From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
An actress who took her roles deeply to heart—and a mother fiercely devoted to her children—Natasha Richardson couldn't help but be moved as she gave voice to Ruth Mallory, the wife of famed Mt. Everest explorer George Mallory, for the upcoming documentary The Wildest Dream. "During the recordings there was one very poignant moment when Natasha was reading a telegram in which Ruth is told that her husband has died on Everest," recalls director Anthony Geffen. "The film describes how Ruth had to tell her children about what has happened but couldn't face telling them until the next morning. As a picture of Ruth's young children filled the screen, Natasha paused, and tears swelled up in her eyes. Eventually she said she just couldn't imagine telling her own children such news."

Just two months later, it was Richardson's husband of 14 years, actor Liam Neeson, who was left grappling with how to help the couple's sons Micheal, 13, and Daniel, 12, cope with the sudden death of their mother at age 45 on March 18. In the days since Richardson suffered a fatal brain injury in a fall while skiing near Montreal on March 16, Neeson, 56, and his boys have shown remarkable public poise in dealing with the tragedy. "Liam is doing okay," says close family friend Blaine Trump. "It takes a while to absorb this. But he says the family needs to move forward. They will take it one step at a time." And so the Irish-bred actor was expected to return to work on the Toronto set of his upcoming drama Chloe, and the boys were headed back to school. "With good friends by their side," says Trump, "they will get through the tough days ahead."

The family is already finding comfort in the decision to donate Richardson's organs after she was taken off life support at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital. (An autopsy showed that a blow to her head had caused a fatal epidural hematoma, bleeding between her brain and her skull.) Organ donation "is very Natasha," says a family friend. "She spent so much time fighting the stigma of AIDS; someone like that would naturally donate her organs. At least by donating her organs something good could come out of [the tragedy]."

For those who knew the vivacious Richardson, imagining life without her is heartbreaking. At the traditional wake held at the American Irish Historical Society in Manhattan on March 20, "what touched me was the unanimity of her family and friends—she was so beautiful, so caring, so giving and loyal, and everyone agreed on that," says Dr. Mathilde Krim, the founding chairwoman of amfAR, the nonprofit AIDS foundation for which Richardson had campaigned tirelessly after losing her father, British director Tony Richardson, to the disease in 1991. Among those attending the ceremony were Uma Thurman, Diane Sawyer and Richardson's mother, Oscar-winning British actress Vanessa Redgrave, 72, and sister, Nip/Tuck actress Joely Richardson, 44. "Vanessa looked devastated," says a friend of Natasha's who attended the wake. "Liam looked devastated too. But at the viewing, he received every single person there. He was hugging them and so grateful."

Two days later friends gathered again at a private funeral at St. Peter's Church in Millbrook, N.Y., where Neeson and Richardson had a country home. Neeson joined Vanessa on a short walk to the grave of Vanessa's mother, Rachel, who died in Millbrook in 2003 and whose plot now faces that of her granddaughter. How is Neeson coping? "He is not the type [to discuss his feelings]," says the family friend. Adds another friend: "He's got a lot on his plate. He's making a movie; he has to look after the boys now. It's going to be hard. But he's a strong man. He'll handle it."

As the weight of Richardson's death continues to sink in, questions linger as to whether anything could have been done to save her (see box). On vacation with her son at Quebec's Mont Tremblant Resort, she was set to enjoy a weeklong getaway. Ironically, "skiing was almost out of character for her," says friend and amfAR chairman Kenneth Cole. "She used to tell me she just was not a skiier. She didn't like the inherent risk. She took calculated chances; she wasn't reckless."

Rather, the actress is warmly remembered by friends for her zest for acting, cooking and her adopted home of New York City. "She had one of the most gorgeous, lusty laughs you've ever heard," says friend and actor Matthew Modine. "And she made one of the best Indian curries this side of Bombay." Adds the couple's close pal, actress Mia Farrow: "It is the loss of Tasha the friend that leaves a gaping hole in many of our lives. There is nothing she would not do for her friends 24-7. That's rare."

And still, it was her intense loyalty and love for her family that friends say Richardson valued most. She and Neeson "arrived together at a later stage in life than a lot of couples and appreciated each other more because of it," says Niall O'Dowd, who served on the board of the American Irish Historical Society with Neeson. Now, as he and their sons mourn the loss of the wife and mother they all loved so much, they are doing so with her strength and spirit in mind. "Liam's attitude is, 'This terrible thing happened, and we have to get back to our lives,'" says the family friend. "Because that's what Natasha would have said: 'Life goes on.'"

  • Contributors:
  • K.C. Baker/New York City,
  • Nina Burleigh/New York City,
  • Mary Green/New York City,
  • Liz McNeil/New York City,
  • Kathy Ehrich Dowd/Montreal,
  • Dana Kennedy/Montreal,
  • Elizabeth Leonard/Los Angeles,
  • Oliver Jones/Los Angeles.