When the photo of the comedian, now 58, holding up a Halloween mask of the President with ketchup poured on it to resemble blood went viral, she lost endorsement deals, a comedy tour and her long-standing gig as the co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage with Anderson Cooper.
Soon Griffin began to receive death threats, and so did her then 97-year-old mom Maggie and her sister Joyce, who was in hospice care for end-stage cancer.
“I felt guilty, like I brought this on,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I didn’t mean to, but I still brought this inadvertently into their lives at such a difficult time, especially my sister.”
For more about Griffin, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.
Joyce died later that year — and received notes “telling her to go to hell” up until her final day, Griffin says — and Maggie now has dementia. “It’s heartbreaking,” Griffin says of her mom’s condition. “You’d never met anyone quicker.”
The former Fashion Police host also regrets how she didn’t consider how the photo might have affected people who lost their loved ones to terrorist beheadings, like the families of James Foley and Daniel Pearl.
RELATED VIDEO: How Kim Kardashian West (and Kanye) Helped Heal Kathy Griffin
The picture elicited responses from Fox News anchors, Chelsea Clinton and Trump himself, who claimed his then 11-year-old son Baron was disturbed by the shot. But having been assured by her attorney that she had broken no laws with the photo and was protected by the First Amendment, Griffin was shocked when the government opened an investigation into her, placing her on the no-fly list and leading to FBI visits to her home.
Between a government response she calls “unprecedented” and the violence threated by Trump supporters, Griffin feels she has more than paid a price and today, is done apologizing for taking the divisive picture, taken during a shoot with photographer Tyler Shields, known for his provocative imagery, in May 2017. (She earlier released both a video and a gave a press conference in which she apologized, and has long maintained that the photo was not meant as a threat of violence, but rather was inspired by Trump’s comments about journalist Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” inspired the photo.)
“I’m not apologizing,” she asserts.
“I’m never going to be the biggest star, but I got back up,” she says. “I just want to make a living and make people laugh.”