"He was only 17 months old. He died in the most horrible way," Valerie Bertinelli says about her brother's death

By Liz McNeil
May 14, 2020 09:00 AM

Valerie Bertinelli is opening up about her search for self-acceptance.

At 60 years old, the star of Food Network's Valerie's Home Cooking is realizing that true acceptance comes from within, not the number on the scale — something she struggled with for many years.

Yet it was not always easy for her to talk about her feelings of sadness. Bertinelli, the third of five children born to Andrew, an executive at General Motors, and his wife Nancy, a stay at home mom, traces that difficulty back to her childhood in Wilmington, Delaware.

"When I came into the world, my mom was grieving," Bertinelli says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "She was pregnant with me when my brother Mark died. He was only 17 months old. He died in the most horrible way. They were visiting a friends' farm and he wandered off unsupervised and drank poison out of a bottle that wasn't supposed to have poison in it. It was a soda pop bottle."

Credit: John Russo
  • For more from Valerie Bertinelli, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

But Bertinelli didn't learn about his death until her early teen years. "The subject was too painful. My parents kept the tragedy locked inside."

Years later, when her grandmother died, she returned to Delaware for the burial and came to a new understanding of her parents' loss.

"My grandmother was buried not far from Mark's grave," she says. "I was holding Wolfie (her son with first husband Eddie Van Halen) who was 17 months old and thinking how did my mom survive? She had to keep going and I learned that from her. She had to carry on. She had a very hard life. She always tried to make the best of everything."

Valerie Bertinelli
| Credit: John Russo

That day when she saw her parents, she says, "I grew more in love with them, knowing what they had gone through."

She also sees that the lesson of carrying on was "ingrained in me from a very young age," she says. "I felt like I had to make everyone happy. It's a big job for a little kid."

Valerie Bertinelli standing beside her family cat in Clarkston, Michigan, in March 1971
| Credit: Courtesy Valerie Bertinelli

Her father died in 2016 and her mother died last June. Looking back, she says, "I know they both did the best they could."

She thinks of her mom often and says, "every so often, I still want to call her up and ask her about a recipe."

She hopes by sharing her struggles, she can help others. "You can't make everybody like you — that is scientifically impossible — but you can connect with people who need to hear your story, and my hope is I hope I can connect with someone who needs to hear my story."

"More than ever we need to treat ourselves with kindness," she says, "and it starts with ourselves."