It’s rare enough, in this day and age, that it still has the ability to shock: A young woman, happily married, is suddenly widowed. What’s next? How does she cope? How, at the same time, can she help her children cope? In these pages, PEOPLE looks at six famous women who, after losing their husbands, have found the strength to carry on—and, in some cases, the ability to love again.

Katie Couric

She has spent two decades as a reporter, often covering tragic events and interviewing grieving strangers. But none of that could prepare Katie Couric, co-anchor of NBC’s top-ranked Today show, for the pain of the loss of her husband, lawyer and TV commentator Jay Monahan, to colon cancer at age 42 in January of 1998. “Nothing bad had ever happened to Katie,” says Clara Batchelor, the second oldest of Couric’s three siblings. “Our parents are still alive, and our grandparents lived until they were very old. We never had to deal with something like [Jay’s illness]. In the beginning, we all believed he would get well.”

Today, Couric, 42, is visibly stronger than on that February dawn when she returned to work a month after Monahan’s death—his wedding ring on a chain around her neck—and tearfully thanked viewers for their support. “Katie looks great now,” says a close friend. “She’s got some new highlights in her hair. It’s a sign that she’s beginning to look forward instead of back.”

The $7 million-a-year newswoman credits the strides she has made less to family and friends—”As empathetic as they want to be, it’s just a lonely, painful experience,” she has said—than to what her TV news colleague Dan Rather calls “pouring herself into her work.” Her most important assignment, though, is guiding daughters Ellie, 8, and Carrie, 2, through their own sadness. Couric told LIFE magazine in January that her daughters “depend on me for a lot more than food, clothing and shelter. They depend on me as an example of how to go on.”

For now, that does not include dating. But Couric does have a new passion: Last September she hosted a Today series on colon cancer and cofounded the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance. “I felt people needed a wake-up call,” she told Today viewers. “If I could spare any families the pain of dealing with this vile disease, then I thought it was something positive I could do.” Much tougher is knowing what to say to people who ask for advice about dealing with personal loss. “I wish I had a book or a recipe or some kind of panacea,” she told USA Today. “But I don’t.”

Though she no longer wears Monahan’s ring on air, Couric keeps his money clip in her purse—and his memory alive in her new Park Avenue apartment. A life-size mannequin dressed in a Napoleonic-era uniform stands in the dining room; Monahan bought it shortly before he died. “Right away, Carrie said, ‘That’s Jay!’ ” Couric told Good Housekeeping. “She called the man Jay. And, in a way, I feel like he’s watching over us and protecting us.”

Bo Derek

To much of the world he was her Svengali, the far older man who photographed her for Playboy and put her hair in cornrows for her breakout role in the 1979 movie 10. But to Bo Derek, her actor-director husband, John—they met in Greece in 1972 when she was 16 and he 46 and married two years later—was a dashing romantic whom she “adored until he drew his last breath,” she told London’s Mail on Sunday in June. “Most people fall in love, but they don’t have love in return, and I had it for 25 years.”

Derek was at John’s side when he died unexpectedly at age 71 following problems with his aorta in May 1998. “Bo was a zombie girl,” recalls Sean Derek, 46, John’s daughter with Pati Behrs, the first of his three previous wives (Ursula Andress and Linda Evans were 2 and 3). John’s death was “wrenching for Bo,” says Evans, a friend. “Yet she had a lot of grace in handling it. She’s made of wonderful stuff.”

Now 42, Derek is slowly finding her way. Last year, she sold the 45-acre Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., ranch that she and John shared for 19 years and moved to a smaller home in the area. And while NBC canceled her 1998 series Wind on Water after just two episodes, Derek filmed an episode of The Drew Carey Show, set to air in October. “She’s getting along,” says actor Mickey Knox, a longtime friend. “She loves spending time with her horses and family. She’s gathering herself.” Still, adds Knox, “I don’t know if she’s ready to fall in love again.” Starting another relationship “is unthinkable right now,” Derek said this summer. Sean, for one, understands. “Bo and John had a beautiful, beautiful romance, and how many people can say that?” she says. “There is no easy way to get over it. It just takes time.”

Candice Bergen

“The question of marriage is premature,” insists Manhattan real estate magnate Marshall Rose, the 62-year-old beau of actress Candice Bergen, 53. Friends aren’t so sure. Something must account for the incandescence of Bergen, whose husband, French film director Louis Malle, succumbed to lymphoma at age 63 on Thanksgiving Day, 1995. “It was terrible when Louis died so young,” says Bergen’s longtime friend, photographer Mary Ellen Mark. “But now she looks radiant and beautiful.”

Bergen was at the height of her Murphy Brown success during Malle’s yearlong illness. Yet she showed up at the set on schedule each day and put in Emmy-winning performances. She also took care of Malle by herself at their Beverly Hills home before nurses became a necessity. “They had a very close, wonderful relationship,” says Bergen’s former dialogue coach Beverly Dixon, “which made the tragedy that much greater.” Hers was a private grief. “I haven’t [talked about it] and I won’t,” Bergen told 60 Minutes‘ Mike Wallace in 1998. “It was awful for us.” Instead, the actress threw herself into work, returning to the show just two weeks after Malle’s death. “She took solace from her family of coworkers,” says former executive producer Michael Saltzman—and from Chloe, now 13, her daughter with Malle. In 1996, Bergen sold the house she shared with Malle and moved to a larger one nearby that once belonged to actor Roger Moore. Lately, though, mother and daughter have spent more time at their apartment in Manhattan, where Bergen and Rose, a widower (with two grown children) whom Bergen met through friends, often step out together. “Candy is young and vibrant and has her whole life ahead of her,” says Mark, “so it’s wonderful that she’s met someone who means so much to her.”

Ekaterina Gordeeva

Ekaterina Gordeeva was just 24 in November 1995 when her husband and ice-skating partner, Sergei Grinkov, 28—with whom she twice won Olympic gold for Russia—collapsed on the ice during a practice session in Lake Placid, N.Y., and died of heart failure. In one cruel moment, Gordeeva lost her teenage love, the father of her daughter Daria, then 3, and her desire to ever skate again. “I was thinking about giving up,” she told PEOPLE last year. “But I decided to keep skating for myself.”

In February 1996, Gordeeva returned to the ice in Hartford, Conn., in a stirring solo tribute to Grinkov. “She said she couldn’t feel herself and Sergei took over,” her friend and agent Deb Nast recalled. “It allowed her to say goodbye.” So too did the support of the skating community. “I had a lot of friends who took me back on tour right away,” said Gordeeva. Resuming the sport she has loved since age 4 “helped Katia move on,” says fellow skater and pal Scott Hamilton. “It was the place she could express her feelings. It fed her soul.” Reborn as a solo artist, Gordeeva has flourished. Besides writing two books, she has launched two fragrances (Katia Sport is her latest) and will kick off a 63-city Stars on Ice tour in December. Gordeeva is also dating again and has been seen with Russian skating sensation Ilia Kulik, 22. The key to starting over, she says, is “to be truthful with yourself. And understand that life goes on.”

Gordeeva has a new five-bedroom home in Simsbury, Conn., which she shares with her parents and with Daria, who is starting first grade. The house is filled with photos of Grinkov. “We talk about him often,” said Gordeeva. “Daria looks like Sergei, and I feel blessed to have her.”

Mary Bono

It had been only 10 months since her husband of 12 years, Sonny Bono, died on a Nevada mountain after skiing into a tree in January 1998. And yet his widow, Mary Bono, was dating again. “I asked myself, ‘What would Sonny think?’ ” recalls Bono, 37. “The answer is, I don’t know. But the one thing Sonny taught me is not to be a victim and not to dwell on a loss.”

That determination helped Sonny transform himself from a pop star (with then-wife Cher) to a Republican congressman from California. Mary Bono has shown similar resolve. “You don’t know what you’re made of until you’re truly tested,” says Bono, who overcame apprehension about her political inexperience to win Sonny’s House seat in a special election held in April 1998.

A few months later, in October, she met Brian Prout, 43, drummer for the country band Diamond Rio, at a fundraiser. Accepting his dinner invitation “was tough,” she says. It wasn’t that Sonny’s friends or family disapproved. “They were some of the first people who said, ‘Come on, Mary, you’ve got to get on with your life,’ ” says Bono. Even her children with Sonny—son Chesare, 11, and daughter Chianna, 8—”are fine with it.” The hard part, she says, “is the fear you have after you’ve lost someone you love. In all honesty, I’m afraid to lose Brian.”

Does the diamond ring Bono now wears mean that the couple are engaged? “He asked me to marry him,” Bono confirms. “I told him, ‘Yes, but I need time.’ He said, ‘I’ll give you all the time you need.’ So that’s where we are. I never imagined myself being married more than once, so there are adjustments I have to make. My life is so full with my children and my career, I wouldn’t believe I needed a marriage to make it complete.”

Mary Higgins Clark

Patty Clark was 5 years old when she first tried to fix her mother up—by asking the mailman to sleep over. “She wanted a man in the house,” says Mary Higgins Clark, the top-selling mystery author who was 36 when her husband Warren died of a heart attack in 1964, leaving her to raise five children alone. Clark worked as a radio scriptwriter before publishing the first of 21 bestsellers in 1975. But she “missed the comfortable stuff of married life, she says, like “coming home from a party and saying, ‘Wasn’t that dull?’ ” A troubled 1978 remarriage ended in annulment.

Then in 1996, Patty invited John Conheeney, a retired Merrill Lynch Futures CEO she’d just met, to a party for her mother’s book Moonlight Becomes You. “When he came in, I said, ‘Wow!’ ” recalls Clark, now 71. “There was an instant feeling.” Conheeney, 70, whose wife of 40 years had died of cancer in 1994, says theirs was “pretty much love at first sight,” though it took him 10 days to ask Clark out. “He hadn’t had a date in 42 years,” says Clark. “He said his palms were sweating.”

Since their marriage in 1996, “Mary has been more Mary,” says her friend and agent Eugene Winick. “I can’t explain it. She’s just more Mary.” To Clark, however, there is no mystery. “John is exactly the right man for me,” she says. “We are in love.”

Mourning, Then Moving On

Loss is built into love, says psychologist Froma Walsh, codirector of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago. “To love, you have to accept that a relationship is going to end, either through death or separation. So it requires courage to make a commitment, knowing full well the risk.” The death of a spouse is especially painful. “It’s not just the loss of that partner,” explains Walsh, author of the 1998 book Living Beyond Loss, “but of the hopes and dreams that will never be experienced. You’re losing a life structure.”

Finding a path back to happiness can be fraught, especially for young widows, who often have few, if any, peers who have shared the experience. What’s more, “in death and separation,” says Walsh, 57, who is divorced and now happily remarried, “people are far more likely to rally around men than women, even picking out new mates for them.” Family and friends of the late spouse can help immensely by making it clear to a widow that it’s okay to start over, Walsh says. “If the survivor has been encouraged to go on and have a new life, there is less guilt and less of a sense of disloyalty.”

Still, rushing into a new relationship is almost always a mistake. “You have to take the time to work through and experience the pain of loss,” says Walsh. “You have to avoid instant replacement.” When it comes time to start dating again, she adds, “talking about your hopes and dreams for the future is crucial. Then you can see early on if the person doesn’t want what you want.”

The big question for many is, How will I know when I’m ready? “There’s not one particular time,” says Walsh, “although after a year most people start to regain their emotional energy and feel able to move on, enjoy life and reinvest in a relationship.” Children, of course, require extra consideration. “This is not like The Brady Bunch. You cannot expect instant blending,” she says. Otherwise, Walsh says, the signs are subtle: You’re not thinking of your former partner all the time; you no longer dream about them or picture them when you’re with another. “There is no such thing as totally getting over a loss,” says Walsh, “but over time you will have those pangs less and less often. When you can appreciate the unique qualities of a new partner and not mold that person to fit an old image, then you know you’re ready to love again.”

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