Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
January 24, 2011 12:00 PM

John Edwards and his oldest daughter, Cate, got dressed up-he in a suit and tie, even-to take young Emma and Jack to dinner at Macaroni Grill on Dec. 27, part of an after-Christmas getaway with Cate’s fiance to a Concord, N.C., indoor water park. “John wanted to try, in a fun place, to show the children that life is going to go on-but in a different way,” says Jack’s godfather Glenn Bergenfield. But even to the family’s waiter that night, the absence of the children’s mother was felt. “Emma was a happy little girl,” the waiter tells PEOPLE. “She reminded me of Elizabeth.”

The weeks since Elizabeth Edwards’ death on Dec. 7 have, for Cate, 28, Emma, 12, and Jack, 10, overflowed with reminders of the mother they lost to cancer. But Bergenfield and other close friends describe the family as pulling through intact even as Edwards’ will leaked to the press (she left everything to her children, with no mention of the husband of 32 years from whom she was separated), a grand jury investigating John Edwards called additional witnesses, and the National Enquirer made allegations about the family’s getaway. No, says a family friend who has spoken to Cate and John about the Enquirer report, “it’s not true” that Rielle Hunter, Edwards’ mistress during his 2008 presidential campaign, and their 2-year-old daughter, Quinn, were part of the Concord getaway or that Edwards promised marriage to Hunter. While Edwards has declined to confirm or deny any ongoing romance with Hunter, a source close to him describes a relationship now focused on the logistics of coparenting. Another friend suggests that the door isn’t closed to rekindling their romance, but for now, “John is focused on the kids’ needs.”

Throughout, Jack and Emma have appeared remarkably even-keeled. “I credit this to Elizabeth,” says Bergenfield, who spent Christmas with the family. “She was so unafraid about death-and unafraid in front of them-that they don’t seem afraid.” Cate took six weeks’ leave from her Washington, D.C., law firm to stay with her siblings through the first week of January, and John, who has moved back into the sprawling Chapel Hill, N.C., estate he once shared with his family, “is sleeping in the master bedroom,” says the source close to him. “The kids sometimes are sleeping with him because they’re still having some rough nights,” and John has hired a grief counselor. Adds friend Suzanne Hultman, a minister: “The hard part for all of them has just started, but the kids are surrounded by really loving people.”

For Christmas, that meant a big family celebration. Elizabeth’s sister Nancy Anania and her two daughters captained what Bergenfield called “the great Elizabeth tradition” of Christmas Eve stocking-stuffing. But the next morning, as the grown-ups struggled to assemble new toys, “a lot of us were just looking around, because Elizabeth was always at the center of that,” says Bergenfield. “There wasn’t a game or gadget she couldn’t figure out.”

As for John, big questions loom-starting with the 21-month-old federal investigation into whether he misused campaign funds to cover up his affair. “John’s optimistic nothing is going to come of it, but even if not, he’s like, ‘Let’s get there already,'” says the source close to him. Another, whose first loyalty was to Elizabeth, describes a man mulling redemption-by founding a public-interest law firm or writing a book. “After the funeral,” says this other source, “he cried with people, and that was genuine. But he was also talking about whether he can redeem himself in the public eye. He’s well aware that a lot of people hate him, but he thinks he can eventually put it behind him.”

Bergenfield says Edwards still has his own grief to resolve. As they all joined hands before Christmas Eve turkey dinner at the kitchen table Elizabeth custom-designed, John asked to give the prayer. His voice trembled. “He had so much trouble just saying Elizabeth’s name,” says Bergenfield. “He misses her. Their relationship was long and complicated, but his heart is broken. He’s pretty lost.”

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