Wood, 43, had died in a drowning accident in the waters off of Catalina Island in the early morning hours.
Her daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, now 49, recounts the moment in detail in her new memoir More Than Love excerpted exclusively in this week’s PEOPLE.
“After Daddy confirmed that my mother was gone, the sensation I most vividly remember is pure terror,” Natasha writes. “Did the one thing I’ve been most scared of my whole life actually just happen?”
Her death shattered the family.
- For more on Natalie Wood and her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner pick up a copy of this week’s PEOPLE.
“My mom was so huge in her love and her heart and her laughter and in her life, and then overnight, it just left, and I became a shadow of myself,” Natasha tells PEOPLE.
In the years that followed, the sensational headlines: the mysterious death of the gorgeous actress who had been on a sailing trip with her husband (Wagner) and her costar Christopher Walken grew to dominate the story of her life — and talent — as seen in such beloved films as Miracle On 34th St, Gypsy and Splendor In the Grass.
But Natasha never publicly addressed the pain that had brought her family — until now.
In her memoir and a powerful new HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (premiering on May 5) she shares intimate details about the mom she knew and loved.
“I want to set the record straight and I want to live in the light,” says Natasha. “And I want my mom’s memory to live in the light.”
For the first time, in both the book and film, she examines what happened that night, and how she came to believe that her mother, who had had too much to drink, slipped on the steps of their boat, the Splendour, and fell into the water after trying to tie up a dingy that was banging against the boat.
“I have always understood that my mother slipped and fell, bruising her body and possibly ending up unconscious before she entered the water — but we can never know with complete certainty,” she writes.
“I have had to make peace with not knowing,” she continues. “I wish others could do the same.”
And so, she focuses on the things she does know. “And I know that this is how she wants to be remembered. She was human, she was an artist who struggled and she was brave and she was happy.”
While writing the book and researching for the film, she read her mom’s journals and interviewed her closest friends. “I felt so proud of her,” says Natasha. “I’m proud that she was so thoughtful and that she wanted to be more than a movie star.”
While to the world, she remains one of the most incandescent stars of her time, Natasha remembers her as the mom who called her “Natooshie,” and loved to read her fairytales.
“She was a fairytale to me in a way,” says Natasha, “and I feel like she was waiting for me to get to a place in my growth where I could come and breathe life into her. Maybe she was ready sooner but she knew that I wasn’t. But now I am.”
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind will premiere Tuesday, May 5 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, exclusively on HBO.