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Vanessa Bryant's husband, Kobe Bryant, and daughter, Gianna Bryant, died in January 2020

By Elizabeth Leonard
March 04, 2021 08:00 AM
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When it comes to her daughters, Vanessa Bryant's devotion is unwavering. Quite simply, she says, "My girls are my reason."

Bravely navigating unfathomable grief over the nearly 14 months since losing her husband Kobe and 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, Vanessa has made her kids, Natalia, 18, Bianka, 4, and Capri, 20 months, her priority — and her purpose.

"Helping my girls navigate through this heartache is important to me," she tells PEOPLE in the cover story for this week's Women Changing the World issue. "Making sure that they know that they are loved, supported and important is what motivates me."

Vanessa and Kobe's eldest daughter, Natalia, has been by her mom's side throughout the difficult year.

vanessa bryant with her daughters in 2020
Vanessa Bryant with her daughters
| Credit: Photographer - Brian Bowen Smith; Stylist - Law Roach/The Only Agency
vanessa and kobe bryant
Kobe and Vanessa Bryant
| Credit: Vanessa Bryant/instagram

"I'm extremely proud of Natalia," says Vanessa, 38, who calls her daughter "my right-hand woman."

"On top of her own grief, she has balanced her senior year of high school, applying to colleges, nurturing her sisters, and just recently signing her own modeling contract with IMG," she adds. "She is a wonderful big sister and an incredible daughter."

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Calling all four of her daughters "strong, resilient, respectful and kind," Vanessa's pride runs deep. "They're people that I would aspire to be if I was growing up with them."

Sometimes she can't hide her sadness from the kids. "My eyes and pain can't be filtered in person," she says. "They know mommy has hard days but when I see their faces when they realize that I've been crying, it makes me straighten up and push through for them. I counter it with making them smile about something. ... Always finding the light in darkness."

vanessa bryant
Credit: Photographer - Brian Bowen Smith; Stylist - Law Roach/The Only Agency

For all that Vanessa gives to her girls as she works to rebuild a life for the family, they give back her two-fold. "I can't say that I'm strong every day [and] I can't say that there aren't days when I feel like I can't survive to the next," she says.

For more from Vanessa Bryant's exclusive interview and photoshoot — and more inspirational Women Changing the World honorees — please pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

But her saving grace on those days? "My girls help me smile through the pain," she says. "They give me strength."