The former Today co-host was with the Kennedy matriarch after Michael Kennedy died in 1997 — and Gifford shared "the only words that could comfort her heart long enough to give her the strength to move away from her beloved son"

By Charlotte Triggs and Sean Neumann
December 01, 2020 07:46 PM
Advertisement
From left: Michael Kennedy and Vicki Gifford in 1980
| Credit: Mediapunch/Shutterstock

Kathie Lee Gifford is opening up about the moment she consoled the Kennedy family during one of their losses.

In her book It’s Never Too Late, published Tuesday, the former Today co-host recounts how she sat with Ethel Kennedy beside the body of Michael Kennedy, Ethel's son, after he was pronounced dead on New Year’s Eve in 1997.

“She was grieving so deeply that she couldn't move,” Gifford, 67, tells PEOPLE. “She was literally paralyzed with grief.”

Michael, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was killed at 39 after slamming into a tree while skiing in Aspen, Colorado, with other members of his famous family.

Gifford’s stepdaughter, Vicki Gifford, the daughter of her late husband Frank Gifford, had just recently split with Michael before the accident and was in anguish over his death.

“Vicki heaved heartbroken tears,” Gifford writes in her book, recalling the ride to the hospital along with Frank and his daughter.

Vicki, then separated from Michael after the notorious revelation that he had an affair with the family’s teenage babysitter, was dealing with a swirl of emotions, according to Gifford.

“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,” Gifford writes. “She would always love him.”

Gifford writes that after she, Frank and Vicki arrived at the hospital, she ran into Ethel, now 92, outside Michael’s room.

• For more about Kathie Lee Gifford's latest book and her revealing memories, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up next week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

From left: Victoria Gifford, Andrew Cuomo, Frank Gifford, Ethel Kennedy, Beth Kennedy, and Courtney Kennedy Hill at Michael Kennedy's funeral
| Credit: Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty
From left: Michael Kennedy and Vicki Gifford during their engagement party at Le Club in New York City in 1980.
| Credit: Ron Galella Collection via Getty
From left: Ethel Kennedy, Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee Gifford, with Kailash Satyarthi
| Credit: STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP via Getty

“I found myself standing directly across from Ethel Kennedy, still in her ski suit but disheveled, with her jacket hanging from her waist,” Gifford writes. “The look on her face was one of utter and total shock.”

According to Gifford, Ethel’s face was the same as in the moments after her husband was assassinated near her in 1968: “I wish I could erase it from my memory, but I can’t," she writes.

My God, I thought, how much can one woman take?” Gifford continues in her book. “I quietly walked over to her and embraced her and whispered how sorry I was. She had always been very candid that Michael was her favorite child of the eleven she had born. And now, he, too, was gone.”

Gifford initially waited outside the hospital but then went to give a message to Vicki, who left to be with her kids, while Gifford and Frank stayed for about an hour, Gifford writes.

Ethel “did not say a word” and “did not cry a tear,” Gifford writes, adding that she refused "to leave her son’s lifeless body, shaking her head adamantly when anyone came in to try to convince her to depart.”

"I looked at Frank as if to ask, 'What are we going to do?' ” Gifford writes. "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."

After praying silently to herself, Gifford turned to Ethel and whispered a Bible verse to her: “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord," she remembers saying, according to her book.

From left: Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee Gifford
| Credit: Marion Curtis/Getty
Credit: Jeremy Cowart

“What did you say?” Gifford writes that Ethel replied, before she explained the verse and 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.”

Gifford “gently squeezed her [Ethel's] arm and left the room, marveling yet again at God and how He works through His Word,” she writes, adding that she believes the Bible passage contained “the only words that could comfort her heart long enough to give her the strength to move away from her beloved son.”

"Ethel is someone who's had religion her whole life,” Gifford tells 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 word of God has power," Gifford says. "It is the power of all life is in the word and the words. And that's what broke through the darkness for her — the light of the truth of God's word."