May 17, 2018 11:00 AM

Patricia Heaton has relied on her faith for as long as she can remember.

As a young Catholic girl, Heaton, 60, was raised to believe that “suffering is what you do.” But when her mother, Patricia Hurd Heaton, suddenly died of an aneurysm, her world turned upside down.

“I think the most defining moment of my childhood was my mother passed away very suddenly, when I was 12,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “And so, that kind of does something to you, especially as Irish Catholics. There was no therapy, there was no grief counseling. It was like, ‘Okay, we just came from the funeral. Has everybody finished their homework?’… The foundation of your life has been pulled out from under you, in a very primal way.”

Katy Jones

But spiritually, Heaton felt at ease.

“In a way I feel like my mother’s death was a severe mercy because it set me up to become independent, to know that life is fleeting, and you need to pursue the thing you wanna pursue because you never know how long you have,” she says. “And it also makes you value the time and events that do come into your life.”

“And it also makes everything else not so terrible, because it’s almost the worst thing that could happen to you,” she adds. “The only worse thing would be if you, God forbid, I don’t even like to say it out loud, lost a child. So that would be the worst, but I’ve experienced the second worst. And you know, the beauty of being a Catholic is, this is not the last time I will ever see my mother, we will be together again, there’s just this period where she’s not here, and so it’s not the most desperate feeling. It’s pretty bad, but it’s not the worst.”

  • For more on Patricia Heaton, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday

The actress persevered through the trauma. Heaton, who went on to star in Everybody Loves Raymond beside Ray Romano for nine seasons and ABC’s The Middle — which is coming to an end after nine seasons on May 22 — says she could not feel more grateful for her journey thus far.

RELATED VIDEO: ‘The Middle’ Star Patricia Heaton Reveals What Shows She’s Binge-Watching!

Craig Sjodin/ABC

“I am so aware of how blessed I am, but there are more challenges ahead,” she says, later adding, “It’s hard, sitting where I am now and having been privileged to be a part of the shows that I’m on, to say I would do anything different. Because it’s almost like everything led to this. But I felt that’s totally God’s grace.”

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