John Travolta may be successful, famous and rich, but he’s proved far from immune to tragedy. In 2009, for example, the star suffered the overwhelming loss of his son, Jett, who passed away after experiencing a seizure. And both Travolta and the boy’s mother, Kelly Preston, have since spoken about their heartbreaking ordeal – one that left the actor contemplating whether continuing to live was even worth it.
It goes without saying that losing a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. And the statistics surrounding the subject speak to just how devastating such deaths can be on loved ones; mortality rates have been found to be higher than average among bereaved parents in Scandinavia, for example. Yet although tragedies of this kind affect all too many worldwide, the passing of a child and the effects on those left behind are sometimes brushed under the carpet.
Needless to say, then, the lack of acknowledgement of a child’s death can add to feelings of loneliness and isolation that may only compound the initial grief. And this is why it can be helpful when stars speak out about how their own losses have affected them. Whenever Travolta talks about Jett, you see, it may encourage others to recognize that they’re not alone in their hurt.
And Travolta is certainly a star, having come to fame through such hits as Grease and Saturday Night Fever. His leading performance in the disco-themed movie was so highly regarded, in fact, that it landed him a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards – making him one of the youngest people to have ever received that honor.
Travolta’s box-office success continued into the ’80s and ’90s, too, thanks to his turns in films such as Pulp Fiction, Face/Off, Primary Colors and the Look Who’s Talking franchise. He also received another Oscar nod for Pulp Fiction, with his performance in Tarantino’s thriller still considered one of his best.
And it was during this period that Travolta met his future wife, Kelly Preston, whom he first encountered on the set of 1987’s The Experts. Preston was attracted to Travolta, too, even though she was already married to fellow actor Kevin Gage. Perhaps as a result of running into the Grease star, though, she chose to divorce Gage in 1987.
Then Travolta and Preston – who are both Scientologists – finally tied the knot themselves in 1991. In fact, they were actually wed twice that year. Their first ceremony took place at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris and was performed by a minister of Scientology; as the couple had never lived in the French capital, though, the marriage was ultimately declared null and void. Consequently, the pair chose to wed again in Florida a week later.
And in April 1992, Jett came into the world – after a labor in accordance with Scientology doctrine. At the time, a statement from Travolta and Preston published in USA Today confirmed that the pair had followed “the method recommended in Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, which stresses complete silence during delivery.”
Preston isn’t the only woman to have attempted this feat, of course. In 2006 Katie Holmes – then the wife of Travolta’s fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise – made headlines when she too reportedly went through a “silent birth.” In 2012, however, Holmes divorced Cruise and appeared to renounce Scientology, returning instead to her Roman Catholic roots.
But the Travoltas nearly lost their son early. When Jett was still just an infant, he was involved in an accident after the electronics failed on an aircraft being flown by his father. Thankfully, though, Travolta and his co-pilot managed to land without anyone being hurt, and the plane was later renamed after the actor’s first-born.
And in 1994 Travolta told People just how much he adored having a son. “I can’t imagine what life would be like without Jett,” he explained. “After he was born and cleaned up, I held him for hours while Kelly slept. When they came to take him away for various tests, I said, ‘No, you can’t see him today. You’ll have to do it another day.’ I went a little nutsy.”
Behind the scenes, though, Travolta and Preston were having to cope with a diagnosis that may have devastated the parents. And in 2003 Preston opened up about Jett’s health problems on The Montel Williams Show; there, she discussed a time when her son had had “rashes all over his body” and “flu symptoms.”
The troubling period to which Preston was referring to had taken place when Jett was just two. Back then, as she explained to Williams, the toddler had come down with a high fever. “When I took [Jett] to the doctor on about the third or fourth occasion, his fever in the doctor’s office went up to 105 °F. They had to bring it down. It was really scary,” Preston said. “He had rashes all over his body. His lymph nodes were swollen.”
“He just kept getting sicker and sicker,” Preston continued. It turned out, too, that the actress had to take her son to several doctors before eventually receiving a firm diagnosis. “I just kept going back, saying, ‘What’s going on?’” Preston recalled. “And finally [the doctor] looked into her physician’s reference and said, ‘I think he has something called Kawasaki syndrome.’”
Preston then discussed what Kawasaki syndrome entails. “It causes swelling in the organs, so your heart can swell, different important organs can swell… I rushed him to the hospital,” she said. “They did all of the tests… and the entire ward was filled with children with Kawasaki syndrome – something I’d never heard of.”
Kawasaki disease – which is also referred to as mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome – is mostly found in young children and can lead to ballooning of the body’s blood vessels. And although the majority of youngsters who contract Kawasaki disease respond to treatment, in some cases there can be complications that can extend to the heart – although such instances are rare.
Sadly, however, Jett had more than one medical problem to contend with during his short life. In her Montel Williams Show interview, Preston also made reference to her son having “a very severe asthma attack” at one point. And although the Travolta family never confirmed as much when Jett was alive, he was affected by autism and seizures, too.
Tragically, Jett died in 2009 in the Bahamas while on holiday with his family. He was discovered comatose in a bathroom after having apparently banged his head during a seizure. And although the emergency services were naturally called to the location, they could unfortunately do nothing to save the 16-year-old boy’s life.
Travolta was at least with his son in Jett’s last moments, according to a paramedic who’d been at the scene. “[Travolta] hugged [Jett], put his arm around him, kissed him on the forehead and the cheek and told him he loved him,” Tarino Lightbourne told Good Morning America not long after the incident. “He then turned to me and gave me a hug and said, ‘You guys did a wonderful job.’”
And in the midst of their grief, the Travolta family released a statement on Jett’s passing via the actor’s website. “We are heartbroken that our time with [Jett] was so brief. We will cherish the time we had with him for the rest of our lives,” the message read. “Jett was the most wonderful son that two parents could ever ask for and lit up the lives of everyone he encountered.”
“We have received many messages of condolence from around the world, and we want to thank everyone for their prayers and support,” the statement continued. “It has meant so much to us. It is a beautiful reminder of the inherent goodness in the human spirit that gives us hope for a brighter future.”
Unfortunately, not long after Jett’s death, Travolta and Preston were forced to relive the traumatic incident during a court case. In a shocking turn of events, the paramedic who’d assisted Jett, Tarino Lightbourne, and a lawyer named Pleasant Bridgewater were alleged to be trying to blackmail Travolta over Jett’s death. In particular, it was claimed that the pair had warned that they would go public with Jett’s confidential medical records unless they were given money.
As a result, Travolta was forced to reveal the details of Jett’s death to the court – the first time he’d ever talked about the matter publicly. “I was awakened by Eli, my son’s nanny, pounding on the door [and] saying Jett was unconscious,” he recalled, according to The Daily Telegraph. “I ran at the door, [and] I ran downstairs to help my son with my wife – I saw him on the bathroom floor.”
It seemed, too, that the Travolta family’s staff had all done their utmost to try to save the 16-year-old’s life. Travolta confirmed that Jett’s “other nanny, Jeff Kathrein, and an employee, a woman from Old Bahama Bay, was doing CPR on him… I took the place of the woman. Jeff was doing compressions, and I was doing breathing. I asked if an ambulance had been called, and I was told, ‘Yes.’”
Travolta also revealed in his testimony that his son had suffered with autism and seizures – two conditions that commonly go hand in hand. And it appears that Jett’s health issues had been quite severe. His father told the court, for instance, that Jett would have seizures every five to ten days and would then sleep for half a day after they’d ended.
Ultimately, Travolta decided to drop out of the trial. And in September 2010 – more than a year after Jett had died – he released a statement explaining his decision. “The long-pending status of this matter continued to take a heavy emotional toll on my family, causing us to conclude that it was finally time to put this matter behind us,” he said.
In addition, Preston was pregnant with the couple’s third child at the time. “After much reflection, I concluded that it was in my family’s best interest for me not to voluntarily return to the Bahamas to testify a second time at trial,” Travolta’s statement concluded. As a result, the extortion case was declared a mistrial.
The Travolta family subsequently tried to move on with their lives. And in 2010 Preston gave birth to a second son, Benjamin, whom she later claimed resembled both his father and late brother. “We just saw a picture of John when he was an infant – Jetty too – and they’re exactly the three same pictures,” she said during a 2011 interview with Today.
At around the same time, Travolta also revealed his belief that Benjamin was “a miracle” for the family. “For us, [Benjamin’s arrival has] been uplifting,” he told People. “He’s given the house a renewed spirit and purpose. He’s brought us a new beginning, and his presence has brought joy to all the people who have wanted the best for us.”
But even though the couple found new happiness in having another child to raise, the Travolta-Preston family never forgot about Jett. And over the years, Travolta has spoken to the media about the difficulties he faced in attempting to move on without his son. At one point, for example, he even considered quitting his career in Hollywood.
Yes, in 2012 Travolta told BBC Breakfast that it had taken him a while to want to act again following Jett’s death. “After three years [of] getting a lot of support from my church and a lot of support from people – fans, family – I decided that it was okay to go back to work,” he said. “I’d even thought of retiring at one point because it felt like too much.”
And in 2014 the actor delivered a heartfelt and emotive statement about his loss. While being interviewed on stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London, Travolta told the audience that Jett’s death was “the worst thing that’s ever happened in [his] life.” He added, “The truth is, I didn’t know if I was going to make it. Life was no longer interesting to me, so it took a lot to get me better.”
The psychological effects of losing a child are, of course, catastrophic, and Travolta’s statements therefore probably wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who had suffered through the same experience. Going through such a traumatic episode can leave bereaved parents with complex mental health issues, in fact – including PTSD in some cases.
And Preston has also spoken openly to the media about her son. While appearing on The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet in 2012, she stated, for example, “Nobody should have to lose a child. It’s unfathomable.” Yet the actress offered a ray of hope to others. “But I’m here to say that you can get through it. You can live again. You can want to live again,” she added.
Preston’s fans and supporters had also helped her, she explained. “People were so beautiful – so, so extraordinary, from all over the world,” the star said. “Everybody grieves in their own way. I felt at times like I was drowning. It felt like a sea of wet blankets. And then I just peeled them off, layer by layer, so that I can now say, ‘I want to live. I love life. My life is beautiful and amazing.’”
“There are still things that come up, for sure, but I am able to live,” Preston continued. “And to want to live. I can laugh. I’m – for the most part – happy. That’s the greatest gift ever.” And she spoke, too, about the couple’s other children: baby Ben and daughter Ella. “I’m not afraid to love and to love deeply,” she revealed. “My kids help me with that.”
It would be Preston, too, who would post a tribute to Jett on Instagram in April 2019. And the date upon which she released the message appeared to have been a carefully chosen one; it was seven days before Jett would have turned 27 and shortly after World Autism Day. The accompanying photo showed both Preston and Travolta kissing their son.
“To my sweet love, Jett… you are in our hearts forever,” Preston wrote as a caption to the picture. “I send love to all of the beautiful autistic children and the wonderful people who love them. May we all shine and grant love and respect to children with special needs.” She also tagged the post with “#autismawareness” and “#autism.”
And people with similar life experiences subsequently shared their own thoughts in the comments. “[Jett’s] memory will always be with you,” read one. Another individual, who claimed that their child also had autism, told Preston, “I often think of you and your loss and what you had to endure. It helps me know that no matter what happens, life will go on.”
Then, when Jett’s 27th birthday finally came around, his father also took to social media. On Instagram, the actor posted a beautiful portrait that he’d received as a tribute. “A painting a fan made of my son Jett!” he wrote. “Happy birthday my son, I love you!” So, while Jett has been gone for a decade now, it’s clear that his family will always remember him.