Tragic Details About Chelsea Handler's Life

Chelsea Handler makes millions of people laugh every day with her social media videos, her podcast, her television appearances, her live shows, and more. Chelsea is a pretty open book — she loves to joke about everything from her sex life to politics to not wanting children. However, there is one topic that doesn't come up in her stand-up routines or sketches. When she was 9 years old, her older brother, Chet Handler, went on a hiking trip to celebrate his graduation, and he never returned. 

Chelsea didn't have a chance to grieve his loss in a healthy way when she was a child, so the life-altering tragedy has affected her adult life in a variety of challenging ways. Over the years, she has begun to open up about her brother and her healing process in some interviews, on social media, and in her 2019 memoir, "Life Will Be the Death of Me . . . and you too!" Chelsea will always miss Chet, but these days, she's in a much better place. 

Her brother died during a hiking trip accident

When he passed away in 1984, Chelsea Handler's brother, Chet Handler, was in his early twenties. He was on a hiking trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and tragically fell 80 feet off a cliff while exploring the Grand Tetons. Chet was the eldest of six siblings in their family and had a very close relationship with Chelsea, the youngest. During an appearance on "The Rosie Show," Chelsea told host Rosie O'Donnell that she remembers the following days vividly; she felt embarrassed watching her parents cry when loved ones came over to sit shiva (the Jewish mourning ritual). 

The comedian recalled that at the time, "Everyone was just trying to take care of themselves, so it was kind of like, everyone got left out." It was a strange transition for Chelsea, who was accustomed to receiving a lot of attention (especially from Chet) and suddenly felt like she was almost invisible. "I was in pain, too, and I felt like no one was tending to my pain," she reflected. 

Chelsea experienced delayed grief

After losing her brother, Chelsea Handler coped with Chet Handler's death by completely shutting down and dissociating — she wasn't able to thoroughly process the trauma that year or for years to come. Chelsea explained to Mayim Bialik on the "Breakdown" podcast that since she couldn't accept the new reality, she clung to repairing her family instead. "I was just in denial," she said. "I went into cruise control. I was like, 'I'm going to be happy, I'm going to be funny, I'm going to make this family laugh again. I'm going to be the reason we're going to have joy again.'" 

The comedian avoided her grief for decades before unpacking it in therapy as an adult after Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. The political event was actually the catalyst for Chelsea finally working through her feelings because it felt emotionally familiar; the world seemed wrong and out of control to her, just like it had when Chet passed away. 

The loss brought her family closer together

In the years after Chet Handler's death, Chelsea Handler and her siblings have held onto each other more tightly. Chelsea has said that she doesn't know if she and her other siblings would be as close today if they hadn't all experienced the loss of their brother. When speaking about the death and her family with Piers Morgan, she shared, "It screws you up for a long time, but it's also a huge gift in many ways." The author noted that after such a painful event, you can either grow or remain a mess forever.

In August 2022, Chelsea and her family took a trip to Martha's Vineyard and enjoyed playing board games, reading, eating good food, and getting active there. She posted a carousel of beautiful family photos from the vacation and added a touching caption. "My mother told us to always stick together, and that's what we've done!" She wrote. "We miss you mom, and can always feel your and Chet's presence on the Vineyard." Chelsea and her brother frequently visited the Massachusetts island together before he passed away.  

Her brother's death has affected her love life

When she spoke about her brother's death with Mayim Bialik, Chelsea Handler revealed that a feeling of rejection is at the root of her trauma from the incident. She explained that she and Chet Handler used to go to Martha's Vineyard together every year, but that year, he chose to go on his graduation trip to Wyoming. When Handler got upset with him for abandoning her, he promised, "I'll be back in two weeks. I will never, ever, leave you with these people." Of course, he never came back, and Handler reflected, "It felt like a rejection, not like an accident." 

That feeling affected many of her romantic relationships. In her mind, her brother had broken a promise, and she found it extremely difficult to trust any men in her life after that point. "I can't be in a relationship because I have such a deep injury that I have never addressed," Chelsea told Maria Shriver on "The Today Show" in 2019. The television host has been able to work through that struggle: Although she is currently single, she did have a healthy relationship with fellow comedian Jo Koy from 2021 to 2022, and the exes remain on good terms. 

Chelsea honors Chet's memory

In honor of the 33rd anniversary of Chet's death in July 2017, Chelsea Handler posted a tribute to her brother on Instagram. She shared an old photo of him and another of them together, and wrote, "We were never 6 again. Only 5. The number was never the right number again." The author went on to explain how she ultimately grew from the tragedy and learned to make the most of life each and every day. "This is the only chance we get," she emphasized. "Make it count."

Chelsea also honored her brother the following year by spending her 43rd birthday in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he died. She shared a photo of her and Chet at 3 and 16 years old, respectively, and reflected on how her relationship with his death has changed over time. "With the help of a lot of therapy and introspection, [I] am finally able to celebrate his life and understand that his death was not a rejection," the comedian wrote. "It was [an] accident." It seems like that epiphany has brought Chelsea well-deserved peace after so many years of struggling.