after he was pronounced dead following a tragic skiing accident on New Year’s Eve in 1997.

The former Today co-host wrote about the heartbreaking moment in her new book It’s Never Too Late: Make the Next Act of Your Life the Best Act of Your Life, which was published on Tuesday. 

‘She was grieving so deeply that she couldn’t move,’ Kathie, 67, told People. ‘She was literally paralyzed with grief.’

Loss: Kathie Lee Gifford wrote about consoling Ethel Kennedy after her son Michael’s death in her new book, It’s Never Too Late: Make the Next Act of Your Life the Best Act of Your Life

Heartbreak: According to Kathie, Ethel (pictured at Michael's funeral in 1998) 'did not say a word' and 'did not cry a tear' in the hospital, but she refused 'to leave her son’s lifeless body'

Heartbreak: According to Kathie, Ethel (pictured at Michael’s funeral in 1998) ‘did not say a word’ and ‘did not cry a tear’ in the hospital, but she refused ‘to leave her son’s lifeless body’

Michael, who was the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, passed away at age 39 after skiing into a tree while playing football with several members of his family during a holiday vacation in Aspen, Colorado.

Kathie Lee’s stepdaughter, Vicki Gifford, was married to Michael, though they had just recently separated after the shocking revelation that he had an affair with the family’s teenage babysitter. 

In her book, the author recalled heading to the hospital with her late husband Frank Gifford and his oldest daughter, who was devastated by the loss.  

‘Vicki heaved heartbroken tears,’ Kathie wrote. 

‘She had loved Michael since she was fifteen years old, and although he had betrayed her and left her emotionally destroyed, she had never wished him harm,’ she noted. ‘She would always love him.’

Tragedy: Michael (pictured with Kathie) was pronounced dead at age 39 on New Year's Eve in 1997 after he skied into a tree while on a family vacation in Aspen, Colorado

Tragedy: Michael (pictured with Kathie) was pronounced dead at age 39 on New Year’s Eve in 1997 after he skied into a tree while on a family vacation in Aspen, Colorado

Awful" Kathie said Ethel had the same look of shock on her face at Michael's bedside as she did when her husband Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. They're pictured that year

Awful” Kathie said Ethel had the same look of shock on her face at Michael’s bedside as she did when her husband Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. They’re pictured that year 

When they arrived at the hospital, Kathie wrote that they saw Ethel standing outside of Michael’s room, still in her ski outfit, looking ‘disheveled, with her jacket hanging from her waist.’ 

‘The look on her face was one of utter and total shock,’ recalled Kathie, who said Ethel had the same look as she did right after her husband was assassinated in 1968.

‘I wish I could erase it from my memory, but I can’t,’ she wrote. ‘My God, I thought, how much can one woman take?’

‘I quietly walked over to her and embraced her and whispered how sorry I was,’ Kathie continued. ‘She had always been very candid that Michael was her favorite child of the eleven she had born. And now, he, too, was gone.’

According to Kathie’s account in the book, Ethel ‘did not say a word’ and ‘did not cry a tear,’ but she refused ‘to leave her son’s lifeless body, shaking her head adamantly when anyone came in to try to convince her to depart.’

Words: Kathie recalled whispering a Bible verse to Ethel that she took comfort in, saying: 'To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.' They're pictured together in 1998

Words: Kathie recalled whispering a Bible verse to Ethel that she took comfort in, saying: ‘To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.’ They’re pictured together in 1998 

Relatives: Kathie's stepdaughter, Vicki Gifford (front row, center), was married to Michael when he died, though they were separated following his affair with their teenage babysitter

Relatives: Kathie’s stepdaughter, Vicki Gifford (front row, center), was married to Michael when he died, though they were separated following his affair with their teenage babysitter  

‘I looked at Frank as if to ask, “What are we going to do?”‘ she wrote. ‘He looked at me helplessly. He had known Ethel for years and knew that no one could get Ethel Kennedy to do anything she wasn’t ready to do.’

Kathie said she prayed silently to herself before turning to Ethel and whispering a Bible verse to her: To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.’

Before she could explain the verse, she recalled how Ethel replied: ‘What did you say?’ Then Frank ‘signaled to me that I should leave so he could be there with her when she finally said goodbye to her cherished son for the last time.’

Kathie wrote that she ‘gently squeezed her [Ethel’s] arm and left the room, marveling yet again at God and how He works through His Word.’

She believes the Bible verse contained ‘the only words that could comfort her heart long enough to give her the strength to move away from her beloved son.’ 

Opening up: Kathie that her late husband Frank Gifford's daughter Vicki (center left) gave her permission to write about the tragic death of her husband Michael

Opening up: Kathie that her late husband Frank Gifford’s daughter Vicki (center left) gave her permission to write about the tragic death of her husband Michael

Love: 'She had loved Michael since she was fifteen years old, and although he had betrayed her and left her emotionally destroyed, she had never wished him harm,' Kathie wrote of Vicki

Love: ‘She had loved Michael since she was fifteen years old, and although he had betrayed her and left her emotionally destroyed, she had never wished him harm,’ Kathie wrote of Vicki

‘Ethel is someone who’s had religion her whole life,’ Kathie told People. ‘And so [God had] been a huge part of her life, but she’d never heard the scripture before that I shared with her in the book…It changed her life.’ 

The former Today star appeared on the show on Tuesday to promote her new book, saying she finally felt ‘free’ to write about certain moments in her life in detail. 

‘I didn’t want to write a how-to book. It would be two lines: Trust God. It would be a very short book,’ she said. ‘I wanted to have it entertaining. A lot of stories I retell, but I add more details to it. A lot of people have passed since things happened in my life, so I feel more freed up to share certain things.’ 

One of the stories she felt compelled to share in the book was seeing Ethel at Michael’s bedside. 

‘I felt free now to write that story. It was a powerful story,’ she said, noting that had Vicki’s approval beforehand.  

Looking back: Kathie explained a lot of the stories in the book she retold with more details, including a passage about her unhappy marriage to her first husband Paul Johnson (far left)

Looking back: Kathie explained a lot of the stories in the book she retold with more details, including a passage about her unhappy marriage to her first husband Paul Johnson (far left) 

Loss: Kathie met her second husband Frank Gifford on the set of Good Morning America in the '80s

Loss: Kathie met her second husband Frank on the set of Good Morning America (pictured) and they wed in 1986. he was caught cheating on her in 1997 with a married flight attendant

‘My daughter-in-law, Frank’s daughter Vicki, who had been married to Michael gave me permission,’ she explained. ‘She said, “Kathie, if it will help people, write about it.”‘

Kathie also wrote about her unhappy first marriage to Christian music composer Paul Johnson as well as her second husband Frank’s infidelity. 

She was a 22-year-old virgin when she fell for her first husband Paul, who was her Bible study group leader and seven years her senior. They married in 1976, but their lack of sexual chemistry led her to spend her wedding night in tears. They were together for six unfulfilling years before they finally divorced. 

‘He was never really my husband; he was somebody I was married to,’ she explained in a new interview with Parade. ‘I make a big distinction. I have absolutely no ill will or bad feelings toward him. I pray for him all the time. But it was a very, very, very unhappy marriage for both of us.’

In 1986, a decade after she first said ‘I do,’ she married Frank, who was the great love of her life. However, their marriage had its own struggles. 

Opening up: Kathie said she initially 'didn't want to' write about Frank's infidelity in her book but later changed her mind because she wanted people to know how they saved their marriage

Opening up: Kathie said she initially ‘didn’t want to’ write about Frank’s infidelity in her book but later changed her mind because she wanted people to know how they saved their marriage

Family: Kathie and Frank had two children together: Cody and Cassidy (pictured together in New York City in 2012)

Family: Kathie and Frank had two children together: Cody and Cassidy (pictured together in New York City in 2012)

Frank, who passed away at age 84 in 2015, was caught cheating on Kathie in 1997 with a married flight attendant, severely straining their marriage. 

Kathie told ET that she initially ‘didn’t want to’ write about Frank’s infidelity in her book but later changed her mind.   

‘It’s not a bed of roses. I mean, we struggled after that for a long time. He knew that I would never again be exactly the same as I was before I knew the truth of what he had done,’ she said. 

‘But we stayed together, we saved our marriage, we saved — by God’s grace — our children,’ she added. ‘I knew my children would be very, very different people if we had broken up at that time. But all these years later, I hear from people all the time who say I’m still married because of what you went through.’

Inspiring: Kathie's book is all about how it's never too late to go after your dreams

Inspiring: Kathie’s book is all about how it’s never too late to go after your dreams

She also addresses being sexually assaulted and date raped when she was younger, though she doesn’t go into detail about the attack. 

‘People don’t know things like that. If I wanted to share them, I would’ve told the whole story. I just thought it was enough to say, “No, I get you. I see you. I went through that too,”‘ she told ET. 

‘That’s what that’s about. There’s very, very few women in this industry who weren’t subjected to that kind of behavior and that kind of abuse. You know, I’m not gonna name names there. They know who they are.’

Kathie explained on the Today show on Tuesday that her children with Frank, Cody, 30, and Cassidy, 27, don’t want her talking about them, but she ‘can certainly talk about everybody else.’  

‘In different stages of your life, different seasons, you feel more at ease to share certain things. Or you remember certain things and you kind of go, “Ahh, I’ve never told that story,”‘ she said, noting that the famous people who appear in the book are truly her friends.  

‘I know it sounds like a who’s who of Hollywood and everything else when you look at these books, but these are people that are my friends,’ she said. 

‘They happen to be famous, but I have a real relationship with them. I look back on it and I’ve always felt like I’m Waldo. What was I doing there?’ 

Kathie stressed that she ‘doesn’t want to hurt anybody’ with the book, but the stories she shares are true and something that others can learn from.  

‘I feel freed up to tell the truth in the spirit of love,’ she said.  


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