Cooper, 14, is "very protective of me," Melissa tells PEOPLE

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Credit: Justin Coit

Melissa Rivers shares her personal memories of her mother, Joan, and the lessons she taught her about laughter and love. Subscribe now for instant access to this exclusive interview, only in PEOPLE.

After her mother Joan Rivers died last September, Melissa Rivers found strength in being a mom to her 14-year-old son, Cooper, and the memories they shared together as a family.

“Cooper and I talk to each other in a casual way that my mom would have never spoken to me in,” Melissa tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “It’s just the two of us.”

Yet Cooper and Joan, who lived with them three days a week, were “ridiculously close,” explains Melissa, 47, noting that Joan’s death was like the loss of a parent to him. “There wasn’t that generational gap. It’s that great joke, ‘Why do grandparents and grandkids get along so well? Common enemy.’ ”

When Melissa was growing up, Joan was “very strict” with her, and she says she’s intent on raising Cooper in a similar way.

“She would always say I was a much better parent than she was,” Melissa says. “Which sounds like a compliment until you think, ‘Wait a minute, what’s so messed up about me?!’ ”

Joan’s absence in their life after the funeral, “was very hard on Cooper. He was so sad,” Melissa says. At one point the two were lying on his bed at night and Cooper told his mom, ” ‘Nothing is ever going to be good again,’ ” Melissa recalls. “I just told him, ‘It’s going to be good. We have each other. It s going to be okay.’ ”

Seeing his mom upset was even more troubling for Cooper, who is “very protective” of Melissa, she says.

“In the beginning, when I would cry, he would get really frustrated and upset and say, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Because he couldn t fix it,” she adds. “I just told him it’s okay to cry. And we had lots of nights where we just cuddled. And he would come home sometimes and just say, ‘I’m not having a good day.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s okay. You’re allowed.’ ”

Melissa has been especially careful to not to have any emotional breakdowns in front of her son. In those moments, “I go in my closet and I shut the door and I sit on the floor. And then I just cry,” she says. “It’s a release. And Cooper doesn’t need to see the days I fall apart. It’s okay for him to see me sad. But he doesn’t need to see me in a puddle.”

In her new memoir, The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation, Rivers pays tribute to her mother – and especially the grandmother that Cooper adored. Now, the two are focused on a future with more laughs than tears.

“In the last six weeks, I see him coming out of the fog,” Melissa says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s my son again.’ ”

For more of Melissa Rivers’ exclusive photo shoot and at-home interview – in which she opens up about Joan’s final days and her new relationship – pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday