For decades Melissa and Joan Rivers were joined at the lip—a caustic, gossipy twosome interviewing celebrities on the pre-award show red carpet circuit and working together on the E! network’s megahit Fashion Police. The mother and daughter appeared together on reality shows such as Celebrity Apprentice (Joan won!), and Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best. The year before Joan’s tragic 2014 death as the result of a botched outpatient procedure, Melissa co-created and co-produced her mother’s web series In Bed with Joan.
Melissa, a single mother raising 18-year-old Cooper, has said, “I was the straight man. She was the funny one. … If you come across a partnership like that once in your life, as a performer, you’re lucky.”
During our hour-long FaceTime conversation, Melissa opened up on everything from her hard-won lessons about the right—and wrong—ways to handle grief to what it really felt like to be on live TV with Megyn Kelly when the Today morning host chirped cheerfully that it was just peachy to wear blackface on Halloween, to the enduring legacy of philanthropy from both parents that has shaped Melissa’s life.
NEXT TRIBE: You were your son’s age when your father Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide. How did you come out the other side of that unbearable grief?
MELISSA: My mother forced me into grief counseling. When people who’ve lost someone to suicide are resistant to therapy, I say things along the lines of: “It’s one hour a week that you don’t have to burden your friends and you don’t have to say thank you for listening.”
And Mariette Hartley saved my life. She’d maybe met my parents once. Mariette’s father committed suicide when she was a teen. She tracked me down and gave me what I needed most—honesty. She said, “This is awful and this is what you’re gonna feel and these are the steps you’re gonna go through.”
NT: Judy Collins credited your mom with helping her get through the suicide of her 33-year-old son by saying, “If you don’t keep working, you’re not going to get over this. Find something worthwhile to pour your love into.” Great advice but shouldn’t you ideally allow yourself time to grieve before plunging into saving the world?
Melissa: Yes, but sometimes you don’t have the luxury of falling apart. I had to deal with businesses and deals and charities and the estate. And I had to help my son. Joan was the other parent. They were so close. After she died, he said, “Nothing will ever be good again.” Much as I wanted to say, “You’re right,” because that’s how I felt in the moment, I had to tell him, “You’re wrong. Things are going to be amazing and fantastic and wonderful. They’re going to be different but it doesn’t mean they’re not going to be great.” It was important for him to see me grieve, but you cannot allow a child to see loss destroy you.
Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of falling apart.
NT: How did your father’s death impact your relationship with your mother?
MR: In the flush of grief it’s very easy to want to blame someone for what happened. And you’re not abnormal for doing that. For 10 months to a year after my dad’s suicide my mother and I were estranged because I blamed her. We spoke occasionally—cursory conversations about when my plane was coming in for Thanksgiving—and did occasional therapy sessions together. She had to work through her own grief as well. It made us figure out who we were in each other’s lives. We’re very lucky we came out on the same side.
NT: What has your grief process over your mother’s death been like?
MR: My falling-apart period came the second year. The first year was surreal. The second was real. Initially, you’re prepared for the grief; you’re waiting to be sad and unhappy. After the one-year anniversary you let down your guard a little, and the truth sinks in—the person is really gone. Shit, this is reality. The new normal.
NT: While the suicide rate has risen 30 percent over the past two decades, it’s risen 60 percent in women between 45 and 64. What do you think contributes to that alarming statistic?
MR: The enormity of that statistic surprises me, but it might be due to a feeling of desperation and loneliness and a feeling that the best is behind you. A lot of women in this age group struggle with: “I’ve been a mom. The kids are out of the nest. Who am I now?”
NT: Show business is in your DNA, but so is altruism. Through the years you worked with your mother on charities ranging from PETA and Children Afflicted by AIDS to God’s Love We Deliver and GMHC. What charities are you primarily involved with these days?
MR: Giving back has always been an integral part of my family’s life. It’s part of Cooper’s DNA. It’s just what we do. After my dad’s suicide, helping suicide survivors became—and still is—very personal. I’m an Ambassador for Our House, a grief support center. My mom played Celebrity Apprentice for God’s Love We Deliver, and after her death they renamed their bakery Joan’s Bakery. I’m now on their board.
NT: You and your mother were considered a team. How hard has it been adjusting to being a solo act?
MR: Like starting from scratch. It’s still an uphill battle to get people to give me a chance. It always frustrated mom that people gave her all the credit and all the glory for what we did together. I’ve had some bleak moments but I am a product of my mother—I just keep going forward.
NT: What was going through your mind when Megyn Kelly made that racist comment? In the moment you and your co-panelists Jenna Bush Hager and NBC News’ Jacob Soboroff didn’t seem to react. How long did it take to sink in?
Melissa: It all happened so fast; We were in shock: “Huh. What did she say?” I remember looking at Jenna and Jacob and Megyn and thinking, “Oh shit.” I’m used to being a host so I jumped in and made a comment: “Normal people know where the line is.” Then I said a joke that popped into my head: “If you want to look like Diana Ross, you should dress as Michael Jackson.”
After the segment, I apologized to the producers: “I’m so sorry. You’re going to get so much heat for my joke.” They said, “No, it got a lot of laughs. It broke the tension.” Later, when the TMZ link came in, my first reaction was, “No, I made a comment that upset people!” It didn’t occur to me the media reaction was to Megyn’s comment because I thought it was obvious that you don’t wear blackface or dress like a Nazi or wear Klan Robes. Full Stop.
I remember looking at Megyn [Kelly] and thinking, Oh shit.
NT: What are you working on these days?
MR: I have a couple of really fun projects in development with a few different networks. I’m trying to put together a podcast. I just got named to the board of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, which is great. My happy place is the Dear Diary section of my website I write with my partner and just giggle. And I’m trying not to leap through the TV and scream, “Why?!!” when I watch the news.
NT: That’s a full plate. Last question: What is the most important lesson you try to impart to people who’ve suffered a loss?
MR: Some mornings were easier than others. You get up and put one foot in front of the other. You say: “Look, today I made it two steps out of the bed. Tomorrow I’ll make it three.” You’ve got to just man up—I hate that term but there you are!—and keep going.
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist, author of three relationship self-help books and editor of the anthology How Does That Make You Feel: True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch. She has contributed to many publications including New York, Washington Post, This Week, Reader’s Digest, Observer and vox.com.