Not a day goes by where Barbara Eden doesn’t think of her late son Matthew.
In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, the iconic television and film actress, 90, opens up about the tragic death of her son 20 years ago, the guilt she felt, and the lessons she’s learned.
“When Matthew was clean and sober, he was such a beautiful human being, inside and out,” she says of her son, who died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2001. “Drugs are inexplicable. It’s so frustrating.”
Eden and her first husband, actor Michael Ansara, tried for nearly seven years to conceive a child before getting the news they had been wishing for.
“The same day that I Dream of Jeannie sold, the doctor told me I was pregnant,” says Eden, who starred in the NBC sitcom from 1965-1970. “I was thrilled. I was so happy, but I knew they’d have to replace me. Well, God love [I Dream of Jeannie creator] Sidney Sheldon. He got to work and we did the first 13 shows with me pregnant with Matthew.”
“I don’t know if becoming a mom changed me, but it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me,” she continues. “It’s a miracle, having a baby, and having this little creation. I get goosebumps when I think about it. It’s the loveliest thing that happened in my life.”
Years later, Eden, Ansara and their son were met with a roller coaster of emotions as Matthew, who was in and out of rehab for 14 years before he died, fought his addiction.
“At first we didn’t recognize the behavior — the sleeping and the bouts of anger that would come up all of a sudden with this charming, darling boy. I was scared to death,” says Eden. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“He was too young to know he needed rehab or help,” she adds. “It’s a wonder that he lived to be 35.”
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Matthew died on June 25, 2001.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse than to lose your child,” she says. “As a parent, I had a lot of guilt and anger, and following his death I was always on the edge of tears. Even though he was 35, he was still my baby.”
“I began to speak with parents who were going through the same thing,” she continues. “I think parents should know that it’s not a bad thing to be strict with your child. If you know what’s going on, you have a chance to help. Ultimately it’s up to them, but there’s hope.”
And while Eden says you can never really “cope” with losing a child, she continues to live day by day and count her blessings.
Watch the full episode of People Features: Barbara Eden on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.
“I’m really lucky,” says the star, who has been happily married to real estate developer Jon Eicholtz, 83, for 30 years.
“I have dear friends,” she continues. “I have wonderful family, a very supportive husband. A dog who is adorable, but a brat! Yes, I’m very happy. I think life, everything, has to work itself out. There’s a reason for most things, and I can’t wish for it.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.