Dana Rose Falcone, REPORTED BY MICHAEL MILLER, and Johnny Dodd
February 02, 2015 12:00 PM

BRITTANY MAYNARD’S MOM

‘Brittany Built Joy into Each Day’

Debbie Ziegler tells PEOPLE’s Nicki Egan about her grief and gratitude for those precious final months before her terminally ill daughter ended her life

During the weeks following the death of her only child, Debbie Ziegler would often drive the short distance from her home in Carlsbad, Calif., to the beach, walk to the end of a jetty overlooking the ocean and unleash her anger and pain. “I just let myself grieve and rage and cry,” says Ziegler, 56, who is speaking for the first time since her terminally ill daughter, Brittany Maynard, made the controversial choice to end her life Nov. 1 under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. “If I needed to scream, I would scream. The waves would drown me out.” In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Ziegler opened up about her journey from grief to gratitude, and her determination, along with Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz (PEOPLE, Jan. 26), to fulfill a promise to Brittany to fight for laws like Oregon’s nationwide. When Maynard was first diagnosed last January, “we had some flicker of hope there was someone who could buy her time,” Ziegler says, tearing up. But after doctors gave Maynard six months to live, the 29-year-old nature-loving former teacher, who was experiencing severe headaches and seizures, set Nov. 1 as a date to take a physician-prescribed overdose of the sedative secobarbital. Once she made that decision with her family’s support, “we could forget we were facing this and be in the moment,” Ziegler says. “We could take a trip, ride in a helicopter, go hiking. She was relaxing, she was present and really enjoying what we were doing. We had those minutes because of this law. That’s why I’m willing to work [on this] even though I’m not a political animal. I am just willing to share from my mother’s heart.” Having witnessed her daughter’s passing—”it was peaceful, it was quick”—Ziegler takes comfort knowing that Maynard avoided the horrific pain and loss of self she feared most. These days when she thinks about her daughter’s death, she feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude. “Strangely enough, I don’t flash back to her having seizures. I think of the gift we were given, those months we had together…. Brittany built joy into every day.” Ziegler vowed she’d do the same. “I promised her I would be a person who was not hard, not bitter and was moving forward,” says Ziegler, who got a tattoo that says “Be Soft” on her right foot as a daily reminder. “I told her, ‘You will be proud of who I am.’ ”

A JOYFUL LIFE

“She exuded love,” says Ziegler of Maynard (clockwise from left: on her wedding day, with Ziegler in Halloween wigs in 2011 and in matching sweatshirts after her surgery last year).

“I miss her laugh,” says Ziegler (above with Maynard in France in 2008).

Brady Smith, Tiffani Thiessen & Harper Renn

BABY NEWS

Former Saved by the Bell star Tiffani Thiessen, 41, is expecting her second child—a boy!—with her husband, actor Brady Smith, her rep confirmed to PEOPLE exclusively on Jan. 15. “We could not be more excited about extending our family,” the couple said of giving daughter Harper Renn, 4, a sibling. Thiessen’s new Cooking Channel show, Dinner at Tiffani’s, will premiere on Feb. 25.

Grimm actress Claire Coffee, 34, is pregnant with her first child with musician Chris Thile, 33, her rep told PEOPLE exclusively on Jan. 14.

Actress Ali Larter, 38, and husband actor Hayes MacArthur, 37, welcomed a girl, Vivienne Margaret, on Jan. 15. She joins big brother Theodore, 4.

Former Bachelor contestant Renee Oteri Maynard, 33, gave birth to a baby boy, Jax Bracy, on Jan. 15. This is her first child with husband Bracy Maynard. “We are so in love,” says Oteri, who is also mom to son Ben, 9, from a previous relationship.

Walking Dead actress Sonequa Martin-Green, 29, and husband Kenric Green welcomed their first child, Kenric Justin Green II.

ENGAGED

The NFL’s first openly gay player Michael Sam, 25, proposed to longtime boyfriend Vito Cammisano while the two vacationed in Europe. “Thank you for saying yes,” Sam tweeted to Cammisano on Jan. 16.

Singer Usher, 36, is engaged to manager Grace Miguel.

Just months after being spotted as a couple, actors Ian Somerhalder, 36, and Nikki Reed, 26, are engaged, a source confirmed to PEOPLE on Jan. 15.

MARRIED

Bachelorette star Desiree Hartsock, 28, and Chris Siegfried, 29, said “I do” on Jan. 18. The couple met on the reality show and Siegfried proposed during the season finale in August 2013. “The day was so filled with love,” a source from the show told PEOPLE.

Desiree Hartsock & Chris Siegfried

British comedian and writer Stephen Fry, 57, tweeted on Jan. 17 that he and Elliott Spencer, 27, had wed—less than two weeks after announcing their engagement.

CONTROVERSY

Lebanese Miss Universe contestant Saly Greige, 25, is facing backlash at home for an Instagram photo in which she appeared with Miss Israel, Doron Matalon, 21. The two countries are technically still at war, though borders remain quiet, but Israeli goods are banned in Lebanon.

“My hands are covered in scabs,” says Jorgeson (left) with Caldwell.

Epic Climbers ‘Starting to Heal’

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made history with their grueling 19-day climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan

The 3,000-ft.-high smooth granite face of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall has been called the world’s toughest climb, and now Caldwell and Jorgeson, who slept and ate on the massive monolith for nearly three weeks, are both paying the price. “It’s going to be a while before everything comes back and is normal,” Caldwell, 36, who spent seven years preparing for the climb that the two rock jocks finally finished on Jan. 14, tells PEOPLE. “I have a lot of calluses on my fingers and now they’re actually starting to dry out, crack and split.” His 30-year-old climbing partner, who resorted to using superglue to protect the battered skin on his fingers, is also on the mend after the grueling ascent. “My hands took a pretty big beating on the wall and they still hurt,” adds Jorgeson. “There are bruises all over the tips on the callused parts, but they’re starting to heal.” Was all the pain worth it? “Definitely,” says Caldwell. “This helped me reach a new level of obsession to see how far I can push myself.”

Why I Care

PERSONAL STORIES ABOUT GIVING BACK

Poehler, 43, bonded with children in 2013 during a trip to Haiti.

Amy Poehler

The actress is Arts Ambassador for the Worldwide Orphans Foundation

I first met Dr. Jane [Aronson, founder of Worldwide Orphans] many years ago at an event in N.Y.C., and we became fast friends. I always tend to be impressed by people who aren’t afraid to tackle big problems. I was actually pregnant at the time, and it made very simple sense to me that every child should be protected, fed, clothed, taken care of and able to live a healthy life surrounded with creativity and love. Dr. Jane and I ended up traveling to Haiti together in 2012 [into 2013], and we met all these exciting young people working to help even younger people. I was really inspired by how little it takes to change the course of someone’s life and help people take care of themselves—which is what WWO is about. It’s not just about raising money. It’s about developing relationships and making the whole world pay attention and take care of each other. And, of course, there’s also a lot of laughter. That’s what [last year’s comedy benefit show for WWO] at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre was about. Every time you do comedy, it’s a celebration of being alive. It’s a celebration of people giving their time and their hearts.

For more information, go to wwo.org

CRIME

On Jan. 9 San Diego mom Kathy Rowe, 53, was sentenced to five years probation for harassing couple Jerry Rice and Janice Ruhter—who outbid her on a home she wanted to buy in 2011. Rowe, who (among other bizarre acts) put the home up for sale, was also ordered to a year of home electronic surveillance and must avoid the couple for 10 years.

DEATHS

Music producer and songwriter Kim Fowley died on Jan. 15 at age 75. Fowley, who launched the all-female punk group the Runaways, was battling bladder cancer. Frontwoman Joan Jett tweeted, “[Kim] taught me so much. I am very sad.”

Fitness expert and Friends to Lovers star Greg Plitt died on Jan. 17 at age 37 after being struck by a Metrolink train in Burbank.

Crosby, Stills & Nash drummer Dallas Taylor died at age 66 on Jan. 18.

Arizona real estate agent Erica Morales, 36, died after giving birth to quadruplets on Jan. 17. “She never got to hold them,” said Morales’s cousin Nicole Todman.

Runaway Teens Arrested

A Kentucky couple were apprehended in Florida after a Bonnie and Clyde-style crime spree

Dalton Hayes, 18, and his girlfriend Cheyenne Phillips, 13, were taken into custody on Jan. 18 in Panama City Beach, Fla., after being found by authorities in a vehicle they reportedly stole in Georgia. The teens allegedly began their crime spree on Jan. 4, plowing through a Kentucky cattle farm in a different stolen vehicle. On Jan. 12 they resurfaced when cashing a stolen check at a South Carolina Walmart. Hayes’s mom, Tammy Martin, said her son is ready to “face the consequences.”

Hayes & Phillips

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