"I've become a widow, an orphan and an empty-nester all at once," Kathie Lee Gifford tells PEOPLE

By Charlotte Triggs
March 27, 2019 08:00 AM
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Kathie Lee Gifford is getting ready to say goodbye to the Today show — but she says it’s been harder than expected.

“I thought I’d stay a year and here it is 11 years later,” Gifford, 65, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview a few weeks before her final broadcast, April 5. “And in those 11 years a lot of life has happened.”

Gifford rejoiced in watching her co-host and close friend Hoda Kotb, 54, find a partner in Joel Schiffman, and become a mother to Haley Joy, now 2, through adoption in 2017. But she also experienced devastating personal losses.

Kathie Lee Gifford
Brian Doben

In 2015, her husband of 29 years, former NFL player and broadcaster Frank Gifford, died at 84. In 2017, her mother Joan died in her sleep at age 87. With her children Cody, 29, and Cassidy, 26, grown and living in Los Angeles, “I experienced huge changes,” Gifford says. “I’ve become a widow, an orphan and an empty-nester all at once. There’s nothing really keeping me in this part of the country anymore except for my job.”

From left: Frank Gifford, Cody Gifford, Cassidy Gifford and Kathie Lee Gifford
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

As Gifford began writing and producing Christian songs and films (her film Love Me to Death, costarring Craig Ferguson, comes out this month), she realized it was time to make a change.

  • For more from Kathie Lee Gifford, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Perry Hagopian

“The work that I want to do isn’t here anymore,” she says, gesturing around her dressing room at the show’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza studio. “I am an artist, I’m an actress, I’m a writer, I’m a songwriter, a director now. That’s the stuff that feeds my soul and I know that I’m running out of time to do those things.”

Kotb commends Gifford’s ability to start over. “Kathie Lee’s been through all the phases of her life in front of America and sharing it for the world, really. I don’t think we have seen that before: Someone who met their husband and had her children and then we witnessed the loss. You realize, you have watched every phase of life and now she’s in this new act, where she is pursuing new dreams. Kathie Lee is proof to everybody that it’s not too late.”

For Gifford, the decision to depart the show was a long time coming. Although the loss of her husband was sudden, Gifford says she felt a sense of calm throughout the aftermath. “I didn’t panic at all,” she says. “I had what the Bible calls ‘the peace that passes understanding’ from the moment I found my husband on the floor that Sunday morning, August 9, 2015. It was Hoda’s birthday and it was a beautiful Sunday morning, and I found my husband [with his mouth agape]. I knew he saw Jesus and Jesus took his breath away. He was at peace. He was in a better place,” she recalls.

Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford

Kotb commends her friend for staying strong: “She spent most of her time comforting others that day. I was crying and she said, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ ”

Although she says friends advised her not to make any sudden changes after Frank’s death, Gifford says she began to feel a pervasive loneliness at the Greenwich, Connecticut, home her family had shared, particularly after her mother’s death.

WATCH: Kathie Lee Gifford: ‘There Are Times When I’m Overwhelmed By Loneliness’ in Wake of Frank’s Death

“In our family, we always did something called, ‘sunset alert,’ ” Gifford recalls. “We always lived in places where the sunsets were spectacular. And no matter what, we would have to drop whatever we were doing and go and honor the sunset because God made it. And for me, the hardest part of my day became sunsets when it would just be me and I’d go, ‘sunset alert’ by myself,” she says, beginning to tear up. “It made me realize, I don’t want to stop being joyful. I’m going to go share my sunset somewhere.”

Kathie Lee Gifford
Brian Doben

Next up, a move to Nashville, where Gifford has already bought a house. “Even if you’re just having a dinner party there, invariably people end up at your piano or taking your guitar off the wall, and next thing you know, you’ve written a song and you’re in the studio the next week doing a demo,” she says.

Leaving the show behind (former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager, 37, is set to step in as co-host alongside Kotb on April 8) “is bittersweet,” Gifford says, “but I fell in love with the people and I intend to take them with me wherever I go.”