April 05, 2010 12:00 PM

On a cold, clear day in Berlin last month, Liam Neeson and his two teenage sons Micheal and Daniel bundled up in winter coats to visit the city’s Holocaust memorial. The sun was unusually bright, and the ground was covered with six inches of fresh snow. Suddenly, the trio started a snowball fight-and Neeson “took a load of snow to the face,” says an eyewitness. Although the setting was somber, the playful scene revealed a spontaneous moment of joy after what has been the most difficult of years for Neeson and his boys. “He is caring for his sons the best way he knows how,” says a family friend. “He’s making sure they’re okay.”

In the year since Neeson, 57, lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, at age 45 in a tragic skiing accident, the actor has quietly carried on-while working to help the couple’s sons Micheal, 14, and Daniel, 13, do the same. “Liam’s attitude is ‘This terrible thing happened, and we have to get back to our lives-because that’s what Natasha would have wanted,'” says a close friend. “She would have said, ‘Life goes on.'” For Neeson that means throwing himself into his work, shooting three movies since last April. At the same time, he is keeping careful watch over the boys, whether bringing them to film sets or joining them courtside at New York Knicks games. “The boys are very important to him,” says a friend. “He’s tried to keep things as they were when their mother was alive.” At the Manhattan apartment that is the famly’s main residence, “he’s even kept [Natasha’s] office untouched,” says the friend. “Everything is the same.”

And yet life is anything but. Neeson’s world changed in an instant on March 16, 2009, when Richardson, a novice skier, suffered a fatal head injury in a freak accident on Quebec’s Mont Tremblant. (She never regained consciousness and was taken off life support two days later.) Still grieving, Neeson returned to the set of Chloe in Montreal within days. “I don’t know where he got the strength to do it,” says Chloe producer Ivan Reitman. “He was remarkably courageous and strong.” A month later he began filming Clash of the Titans (due out April 2) in London with his close friend Ralph Fiennes. And by September, Neeson was in Vancouver, working on The A-Team, due out this summer. “He is much like the characters he plays-a strong-willed, caring, inspirational hero,” says the film’s trainer Ramona Braganza. “Mostly he is a great dad to his kids.”

When Neeson is filming, the boys have been cared for by a longtime nanny and family, including their maternal grandmother, actress Vanessa Redgrave, along with their aunt and actress Joely Richardson. “They are a great support,” says a family friend.

The boys also have their mother’s rich screen work to remember her by. In her final role, she voices Ruth Mallory, the wife of famed Everest explorer George Mallory, in the upcoming documentary The Wildest Dream (Neeson narrates the film). Of course, the boys themselves are her most enduring legacy. “Whenever anyone looks at the boys, they think of Natasha,” says a friend. “She lives on in them.”

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