Kelly Rutherford Reveals How She Rebuilt Her Life After Losing Custody of Her Kids in 2015: 'Heartbreaking' (Exclusive)

Nearly a decade after the 'Gossip Girl' star went through a tumultuous divorce, Rutherford opens up about finding peace — and her relationship with her kids now

<p>Max Cisotti/Dave Benett/Getty</p> Kelly Rutherford in 2024

Max Cisotti/Dave Benett/Getty

Kelly Rutherford in 2024

It's been 15 years years since former Gossip Girl star Kelly Rutherford first entered into a lengthy — and costly — custody battle with her ex, German businessman Daniel Giersch.

At the time of her split from Giersch, 49, their son Hermes was 2, and Rutherford was pregnant with daughter Helena. A judge granted the couple 50-50 joint custody of the children, which in many cases, would be the normal decision for a couple splitting up.

However, because Giersch's work visa had been revoked, barring him from returning to the U.S., the judge declared the children should live full-time with their father in Monaco, and that Rutherford, 55, would either have to move there or at least travel there if she wanted to see her kids.

Related: Kelly Rutherford Speaks to PEOPLE as New York Court Denies Custody Case: 'It's Just Incredible as an American Mom with America-Born Children'

It was a shocking decision, and Rutherford threw all of her time and money into trying to get full custody of her kids back in the U.S. to no avail. Out of desperation one summer, she even opted to not put them back on a plane to Monaco after a six-week visit and was accused of abduction.

The kids were court-ordered back on a plane to Monaco, and the story eventually faded as Rutherford resigned herself to a life out of the spotlight after spending nearly $2 million in legal fees and declaring bankruptcy.

Nearly a decade later, she's looking back at that harrowing time and how she managed to get to a place of peace and happiness.

Related: Kelly Rutherford Calls Court Order Sending Kids Back to Monaco 'Shocking, Illegal and Abusive to My Children'

"Sometimes we just need to retreat and be with our kids and just heal and take time for ourselves," Rutherford tells PEOPLE from her home in Monaco, where she stays when she's not traveling.

After the devastating decision, she says she's tried her best to enjoy the past decade, mostly being a mom and working on non show-business ventures. "It's been really healthy for me, and really good," she says.

The actress, who got her start on soap operas and dramas like Melrose Place before finding new fans on the hit show Gossip Girl in 2005, is now quietly making moves back into the spotlight with appearances at Paris Fashion Week, where she earned raves for her timeless sense of style.

She's also back on the small screen, starring on the French soap Escort Boys.

"My kids are getting older, and they're sort of like, 'Okay, get on with your life,'" she says with a laugh. "They're teenagers now, and they've got their friends and their stuff. So my day to day has recently been more about me and my dogs, working and traveling."

<p>Sonia Moskowitz/WireImage</p> Kelly Rutherford with her kids Helena and Hermes in 2015.

Sonia Moskowitz/WireImage

Kelly Rutherford with her kids Helena and Hermes in 2015.

She adds, "And being there for my children ... when they have time for me. They still need you when they're teens, but it's different. I think you just have to be there for them when they do need you. It's natural for them to grow up and have their lives. It's a change, but it's a beautiful change."

Looking back, she's now able to be honest about the pain she went through during the public custody battle.

"Yes, it was a challenging time. It was a heartbreaking time. But I focus on the good most of the time, I really do," she says. "I'm very thankful of where we are. I have a great relationship with my kids."

She adds, "We were never completely separated."

Related: Kelly Rutherford's Emotional Six-Year Custody Battle in 6 Clicks

As for letting go of any grudges or bitterness, Rutherford says that's a choice she's had to make for herself.

"I think you've got to keep love in your heart," she says. "I mean, a lot of people haven't gone through what I've gone through, but they still have challenging relationships with their kids. But at the same time, you heal, you grow. You look at the lessons that came from it. You look at how your kids have grown up, and how they're doing so well, and you're thankful for that."

She's also become an unexpected Instagram star: her elevator selfies showing her outfit of the day are especially popular.

<p>Kelly Rutherford/Instagram</p> Kelly Rutherford mirror selfie.

Kelly Rutherford/Instagram

Kelly Rutherford mirror selfie.

"Social media has always been organic for me," she says. "I never had anyone do it for me. I just post quotes I like, and it's not necessarily for the numbers or likes. I just found my way with it. I just think now [that] it's so important to put good energy out in the world. I think the world needs it. We all need it."

As for getting through her darkest times?

"I really do believe it's surrender. I think it's surrender and letting go because every time you kind of go up against something or fight something, I think it's worse. I mean the thing is, it gets better. It eventually does get better."

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