As fans continue to grieve over Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna‘s deaths, many are expressing their heartfelt condolences to the widowed mother of four, 37, who wed the late NBA icon in April 2001, when he was just 22 and she was 18.
“It’s an extremely difficult and devastating time for Vanessa and the whole family,” a friend of the family tells PEOPLE of the Bryants’ loved ones, including daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and 7-month-old Capri.
Another insider tells PEOPLE that, as expected, Vanessa is “devastated.”
“She can hardly keep it together,” the insider says. “She can’t finish a sentence without crying. But she is working very hard to pull it together for the other girls. She now has to be the strong one.”
The insider notes, “Of course, you can never be prepared for this. Despite their ups and downs, [Vanessa and Kobe] were soulmates. She thought of him as her partner for life.”
Now, facing a difficult future, Vanessa “is surrounded by people who love her and love Kobe. She has a good support system. She is relying on her faith. She is not alone. But she will be grieving this for a very long time,” the second source explains.
Kobe, 41, and Gianna along with seven other people — including the pilot, Gianna’s teammates and their parents — died in Sunday’s crash. The group was on their way to a youth basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Academy, according to ESPN.
On Monday, a friend close to the family told PEOPLE that the late Lakers star was “so proud to see [his daughters] take after not only him and Vanessa, but also grow into their own. He had a special bond with each of his daughters.”
Before his untimely death, Bryant often spoke lovingly of his beloved Vanessa and their children.
In November 2019, he dedicated a sweet tribute to Vanessa on Instagram in celebration of the day they first met. “On this day 20 years ago I met my best friend, my Queen @vanessabryant I decided to take her on a date to Disneyland tonight to celebrate old school style (pre 4princesses) I love you my mamacita per sempre,” Bryant captioned a throwback photo of the couple along with a photo of them at the time in the Anaheim, California, theme park.
That same month, the devoted parent told Maria Shriver: “Being a father is the thing I am most proud of in this world; it’s my greatest accomplishment. I’ve learned so much, but perhaps the most profound thing has been the fierce, unconditional love you have for your children when you become a parent. I’m blessed to have had that experience four times now and there’s nothing more powerful in this world.”
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And in his 2018 Oscars speech — when Dear Basketball won Best Animated Short Film — Bryant thanked his wife and daughters with a sweet message in Italian. “To my wife Vanessa and our daughters Natalia, Gianna and Bianka, ti amo con tutto il cuore [I love you with all my heart]. You are my inspiration,” he said.
Also that same year, Bryant told Alex Rodriguez that he began relying on helicopters to travel around the Los Angeles metropolitan area so he would have more time with his four daughters. “I was sitting in traffic and I wound up missing like a school play, because I was sitting in traffic. … I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time,” he revealed during an interview for Rodriguez’s Barstool Sports podcast The Corp with A-Rod and Big Cat.
After news of his Jan. 26 death, Bryant’s famous friends, including fellow retired athletes Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, eulogized him as a family man.
“I will remember what he told me about how much he loved Vanessa and his girls,” Rodriguez said on Instagram, also writing: “His 13-year-old daughter Gianna was following in her Dad’s footsteps. She was kind, smart, caring and going to be a star.”
In an essay for the Players’ Tribune, Jeter wrote: “He cared much more about being a husband to Vanessa and a dad to his girls. He loved his family — he was his family. That’s what was important. And that’s the Kobe I’ll remember.”