Katie Couric on Husband Jay's Death from Cancer: 'I Was Too Scared' to Talk to Him About Dying

"I think it takes extraordinary courage to be able to face death, and I think I was too scared, honestly," Couric tells PEOPLE about her first husband Jay Monahan's death

When Katie Couric's husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer at age 42, the loss was agonizing. More than two decades later, she still gets tears in her eyes when she talks about him.

In this week's cover story, the former Today co-anchor looks back on the "early days" of their romance, when she met the "handsome, young, mischievous" man she would marry. But Couric also reflects on their struggles as a couple — and how differently she'd approach their last days together.

"I was so worried about letting go of hope, because I didn't want Jay to spend whatever time he had left just waiting to die," Couric, 64, tells PEOPLE about the difficult lesson she shares in her upcoming memoir Going There. "I think it takes extraordinary courage to be able to face death, and I think I was too scared, honestly."

She expands on this thought in her book, writing, "I did everything I could to keep Jay alive. Looking back, I wish I had done a better job helping him die."

For more from Katie Couric, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

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The journalist says writing her memoir helped her remember the heady start to their relationship.

"Writing this and remembering Jay and the early days of our courtship — the handsome, young, mischievous Jay I met that freezing January night at a party in northern Virginia — it reminded me of the sheer joy of starting out, starting our lives together," she says.

katie couric and jay with their kids
Katie Couric and Jay Monahan with their daughters. Courtesy Katie Couric

In Going There, Couric reveals she was the one to make the first move.

"I think I was shaped by the burgeoning feminist movement," she tells PEOPLE. "Why should I be the one sitting by the phone singing, 'Let it please be him...'? I don't think I have a shy bone in my body. But also I am terrified of rejection... I think I knew Jay liked me too."

She was drawn to Monahan for a variety of reasons.

"He always made me feel safe, whether he was guiding me on the dance floor or explaining what was happening if there was turbulence on the airplane," Couric says. "Because he'd gone to flight school, he'd be like, 'Right now the flaps are doing this.' And he was funny."

Couric and Monahan married in 1989 and welcomed two daughters together, Carrie, now 25, and Ellie, 30. In Going There, Couric details rocketing to fame on Today, where she served as co-host from 1991 through 2006, and the pressure that placed on her marriage.

While Monahan was "very supportive" of her career, she says, finances began to impact their relationship.

katie couric

"Jay's mom didn't work and his father was the breadwinner," says Couric. "And we both came from very traditional families. So, I think both the income disparity — that suddenly I was making more money than I ever dreamed of making, and add to that the fame that came with that — it was destabilizing. Honestly. It really was. And I think that created some challenges for us."

"I think that we would have been very well served to talk to somebody about kind of navigating this dramatic change in our dynamic," she continues. "I remember being young and thinking I never wanted to be beholden to a man or a partner for my financial security. I think that's sort of part of my DNA."

Their financial disparity may have created tension, but Couric says Monahan was never jealous.

"I don't think he felt jealous. I think he was really happy," she says. "I think jealous is the wrong word. I think he felt slightly diminished."

Katie Couric with Husband Jay Monahan
Katie Couric with husband Jay Monahan. Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty

Despite these challenges, their love for each other was strong. Couric believes their marriage would have lasted if Monahan had lived.

"I think so. I hope so. Do I know so? No," she says. "I think I would have done everything I could to make sure it did."

When Monahan was diagnosed with stage four metastatic colon cancer, Couric's whole life shifted. "It was a really scary time for everybody," she recalls.

Katie Couric and Husband Jay Monahan at Home
Deborah Feingold/Corbis/Getty

Work helped her survive one of the darkest times in her life, she says.

"Working was my salvation," Couric says. "If I was doing a cooking segment, I couldn't be thinking about, you know, Jay's latest scan. It helped me maintain my sanity."

Despite his heroic fight, Monahan died in 1998. Time and the support of her loved ones has helped Couric heal. (She married John Molner, 58, in 2014.) But her love for her late husband — and the lessons she's learned from his death — have stayed with her.

"I understand the fragility of life in a way that will always be with me," she says. "It also makes me realize the futility of being mad at somebody, of petty arguments. I always think about what David Cassidy said on his deathbed: 'So much wasted time.'"

Going There will hit bookstores on Oct. 26.

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