Skip to main content

John Ritter's widow carries on 'With Love and Laughter'

By Katie McLaughlin, CNN
Click to play
Rememebering John Ritter
  • John Ritter died of a then-undiagnosed aortic dissection on September 11, 2003
  • His widow, Amy Yasbeck, has written a book about their relationship
  • Yasbeck also founded the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health

New York -- Actor John Ritter died of a then-undiagnosed aortic dissection on September 11, 2003. He was 54. His sudden death, which was later found to have been avoidable, shocked the world and left his family grief-stricken.

In her book, "With Love and Laughter, John Ritter," his wife, actress Amy Yasbeck, opens up about Ritter's life, the couple's time together and enduring the heartbreak of loss.

The book also serves as Yasbeck's account of her call to action for both the public and medical community, which resulted in the creation of the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health as well as Ritter Rules.

CNN: The title of your book itself -- "With Love and Laughter" -- has a heartfelt story behind it. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yasbeck: John used to sign his autographs to his fans, "With Love and Laughter, John Ritter." That's how he wanted people to run their lives, and that's how I live my life with our daughter, Stella. The only thing you can do is react to stuff. I can't change anything that's happened, but with love -- love my family, love the people who don't even know they have an aortic aneurysm or dissection, so with love I'm trying to spread the word about that. And laughter, too! Laugh as much and as often as possible. It's all about random acts of goofiness.

When I lost John, people from all over -- friends, fans and strangers -- sent all kinds of books about grieving and mourning and loss. I read all of them. I was desperate for information and all of them had a little something for me -- nuggets here and there. What meant the most to me -- and it's a teeny little book -- was C.S. Lewis' "A Grief Observed." Much of that book is almost like journaling. A lot of it was: "I don't know what I'm doing; I don't know how to do this." This coming from someone who usually wrote about having all the answers, like he did in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," meant the world to me. I was hearing it from somebody who had gone through it and come out the other side. There are no instructions for it. The other book that really saw me through it was Anne Lamott's "Operating Instructions," because it taught me that there ARE no operating instructions.

CNN: Is the book more of a biography, self-help, a tribute to John's memory, or something else?

Yasbeck: I know I've seen it in the bookstore under "biography" and I get that. It's certainly not "self-help." It sort of falls in the cracks, categorically speaking. But I think instead of hurting it, that'll help its appeal -- speaking as somebody stumbling through the grieving process herself, trying to be a whole human being for her child and not just half of something.

CNN: In the book, you talk about how John was grateful for the opportunities he was given in life and how he emphasized the importance of making sure the people you love understand how much they mean to you. How did John embody this in his everyday life?

Yasbeck: As goofy as he could be, he was an extremely intelligent guy. He could -- and did -- also talk to presidents and kings and queens. When he met Princess Diana, he said, "I see why people would go to war for a princess." He said he felt like a knight (which is actually what "Ritter" means in German). He was very, very, very well-read; a brilliant guy. But if there was a lot of goofiness going on and you needed him to focus, to have your back or to give advice, he was right there. Nothing was more important than his family. And all four of his children miss that terribly, but he instilled in them the notion that the people who love and support you every day deserve your undivided attention.

CNN: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you're doing on behalf of your husband, and the foundation you started in John Ritter's name?

Yasbeck: First off, I would say when somebody gets the book, if they think that they have somebody in their family that has an aortic dissection or aneurysm: Please read chapter 24 first and then take the book with you when you're sitting in your doctor's waiting room, because you need to get scanned. It's a familial aortic, thoracic dissection that is many times a genetic disorder. So you can see this bullet coming, it's not a random thing. So the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health is how to maintain your aortic health, and how to know if you're at risk for aortic dissection. We just teamed up with UT Health with the University of Texas in Houston to do the John Ritter Research Program, which is a whole program dedicated to genetic research into the cause and treatment of aortic dissection.

A couple years after John died; Tom [Ritter's brother] had gotten a scan when we realized that this could be a genetic thing. So everybody in the family got scanned. Tom was found to have an aneurysm in his aorta in the exact same place as John's, which is a widening of a tube that's shaped like a candy cane and is about the width of a garden hose. When it becomes aneurismal it becomes approximately the size of a soda can.

CNN: Is that what leads to the tear?

Yasbeck: Yes -- but there are a lot of differing factors because it has to do with an instability in the smooth muscle tissue, which makes up the three concentric layers of the aorta. So if one layer gets a nick -- and we're not even sure quite how that happens, it's still being studied -- then the force of the blood being pumped from your heart carves its way and diverts the bloodstream from going where its supposed to go. It goes in-between the layers and eventually, in some cases, can even rupture to the outside of the aorta.

CNN: How does it feel to know that the foundation you started is saving lives and making it so that fewer people have to go through what you and your daughter went through?

Yasbeck: It has made the years, the days, the nights and the hours following the loss of my husband and of the kids' dad not completely black and blue. You obviously feel the bruise of a loss like that forever, but to know that people come up to me and talk about how John's name -- just the fact that he died of this thing that they didn't even know they had -- was the reason their doctor checked them or that it was in the front of the mind of their doctor or their surgeon or the paramedic or the nurse ... anybody can pull the trigger on, "Hey have you been checked for the John Ritter thing?" Then everybody knows what that is. It's not really in the front of people's minds, and it should be. Ritter Rules is something that the Thoracic Aortic Disease (TAD) Coalition, which I'm a part of, put together. It was compiled from the Thoracic Aortic Disease guidelines, which is published in March, and is more palatable for laypeople.

I think that the ironic and ultimately kind of serendipitous thing is that it is a familial disease. People say, "John Ritter died from this," and I say, "Look, he wasn't exactly your family but he reminds you of someone in your family. He's the guy next door; he's your uncle, your little brother, your little sister, your mom. This disease does not discriminate between male or female, young or old. Thoracic aortic dissection is an equal opportunity killer." So when they think of John, forever young on "Three's Company," they remember.

CNN: Does your daughter do things that remind you of John?

Yasbeck: She is ridiculous. She's so, so funny and she's also the most avid reader and absorber of comedy like John was. He absorbed Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, all those guys. ... Stella has all that, plus her dad, plus she loves Monty Python, The Mighty Boosh, all of the British comedies crack her up. Some of it leaves me in the dust and she'll actually have to explain the references to me. She has learned culture, pop culture, history, current events. She just turned 12 and the only things she watches that aren't on Cartoon Network are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and she GETS it! It's so much fun; I never thought I'd be sitting on the couch from the time she was 5 to the time she was 12 and laughing uproariously at the same things. Very sharp! I remember when I had Stella; as I say in the book I turned 36 the day after I had her. It wasn't my birthday; it just hurt so bad it felt like the Earth went around the sun.

CNN: How do you and Stella keep John's memory alive?

Yasbeck: Stella is also very involved in the foundation and she goes to Houston with me and she's been to all of that stuff. We don't so much keep John's memory alive as we keep John himself alive with love and laughter and the lessons he imparted just by being himself and not trying to be anybody else. Not trying to be cool, not trying to be groovy, and just being dorky and hilarious and brilliant.