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Shortly after the death of his 41-year-old daughter Charlotte on June 28, Pierce Brosnan reached out to a longtime friend with a heartfelt e-mail. "Just to either side sits sorrow and grief," the actor wrote to photographer Nancy Ellison. "However, my head is unbowed and my spirit is Irish strong. I have faith that from it all will come a beauty." Close to Brosnan for more than 30 years, Ellison was moved by his note but not surprised by such strength in the midst of great sorrow. "His grief makes him a poet," she says of the Irish-born star, who signs all of his e-mails, "Love and only love, Pierce." "I forget that about him because he doesn't live in grief. But now and then, grief hits him again, and this rushing poetry comes out of him. This heart bursts open that feels pain but somehow looks for beauty at the same time."

Tragically, it is not the first time Brosnan has experienced such profound loss. Charlotte's death from ovarian cancer comes nearly 22 years after her mother and Brosnan's beloved first wife, Cassandra, died of the same disease. "Charlotte fought her cancer with grace and humanity, courage and dignity," the actor, 60, told PEOPLE. "Our hearts are heavy with the loss of our beautiful dear girl." The four-time James Bond had taken leave from the Serbian set of his next film, the thriller November Man, to be by his daughter's side at her London home during her final days, along with Charlotte's longtime love Alex Smith, whom she wed just two weeks before her death, and their children Isabella, 14, and Lucas, 8. "I felt that he was feeling her suffering and her pain," says photographer Greg Gorman, another close family friend. "When all of this was going down with Charlotte, he'd just say how much he loved her."

Determined to do whatever he could to save his "darling daughter," Brosnan, a longtime advocate for cancer research, had been in action mode throughout her three-year ordeal, leaving no medical stone unturned. "Pierce was willing to pick up the phone and call anyone, go anywhere, do anything for her at any time," says Lisa Paulsen, president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation and a friend of Brosnan's for 25 years. But after multiple treatments - including an attempt at a last-ditch clinical trial in London - failed to improve her grim prognosis, Charlotte was told several weeks ago that she was too weak for further interventions. She is believed to be the fourth generation on her mother's side to die of the "silent killer," as Brosnan once described ovarian cancer (see box). As her health deteriorated, "we knew [the end] was coming," says Bron Roylance, a makeup artist and longtime family friend, "but to what point can you really prepare yourself to lose somebody so close to you?"

For Brosnan the loss was eerily like an earlier heartbreak. "Charlotte's illness came with a darkness because Pierce was reliving the past," says Roylance. "He was having to relive this whole nightmare of this horrific disease." Says Ellison: "Pierce is dealing with Charlotte's death, but in reality he is beyond devastated." After Cassandra's death, Brosnan found love again with former TV-journalist-turned-environmental-activist Keely, 49, and he is now drawing strength from his wife of 12 years and his children from both marriages. Pierce and Keely "are partners in life, no question," says Roylance, who was best man at the couple's Irish nuptials in 2001. "It's a true love. During the tough times, they are both beacons of strength."

Raised in rural County Meath, Ireland, Brosnan "was a struggling kid out of the West End theater," says Ellison, when he fell in love with Australian-bred Cassie, about a decade his senior and already a mom to Charlotte and Christopher. "She was older and very sophisticated, a woman of London society. She was like a glass of champagne: her laughter and her charm and her blondeness." They wed in 1980, and Brosnan adopted Charlotte and her brother Christopher, now 40, whose father, British producer Dermot Harris, died in 1986. In 1983 Brosnan and Cassie had another son, Sean, now 29. Brosnan, by then a rising star as a debonair detective on NBC's '80s hit Remington Steele, "became a parent of three almost overnight," says Ellison. "He loved having a family. You'd think most handsome men [at that age] would be out clubbing it. He had no interest in that. He was really happy in his skin, happy in his life, happy with his family." The children embraced family life too. "Charlotte always called Pierce 'Daddy,' " says Roylance. "It was very sweet. There was not ever a question, biological or not biological, that Pierce was her father."

But when Cassie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1987, "life turned on a dime," Brosnan said later. "From day one, we really had a fight on our hands." She died in Brosnan's arms after a four-year battle. "There is an incredible cruelty in it all ... losing a person you shared everything with," the actor told PEOPLE four months later in 1992. "She's forever embedded in every fiber of my being ... I was so blessed to have met someone like that."

At 38, Brosnan was a widower and a single father of three. "Pierce kept his kids focused on loving one another and as happy as they could possibly be," says Paulsen. Later Charlotte and Christopher struggled with depression and substance abuse that Brosnan and family friends traced to the devastating loss of their mother. Brosnan supported them as they each found their way. The family weathered another trauma when Sean had a near-fatal car crash in 2000. "Pierce was always very even-keeled," says Roylance. "He'll say, 'Broad shoulders, mate. Broad shoulders.' And Pierce has that."

When Brosnan met Keely in 1994, he and his children found a new source of love and support. "Just seeing the ultimate love that these two people have for each other was unbelievable," Charlotte, a bridesmaid, told PEOPLE at her father's 2001 wedding. "My dad found it again, and that makes me happy." As he and Keely worked to build their blended family - the couple are also parents to sons Dylan, 16, and Paris, 12 - the siblings drew closer. Says Gorman: "It's a very tight family. They're all extremely close."

Now once again the family are leaning on one another, this time to grieve the loss of their unofficial "custodian of laughter," as Charlotte was nicknamed. Charlotte had all the charm and effervescence of her mother, "a bubbly, almost kind of goofy, gorgeous girl," says Ellison. "Pierce wrote to me after she died that the most intense memory that he had was of always being able to make Charlotte laugh. He wanted to be able to make her laugh again."

As an adult, "she was a vivacious blonde with the most beautiful mouth, a mouth like a Hollywood star," says her close friend Clare Beckwith. "When she smiled, the whole world shined." She met Alex as a teenager, and nothing brought her more joy than their two children. "To their mummy, Bella and Lucas were absolutely the pinnacle," says Beckwith. "They have always got that for the rest of their life, that their mum just worshipped them." She studied at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but Charlotte was more focused on family than career. "People would ask her why she didn't move into acting, and she would always say, 'No, this is my family,' " says Beckwith. "She wanted to give her family as much love as she could. She was totally devoted to them."

Now her own kids must cope with a cruel legacy: losing their mother at nearly the same ages that Charlotte and Christopher lost theirs. Their father, Alex, "has been steadfast and loving," says Ellison. "He is a remarkable person." Meanwhile, as the family prepared for a private memorial service on July 12, Brosnan took son Dylan on a brief visit to Rome. Being with his son "is making a huge difference in Pierce's life right now," adds Ellison. Although Brosnan has been dealt another terrible loss, those closest to him say he will persevere yet again. "Pierce uses the words 'Rise up,' " says Roylance. "He's got an inner quality that allows him to continue. He will continue to be a father and a husband. He will continue on with his life. That's Pierce: one foot forward. Always."

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard/Los Angeles,
  • Champ Clark/Los Angeles,
  • Mia McNiece/Los Angeles,
  • Philip Boucher/London.