In early February, Susan Lucci smiled for the cameras at the American Heart Association’s gala in New York City. It’s an event she has passionately supported since her life was saved by emergency surgery to clear unexpected blockages in her heart. “I knew how much incredible good luck I had. It became important to share my takeaways and hopefully save even one other woman’s life,” Susan tells Closer.

This year, her participation in this life-affirming cause has been more poignant than usual. Last March, the All My Children alum lost her husband of 53 years, Helmut Huber. “It’s been helpful to get out of my own emotions and try to help someone else,” says Susan, 76. “It still feels very fresh and unbelievable. He was a larger-than-life presence with a big personality. Smart and strong. I miss him so much.”

In the close aftermath of Helmut’s passing from a sudden stroke, the Emmy winner and mother of two lost interest in the things she used to get excited about — like acting. “Frankly, when my husband passed away, I couldn’t even remember what I loved to do, nothing else mattered,” says Susan. “I canceled things — which I never do. I felt like maybe I’d never step on a stage or a set again.”

Getting out of the house and seeing friends helped. “They have kept me busy and full of laughter because that’s how they are,” she says. 

During a catch-up lunch with a pal who works in fine jewelry, Susan had an idea to create a pendant to raise funds for the American Heart Association’s “Life is Why” campaign. “Also it’s to shine a fresh

light on the subject of women’s heart health,” says Susan, who collaborated on the “Empower Your Heart” design with the jewelry brand Tiary. “Hopefully, it acts as a tangible reminder to pay attention and to listen to your body.”

Susan emphasizes how crucial it is to take symptoms like shortness of breath, unusual fatigue and discomfort in the upper back or belly seriously. “Heart disease kills more women every year than all cancers put together,” she notes. “And as women, I think we often ignore symptoms.”

Susan Lucci, Husband Helmut Huber Were ‘a Team’: Inside Marriage
Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

Certainly, Susan didn’t think she needed to worry. But despite a healthy diet and daily exercise, she has undergone two surgeries to clear heart blockages. “It’s my family history. I have my dad’s DNA,” says

the star, who urges other women to take the initiative in their heart health. “You should know your blood pressure numbers. Know your family history and communicate it to your doctor,” she says. “And don’t be afraid to go to the doctor!”

While life will never be the same for Susan, she’s starting to rediscover the things she loves, like acting. “Retiring is not in my vocabulary. I’ve got some things in the works, and I’m reading scripts,” says the star, who also hopes to do some traveling this year.

Susan’s also found that counting her blessings helps. “I have gratitude that God put my husband on this earth and had him come and love me,” she says. “I have felt like half a person, and I’m trying to get back to the whole person again. It’s a journey and a process.”